The phone rings. The young man’s story tugs at your heart. His car broke down while traveling cross country to visit his sick mother for Christmas. He has no money left, and he doesn’t know what to do. Can the church help?
A woman with two sick children calls. Her government support check is late, and she can’t afford the medicine her kids need.
Such calls are common, especially if you have your phone number listed with the church, or happen to be at the church building frequently during the weekdays. Some down-and-outers are known to make the circuit of churches asking for handouts, knowing that many religious leaders will soften with a good story. However, genuinely needy people exist out there, without family or institutional support of any kind. We dare not imitate those who found convenient reason to bypass the half-dead destitute of Luke 10:30-35. Much rather we emulate the Good Samaritan. Further, some callers could perchance be of the Hebrews 13:2 variety, angels in disguise.
As an elder, you have a genuine care for people, and the last thing you want to do is turn away a genuinely needy person. Yet you don’t want to be an easy target for the con artist. There is probably not a formula for always doing the right thing, but here are some ideas that may help stimulate your thinking.
1. Understand God’s love for all people, especially those in great need.
Israel fell short in this area, incurring God’s displeasure, when the prophet Isaiah railed against them for their many sins: “Stop doing wrong, learn to do right! Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow” (Is. 1:17).
These were just some of the sins for which God invites them to “‘Come now, let us reason together’, says the LORD. ‘Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow.’”
God has not changed, and He is still concerned about needy people. His heart echoes the end-time judgment, “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in” (Matt. 25:35).
2. Be cautious and wise.
There is a proliferation of people making their living by concocting hard-luck stories, preying on the unsuspecting churches. Don’t assume all callers are con artists. Some may simply have nowhere to turn, or are unaware of resources available (like inner city missions, soup kitchens, etc.).
3. Ask questions.
Ask for the phone number and address of the caller and what organizations he or she has already called.
4. Partner with your local food bank, soup kitchen, and city missions.
As a church, support one or more of these organizations. They are usually well-equipped not only to evaluate and meet such needs, but also to provide longer-term help. If you are going to direct your caller to such places like these, then it would be a matter of integrity to help financially support their work. It is not the heart of Christ to simply slough needy people off to other ministries and wash your hands of it.
5. Make some phone calls.
Sometimes a caller will complain that he or she has tried all of those organizations, but to no avail. A few phone calls may clarify this concern. One time I was alerted about my caller being a “professional” beggar who refused opportunities to work. Keep in mind these organizations are usually much better equipped to determine the genuineness of the needs.
6. Keep Christ the focus.
Remember, the caller needs Christ, regardless of his or her motive.
7. Meet in public, and bring others.
Ask the caller to meet you at the church or some other designated public place. This requires the person to make an effort to prove his genuineness. It also gives you a chance to assess his need better. You might then take him out for a couple bags of groceries. I have found that those who are simply looking for an easy handout never show up.
Bring another person with you when you go to meet someone.
Set up a benevolence committee whose job it is to check out such requests.
9. Err on the side of grace.
You may be fooled by a great-sounding story. It has happened to me on a number of occasions. All is not lost, for one of three things may have taken place:
- We were not wise, but we have been provided a wonderful opportunity to learn wisdom.
- God was testing our sincerity in the face of doubt. Better to give a handout once too often, than to withhold Samaritan grace once too often.
- God may have used our kindness to speak to the con artist.