The average person has absolutely no idea how much benevolent giving the churches of America do. The reason for this lack of knowledge is the fact that much of the giving is done quietly without any fanfare. All this giving isn’t exclusively done by large churches or wealthy churches, either. Even many small churches and churches that could be classified as poor make a regular habit of helping people in need.
Many churches have benevolence committees to which requests for financial help get made. Deacon boards or board of elders often serve as these committees. Some churches empower their benevolence committees to dole out any funds the committees agree to give. Other churches allow their committees to merely recommend that requests for money be granted, after which the congregations must pass the recommendations by way of a majority votes.
Offerings known as “love offerings” are another way that churches give. A love offering is a freewill offering that is collected for a certain individual or cause during a specific church service. Since any and all contributions to this type of offering are voluntary, the amount of the offering will always be different. However, some churches do have a rule that if the collection for a love offering doesn’t meet at least a minimum amount, the church will make up the difference out of the church treasury. This ensures that any individual or organization who is the beneficiary of a love offering will at least get an acceptable amount of money.
Having been a pastor for some 27 years now, I can tell you that benevolence giving can get really tricky. I’ll offer just one story — one of a long list — from my own experience as a way of illustrating my point. I once served as the pastor of a church that did all its benevolence giving by way of love offerings. One Sunday morning we took up an offering for a certain church member who had been struggling for months with a debilitating disease. This man had been forced to miss work, spend large amounts of money on medical bills and prescriptions, and consequently really needed help financially. I was happy to learn that the offering we collected for him was the largest amount I had ever known that church to give for a love offering.
A few weeks later, another church member asked the church for some financial help, and a date was set to take up a love offering for him. But when the amount given for that offering was totaled up, it fell far short of the offering that had been taken up for the other fellow. This, not unexpectedly, hurt the second man’s feelings.
When he asked me why the offering for him had come in so much less than the offering for the first man, I named a couple of reasons. One, the first man had a lot of family in that church, and that family had contributed heavily to his offering. Two, the first man’s need was perceived to be much greater than the second man’s. I have to admit, though, that I couldn’t tell him the third reason, that being that the first man was just more popular than him. Frankly, one of the problems with voluntary love offerings is that oftentimes they become popularity contests. That’s why, if a church takes up such offerings, it’s a good idea to make it a rule that the church must bring any love offering up to a minimum amount if the offering doesn’t meet or exceed that amount.
Actually, I believe it is preferable to eliminate the chance factor of love offerings altogether by earmarking a set amount the church will give. In other words, rather than “pass the plate” and “see what you get,” just decide that the church will write a check for a fixed amount to any individual or cause the church deems worthy to receive one. While this will mean that any beneficiary who could potentially receive a very large love offering might have to settle for less, the policy will serve the overall good of the congregation by keeping the peace and harmony. That’s my opinion, at least.
Another problem with benevolence giving gets into the question: “Should the church help those who won’t help themselves?” Let’s say that a known drug addict calls the pastor or asks some other church member if the church will help him pay his electricity bill. Obviously, the church shouldn’t give that addict cash or a check made out to cash, but should the church even send a check directly to the electricity company in the amount of bill? Isn’t that the same as enabling the addict to continue in his addiction?
As you might guess, there are many variations on this theme. Here are a few off the top of my head. Should the church buy heating fuel for a deadbeat who won’t work? Should the church pay the auto repair bill for an alcoholic who wrecked his car while driving under the influence? Should the church pay the rental deposit for a woman who was evicted from her last home because of her failure to pay the rent? I mean, after all, Christ’s followers are supposed to be people of love and compassion, right? So, what kind of a reputation will we have if we allow people to go without heat on cold winter nights, lose their jobs because they don’t have a car by which to get to work, or end up homeless because they can’t come up with the deposit required for a rental home?
And then there is the problem of innocent spouses, children, or other family members who become the victims of circumstances over which they have no control. Remember that deadbeat who wouldn’t work and couldn’t pay his fuel bill? What if he has a wife who works like a dog but still can’t make enough to pay all the couple’s bills? Remember that alcoholic who wrecked his car while driving under the influence? What if his two kids faithfully attend Sunday School and Bible School and are great kids? Remember that evicted woman who couldn’t manage her life well enough to avoid being evicted? What if her mother lives with her and has Alzheimer’s?
