The disheveled couple looked nervously into the faces of gathered Deacons. They wore their awkwardness like their dirty shirts as they comforted the crying baby in their lap and tried to look both respectable and pitiable at the same time. We waited uncomfortably for the last couple of deacons to straggle in after the worship service. Finally, we closed the door and turned the spotlight on the young couple. The chairman began. “Thanks for meeting with us. Now could you begin by saying how you got in trouble, and why you need our help?”
This scene may feel familiar to any pastor, deacon, or anyone who has served on a benevolence committee at church. It may feel triggering to you if you have ever sat in the hot seat and tried to explain your need for the church’s assistance. Whether intentionally or not, the way our churches approach benevolence reflects their own understanding of the way God loves and cares for people. I have served churches that took several of the following approaches. Each Church communicated something different about God by the way it tried to lovingly help its neighbors.
Farming Out Benevolence
One church that I served did not have an active hand in the effort to assist their neighbors. Instead, they contributed generously to a local benevolent organization funded cooperatively by many churches and institutions in the area. When someone came to the church with a need, the church simply referred that person to that organization.
There were two benefits to this system. First, it understood that the church universal is greater than the sum of its parts. By working together, churches could cross denominational boundaries and participate in a shared goal to help their community. Second, the staff who ran the organization kept records of everyone who applied for assistance. They could keep those records confidential within the organization and contributing member churches while being able to share with the pastors when someone was trying to abuse the system. Frequently we found that individuals would go from church to church with a sad story, trying to line their pockets. Churches did not fall prey to this kind of manipulation if they simply referred people to the benevolent organization.
Of course, this system also had a downside. The problem it created was communicating that God doesn’t really want to hear your sob story. We inadvertently communicated the idea that God is aloof from the pains and the needs of people. By sending folks away when they came to the church for assistance, we also created an us-versus-them mentality where church members felt distanced from the needs of the people around them. Many churches participate in organizations like this to streamline their benevolence efforts, but there definitely is a downside.
I served one church that wanted to put a more personal face on benevolence. The church saw the shortfalls of the cooperative approach and wanted to create a way that demonstrated the love and compassion God has for hurting people. The church nearly assigned its pastor the responsibility of doing benevolence in the community. If someone had a need, I administered a large fund available from which to assist people in trouble.
Aside from the reasons stated above, the benefit of this approach to the church members is similar to that of using the cooperative organization. In neither of these two cases does the average church member have to get their hands dirty with the needs of hurting people. Of course, this is a problem. It makes benevolence the job of only one person in the church, and it communicates a belief that good works are to be done by professionals. This supports a theology that separates clergy from laity, and at times it overburdens the pastor who is already overworked trying to care for the needs of the church’s members. It can also create a problem of financial accountability when one person has access to such a large benevolent fund, and when benevolence is supposed to be done with full confidentiality. That aspect always made me nervous.
I served another church that saw how easily the pastor could become burned out by managing all the benevolent needs. They also saw that farming out the job to professional organizations can sometimes make benevolence seem impersonal. So, they created a benevolence committee of three people who administered funds that they could disperse at their discretion. This is not a bad approach as long as it involves the pastor on some level. But the biggest problem with the committee approach is that benevolence is literally the reason why deacons exist in the church. We don’t need a separate committee to do what the deacons were created to do—unless the deacons aren’t doing their jobs.
The Book of Acts talks about the unfair distribution of resources between Jewish widows and the Greek widows in the church. The spirit of God moved the church to institute a new order called Deacons, which means those who go through the dust. These original dust busters did the benevolent work of the church, freeing the apostles to teach. In the same way, modern deacons can take care of needs in the church family and the community at large, while keeping the pastor in the loop.
There are many advantages to the deacons doing the benevolence work of the church. First, as a group, they can share the load. Similar to a benevolent committee or a professional organization, no one person is responsible for doing all the work. Second, they can organize their efforts to maximize their individual expertise. For example, one deacon may specialize in visiting people who are grieving, while another might focus on assisting with financial struggles. A fourth might mentor people who tend to get themselves in trouble, while a third could offer free car maintenance for the elderly. When the deacons administer the benevolent work of the church, they can collaborate with one another, while maintaining confidentiality within their small group.
