Principles for a Benevolence Policy That Is Both Merciful and Wise
To be a Christian is to acknowledge that you are needy. It’s one of the marks we read about in the Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:3). To follow Jesus, you must acknowledge you are spiritually bankrupt and incapable of saving yourself.
A church, then, is a gathering of needy people. Every member recognizes his or her need for the righteousness of Christ (Rom. 3:20), for God’s grace (Eph. 2:5), and for forgiveness (Col. 1:13-14).
That said, our physical needs will vary. We may be on the same sea, but we’re not in the same boat. Some of our boats have holes, some lack paddles. A church’s benevolence ministry begins here: showing each other mercy amidst our different physical needs.
In other words, benevolence is not only about giving people money to help solve their problems. It’s about showing others the mercy and love we’ve been shown. This understanding will both guard against a “savior complex” and keep us from trampling upon one another’s God-given dignity.
Here are several principles to keep in mind as you begin to develop your own policy.
1. Designate a deacon or a deacon team.
Some churches charge a particular deacon with overseeing benevolence. Capitol Hill Baptist, for instance, names a deacon of member care. My own church distributes that responsibility to all the deacons. Since they are broadly aware of the needs and resources within the body, we feel they are best equipped to minister and discern the best way to approach each situation. A church can ask a non-deacon to be responsible for any given case of benevolence. Yet make sure anyone taking responsibility for these tasks meets the criteria of “the seven” in Acts 6 and of deacons in 1 Timothy 3. Plus, the process will be served by having a consistent individual or team who knows the policies and procedures giving oversight.
2. Budget for benevolence—or at least have a fund.
Some churches have benevolence funds for designated gifts, or they take special offerings. Since our church has frequent benevolence needs, we include a line for benevolence in the annual budget. The deacons oversee that budget item and are empowered to make decisions on how those funds are dispersed. For larger benevolence needs that go beyond what’s budgeted, they consult with the elders.
3. Build a culture of vulnerability that will help with communication.
Churches should continually remind members that a benevolence fund exists and what the process is for getting help. But communication goes both ways. Members must communicate their needs, too.
As such, we need a culture of vulnerability where we share the understanding that we’re all needy in some way. Hopefully, this will help people ask for help when they should and protect them from suffering silently. This also means the deacons should know how to engage the body, build relationships, and generally be accessible and approachable.
4. Evaluate each situation on its own merits.
Every benevolence request must be evaluated carefully. Financial assistance may not be the answer. Our deacons ask people to fill out an application, which they follow up with a personal consultation, before determining how to best help the individual or family asking for assistance.
The application forces the individual or family to boil down their needs and requests. The consultation allows the team to consider what services and resources in the body might provide solutions without the use of finances. For example, if an individual needs help with dental work, perhaps a dentist in the congregation might help.
The consultation also provides an opportunity to ask questions about overall budgeting patterns or other outside sources of help. Are there foolish expenditures that contribute to the present need, which might solve the problem? Is there a Christian family member who should help instead, lest the church, by taking over the responsibility, tempt that family member to sin (see 1 Tim. 5:8)? These conversations can be uncomfortable, but they’re necessary and loving for the sake of the long run. No doubt, they often require some measure of pastoral skill, which is why your deacons should be people “full of the Spirit and wisdom” (Acts 6:3).
5. For long-term benevolence situations, prioritize discipleship.
Some requests are for one-time assistance. Maybe a family has found itself in a financial bind and needs a life jacket. The ask is clear and specific, and a financial gift will quickly solve the problem. However, many benevolence situations require more time and ongoing assistance. These provide an opportunity for an on-going discipleship relationship.
Some people haven’t been taught how to think about money from a biblical perspective. Therefore, it’s helpful to build into benevolence policies things like financial literacy classes, budget development, Scripture memorization, and other practical tools. Each case is different, but in some instances using those tools as prerequisites for on-going assistance can help.
6. If possible, pay merchants directly.
This procedure will help to ensure the money is used directly to fund the need as well as help the ministry keep good financial records. This may come across as a lack of trust, but ultimately you want to be above reproach, creating an environment that leaves no provision for the flesh (Rom. 13:14).
7. Accountability for the deacons?
In order to care for the deacon(s) managing the benevolence policy, it is crucial to have a financial accountability structure in place. The deacon(s) as they make distribution decisions should do so under the oversight of an elder. Check-ins and updates about benevolence cases in the congregation should be regularly shared with the elders.
WHAT ABOUT NON-MEMBERS?
What about helping those who are not members of our church?
Many individuals regard churches as places to go for help. If your church building is located in an area with a lot of walking traffic, I’m sure you inevitably get strangers requesting help. We should thank the Lord for this, but it can also be quite overwhelming.
Here are some principles to keep in mind for those circumstances.
1. If possible, resist handing out cash.
Rather than cash, keep gift cards to restaurants or mass transit cards on hand, as well as non-perishable food items, hygiene kits, and clothes. You want to be able to hand people something, but avoid actual cash if you can.
2. Determine a designated one-time amount you’re willing to give to strangers.
This is helpful if someone needs rides, shelter, or assistance with a utility. If their request falls within your limit, no extra steps are required. You can provide immediate relief. Just be sure to pay the merchant directly rather than giving the money to the person needing help.
3. Keep an updated list of resources in the area.
Some people will need more assistance than you can provide. So have on hand a list of trusted local shelters, food banks, and other services that you can point people to.
4. Error on the side of mercy.
After dealing with a number of benevolence cases, it’s easy to become jaded and even skeptical of every request. Be wise and discerning, but also remember that if you have never been taken advantage of, then perhaps you’re not being as merciful or generous as you ought to be.
5. Share the gospel and invite them to church.
I love Peter’s example in Acts 3 when he and John come upon the lame beggar at the Beautiful Gate. After the man asks them for money, Peter responds, “I have no silver and gold, but what I do have I give to you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, rise up and walk!” (Acts 3:6). We may not always have something to give, but we can always give people Jesus.
And that’s the goal. You want to have a benevolence policy that seeks to show people the love and mercy of Christ. For he is the one who meets all of our needs.