The Work of the Deacons
- questions and answers
Question: As a deacon I come across members in financial need who refuse to turn for help to the church but instead go to welfare. What should the stand of the church be when it comes to members accepting government assistance?
Answer: This is a question that is often asked because many deacons are confronted with it in various forms. It also raises numerous questions because the Bible makes it quite clear that the work of charity among Christians is the work of the church.
A survey of the biblical material in both the Old and New Testament quickly establishes this point. In the OT we have the frequent call of the Israelite community not to exploit the weak and vulnerable but to look after the needs of the widow, orphan and alien (Ex 22:22, 23; Deut 10:18,19; Ps 146: 9). We also have laws and practices that protect and assist the poor, such as interest-free, forgivable loans (Lev 25: 35-37; Deut 23:19-20), collections (Deut 14:28-29), gleaning in the fields (Lev 19:9, 10), and the restoration of land (Lev 25: 23-24).
The NT in turn builds on this legacy. We see this clearly in what is mentioned in Acts 6 and elsewhere in the book of Acts. We see it even more so in the institution of the office of deacon (Acts 6: 1-6). Another reference of great importance can be found in 2 Co 8 and 9 where sharing is modeled after Christ and the goal is to meet the basic needs of others.
In summary, then, the biblical data leaves no room for doubt. The church has a calling when it comes to the poor.
But then, what about the government? I would say that while the current involvement of the government in the support of the needy is regrettable, it cannot be dismissed. One can even argue quite persuasively that if the church in general had done its duty in the past and had kept its central role in society, the government would not need to be involved in these matters. However, the decline of the church and the rise of unbelief have resulted in a large part of the populace becoming alienated from the church and thus being denied access to economic relief. It is into this vacuum that the government has stepped.
What this thus means is that the church and her deacons need to recognize this new, but sad reality. Government involvement has become a fact of life.
Does this mean that the needy in the church should now be referred to the government? No, over time I have become more and more convinced that the government and the church need to work together on this. If members are in financial need they should be encouraged to take up contact with the deacons. Together with them, members should be encouraged to assess their need.
If the need is short-term, manageable and of an emergency nature, let the deacons handle it alone. If, on the other hand, the assistance needed is going to be of a long-term nature and involve considerable amounts of money, then the various programs of assistance that the government has established should be explored and utilized.
Now, I realize that some of you may dispute this advice. You may feel that it is always wrong to send church members to such government agencies and that the church has a duty to handle this all alone.
I do not share such a view. For one, it needs to be recognized that if you are an employee and a citizen you are linked to various forms of relief. In Canada for example, employees pay into unemployment insurance schemes, workers compensation boards, disability pensions and a host of other programs. If you have paid into these programs, then when the need arises you have a right to collect. As a citizen you also have certain obligations and rights. You are obliged to pay taxes and much of that money goes into medicare and income assistance. By virtue of being a taxpayer, you have a right to make use of such programs, if and when the need arises.
The result is that a member who is faced with a financial crisis or pressing need can be referred to the government. Only, I would hasten to add, not exclusively so! I do not think it proper for the deacons to wash their hands of the situation simply because government assistance is forthcoming. Rather they need to continue to monitor the situation and to render assistance in various forms. After all, often the financial help given by the government is insufficient and needs to be supplemented. Also, there is a danger that people sink into laziness and complacency, and thus need to be admonished and encouraged.
Question: Should the deacons wait for people in need to call them or should they be more pro-active?
Answer: In my ministry and in my role as a church visitor, I have come across both scenarios. I have visited churches in which the deacons collected money, counted it and then waited for a phone call. They did not actively look for the poor in their midst or go out to seek them. The needy had to come to them.
On the other hand, I have also visited churches in which the deacons were very active. They kept their finger on the pulse of the congregation. They learned quickly where there was need or possible need, and then they visited. In most of these churches the deacons also had wards or sections for which they were responsible. A deacon would then study his ward and break it down into various parts: old people and young people, healthy and sick, employed and non-employed, pensioners and young couples, singles and married. After doing this he would establish priorities and visit those with the greatest needs first.
From the above contrast you can already sense that I am very much in favour of the latter and critical of the former. In the OT the provisions made for the poor did not depend on them going out and requesting them. They had to be there regardless. In the NT the deacons did not invent widow support because the widows demanded it. It was available as a normal feature of church life.
In the same way, deacons today need to be on the offensive. Read the "Form for the Ordination of Elders and Deacons" in the Book of Praise (pp. 628-634). It says among other things that "it is the responsibility of the deacons to see to the good progress of charity in the church" and "they shall acquaint themselves with existing needs and difficulties" (p. 631). Especially, the last quotation is obvious enough. Deacons, you need to get out there! You need to be pro-active.
Question: What about budgets? Do deacons have a right to demand that members in need supply them with a regular budget?
Answer: The answer to these questions can vary. If a member is in need of some short term help and the deacons are convinced that the member otherwise has his finances under control, there may be no need to request a budget.
On the other hand, if the need is considerable, long-term and there are serious questions about the member's ability to manage his finances well, then a budget should be required. I would even go so far as to say that the refusal to supply a budget may be grounds for cutting off assistance. I say this because while the deacons should be generous, they also need to act responsibly. The money that they have received is held by them in trust. It represents the generosity of Jesus Christ our Lord.
Of course, I realize too that often it is not enough for the deacons to demand a budget, they may also have to teach people exactly how to budget. Unfortunately, some members do not know how because they have not been taught and/or because they have never learned.
As such this can be a very frustrating and time-consuming task for the deacons. Nevertheless, it does need to be undertaken. Failure to teach proper budgeting skills will almost always result in people becoming stuck in a life-long crisis of need and mismanagement.
If as deacons you need help in teaching members how to budget and handle their finances, I would encourage you to make a visit to your local Christian bookstore. They usually have material there that can be of assistance. One name that often crops up in this regard is the name of Larry Burkett. Look for his books, or else go to his web site at Crown Financial Ministries. It contains an abundance of helpful information. Read it carefully, weigh its insights and implement whatever you deem helpful.
Well, let me bring this first attempt at a new column to an end. I hope that it will prove to be of assistance to you. As always if you disagree or have questions, let me know by snail mail or send me an email.