The downside to the pastor’s or deacons’ administration of benevolence is that their ordination can sometimes go to their heads. At times we ordained people puff ourselves up as the grand inquisitors. Without meaning to, we intimidate people who already feel traumatized and stigmatized by their situation and make them feel subject to the decrees of the magisterium. Because they have not been professionally trained in trauma-informed care, deacons do this quite often. I’ve watched deacons take the bene out of benevolence, saying things like, “You are coming to us because you are broke, but I see you have a lot of tattoos—those must have cost a lot of money.” Ordination sometimes puts a person on a pedestal from which it becomes difficult to administer benevolence. Churches making people feel small when they ask for help looks more like beneviolence than benevolence.
What’s the Best Way?
There really is no one system that works best for assisting struggling people. Each different method has its benefits and drawbacks. It’s not about systems. It’s about attitudes. The keys are maintaining confidentiality, honoring a person’s dignity, and not placing spiritual expectations on a recipient.
Churches can do this well, or they can do it poorly. For example, one church I served routinely invited people requesting help to come to the worship service and then meet with the Deacons afterward. Their rationale was that if they were going to hand out money, at least the recipient would have heard the gospel. If the individual was not willing to attend worship, then the deacons were unwilling to help their situation. This kind of high-handedness assumes that the recipient must either already be a Christian or at least be open to Christianity before they are worthy of assistance. This method certainly lacks the humility and grace of Christ.
Justice, Mercy, and Humility
Micah 6.8 EHV says, “He has told you, mankind, what is good. What does the Lord require from you, except to carry out justice and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God?” The church must exercise the three qualities of mercy, justice, and humility as it meets the needs of the community.
Benevolence (mercy) is bestowing goodness on people, regardless of whether or not you think they deserve it. A church’s benevolent committee has resources needed by the recipient, and it mercifully disperses those resources when the need arises. Mercy is reactive in nature, responding to a need as it arises. Churches seeking to do good in the world must do benevolence, showing mercy to assist those who struggle most.
Social justice, however, is proactive. It sees a need and responds before anyone asks. Better yet, it goes beyond the immediate need and evaluates the reason for the need. It seeks to change systemic structures to prevent the need from arising in the future. It investigates the historic, cultural, and social inequities that exist in our society, in order to make things right. The church does justice work when it courageously investigates its own role in the harm done to BIPOC people, LGBTQIA+ folks, and other marginalized people. It moves with the Spirit of God when it rectifies disparities and creates structures that promote the advancement of historically disempowered people. Churches that seek to make a lasting difference must go beyond reactive benevolence and engage in justice work. I’ve seen plenty of churches with benevolence committees, but few with justice committees. Maybe it’s time for a change.
What does this look like in the bible? Benevolence is giving a handout to the poor beggar on the side of the street. Justice is healing that same beggar and then helping them to find a job. Benevolence is allowing gleaners to go behind the harvesters and pick up leftover grain. Justice is intentionally planting extra grain just for the cleaners. Or maybe it’s buying them a piece of land for them to farm themselves.
What do mercy and Justice look like in the church? Mercy is helping the church member who can’t afford the electric bill. Justice is helping the non-member from a marginalized community to develop marketable skills so that they can afford their electric bill. Benevolence is running a food pantry out of your church. Justice is opening your church property to be used as a community garden in a food desert. The church must engage in both benevolence and justice if it is to do the work of Christ.
But we must not forget the third quality that Micah mentioned: humility. Without humility, benevolence seems high-handed and holier than thou. Without humility, social justice becomes something done by self-congratulatory liberals to make themselves feel like they are making a difference. Without humility that is fueled by love, mercy and justice sound like a clanging gong or a resounding symbol. It’s important that you do good work and help people who are struggling–It’s also important how you make them feel in the process. When the church makes them grovel to get assistance, it does not behave like Christ. If mercy is a handout and justice is a hand up, then the church had better help people’s dignity up as well. Only by combining the three attributes of justice, mercy, and humility can the church model the spirit of Jesus.