You see, sometimes a church will agree to help a problematic individual, not for the sake of that individual, but for the sake of the innocent victims in that individual’s vortex. It’s nuances like this that keep members of benevolence committees up at night. If a committee member has any humility at all, he or she will ask, “Who am I to make these potentially life-altering decisions? I’m not God. I’m not even Solomon.” Welcome to the world of church benevolence.
One easy solution to making these decisions is simply for the church to agree to write the check for any request that gets made. This solution isn’t an option, though, because of the high number of people who would take advantage of the church. The church I pastor is located in a small county, but even here we have people who are known to make the rounds in asking multiple churches for help. What these people don’t know is that local pastors talk to each other about them. Then again, maybe they do know it but are shameless enough not to care.
Of course, some pious man or woman might make the argument that Jesus helped any and all who came to Him, regardless of whether or not the person deserved it. Admittedly, there is some merit to this argument. I say this because Jesus did die on the cross for everybody’s sins even though He knew that only a minority of those people would actually believe in Him as Savior and thus receive the benefits of His sacrificial death. For that matter, I’m sure that not everyone He healed over the course of His earthly ministry actually became a saved believer. Therefore, if Jesus didn’t turn away anyone, shouldn’t our churches follow His example?
My answer is that while Jesus, in His divinity, had unlimited resources, our churches do not. Furthermore, scripture instructs Christians to practice not only wise stewardship but also spiritual discernment. Even Jesus Himself never spent an inordinate amount of time trying to teach individuals who clearly didn’t want to learn. To see this in the gospels, all you have to do is read about His interactions with the Jewish religious leaders of His day.
Oh, and let me mention one other relevant factor in regards to benevolence giving. What if God is working through a cold house, a wrecked automobile, or an eviction notice to bring an individual to the end of himself or herself so that he or she will at last fully submit to Him? If this is indeed the case, doesn’t it logically follow that any church that extends financial aid to that person is actually damaging God’s work rather than doing it?
Like I said, welcome to the world of church benevolence. And, unfortunately, there are all sorts of other questions that can be asked regarding this topic. For example, if a church does all of its giving very publicly in full view of the church, doesn’t that bring at least a little bit of embarrassment to the people who receive the gifts? On the other hand, if a benevolence committee does all of its giving in private, doesn’t such cloaked secrecy create accountability problems between that committee and the rest of the church?
Another question has to do with whether or not a church should “farm out” its benevolence giving. What I mean is, each church has the option of making monetary donations each month or each year to local parachurch ministries such as homeless shelters, food banks, child-care agencies, thrift stores, etc. A contributing church can, in turn, then pass all requests for benevolence along to these other ministries. One advantage of a church doing benevolence this way is that the church only needs to vet the overall organization as opposed to vetting each individual who makes a request. Another advantage is that referring all requests to outside organizations keeps the church from being criticized for playing favorites as to which requests get granted. A potential disadvantage is that it allows the church to take a somewhat aloof, hands-off approach to dealing with the oftentimes messy work of helping messy people.
Well, as you can probably tell, I could write an entire book about the topic of benevolence giving. For now, though, I trust that I’ve given you enough to cause you to agree with me that the whole area is laden with mine fields. It’s sad that certain individuals take advantage of churches whose members are prone to be lovingly generous. Then again, it’s equally sad that some churches choose to become banks rather than use the money in their coffers to help those who need help. Somewhere in the middle of the confusing maze is the appropriate balance that God would have us to strike.
As for me, I have no doubts that our churches sometimes make mistakes regarding benevolence giving. We either give when we shouldn’t or don’t when we should. However, the alternative is to not participate in benevolence giving at all, and that’s just not an acceptable route. That’s why we must continue to trudge along by diligently considering each request that gets made and asking God to guide us in our decision making. If we are sincere in our asking, He will surely do His part to guide us, but even with His help the job will never be easy. It could be worse, though, right? We could be the ones standing in need rather than the ones who are trying to figure out who to help and who not to help.