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Local Compassion

Tim Isbell, December 2010

Two thousand years ago Jesus took the initiative to come and live among us. While here, he graciously received the needy who crossed his path and often took the initiative to help them. He also taught his disciples to do the same. Today, Jesus invites us into lives of discipleship. So it's no surprise that we who follow Jesus also go out of our way to serve the needy of our world. After all, we are the body of Christ in our generation. 

This resource provides advice for Local Compassion ministries in local churches. It provides practical advice on how to help needy walk-ins and how to address the needs of the local church community.

It is helpful for a local church to have a Local Compassion Committee (as a parallel to a Global Missions Committee) ministering to needs of people within a 30-minute drive of the church.

A Local Compassion Committee is responsible to:

1. Develop a hands-on Local Compassion Ministry. 

2. Raise money for Local Compassion, such as through an annual Local Compassion Sunday and/or special compassion offerings in the Thanksgiving/Christmas season. 

3. Establish the process and oversee the management of Local Compassion funds. 

One common strategy is to partner with existing para-church ministries. The closer to the church these are, the easier it is for parishioners to get personally involved. Seek opportunities that promote character and spiritual development for adult and teen parishioners, especially the kind of opportunities where parishioners can invite unchurched friends, relatives, associates, and neighbors to serve along side you. Seek “rite of passage” serving opportunities for youth. Lean towards activities that you can do as teams rather than as individuals. Prioritize ministries where parishioners have personal interaction with clients, or at least with highly committed people who regularly serve clients. 

Priorities for spending Local Compassion money: 

  1. Needy members of the local church
  2. Regular attendees
  3. Occasional attendees
  4. Friends of the church
  5. People who walk into the church campus needing immediate help
  6. Local Christian compassionate ministries
  7. Local secular compassionate ministries

Since any staff (paid or volunteer) who spend lots of time at the church is likely to receive walk-ins, the church needs a policy that allows them to spend Local Compassion funds of up to $50 without prior approval. If you want this policy to allow for providing a motel room to a homeless person, you’ll need a higher limit. Larger amounts require approval from a majority of the committee’s members. 

Cautions on parishioners independently gathering offerings.

You will want to discourage parishioners from independently gathering offerings from church people for needy situations. There are several reasons for this: 

1. To protect a needy recipient’s privacy, and shield them from the embarrassment of their peers knowing their situation. 

2. To avoid "donor fatigue" from too frequent offerings. 

3. In order to approach needs in a holistic manner. It is not wise for different people to see the same needy person and independently give or start gathering offerings to help out. In my experience, often the pastor(s) or the Local Compassion Committee is already working privately on that need and may have already funded it with the appropriate amount from Local Compassion Funds. When a parishioner sees a need, the first step is to talk to the Local Compassion Chair or a ministry staffer.

4. To ensure that donated money given to these needs is tax deductible. Money given by one person earmarked for a specific needy individual is not tax deductible. Money that is given to the church and annotated for the “Local Compassion Fund” is tax deductible because it is administered by an independent and officially constituted body of the charity. Donation checks should not include the name of an individual recipient.

Advice on serving a needy walk-in (not a parishioner)

1. The majority of walk-ins are adult males (but the majority of the truly poor are single moms). Generally, female staffers should not unlock the door to walk-in males. Instead, find or call a male staffer. If none is available, invite the needy person to check back later when a male staffer will be around. 

2. If they come at an inconvenient time, listen for 2-3 minutes to get a sense of what they want. Understand that many of them have no perimeters or boundaries in their life. Letting yourself get pulled into their chaos is not good for them or you. So say something like “I am unable to spend more time with you right now, but if you come back at <time> I will have about 30 minutes. Will you come back?” Try to set a time for their return later that day, but it could be the next day.

3. It usually takes 15-45 minutes to minister to a walk-in. Begin by telling them how much time you have. Then listen respectfully to their story, asking questions only for clarification.

4. Ask where their nearest family is, and what kind of help they are getting help from their family. They usually claim to either have no family nearby or are estranged from their family. Encourage them to reconnect.

5. Ask if they are part of a church home or a community and if they are receiving help from them. Usually, they are not. But if they say “yes,” ask for the church and pastor’s name. Expect it to be in another city. Few can name their church and fewer can name their pastor. If they know the church or pastor, say something like, “Great. May I phone your church/pastor and if they recommend that I help you I’ll do my best to follow their advice.” Very seldom will a walk-in go this far, so I invite them to the next church service or appropriate gathering, and give them a brochure from the church. Regardless of how they respond to the previous question, I always encourage them to get into some sort of Christian community someplace – ours or somewhere else – where people will care for them and they can care for others. 

6. Within the dollar limit of your church policy, decide what you will do for them. DO NOT GIVE THEM CASH!!! If they are hungry, take them to Subway or Togo's (or elsewhere) and buy them $5-10 worth of fast food. If they've done this before they’ll know to ask for extra oil & vinegar so the sandwich will last a couple of days. If they need groceries and a local food pantry is open, send them or take them there. If that is impossible (and the person will often tell you why this is impossible so you have to use some discernment), then take them to a grocery store and shop with them. If you can’t do that for some reason, then buy them a $15-25 gift card. If you decide to give them gas for their vehicle, meet them at the station and pay for $10-20 in gas (but stay there while they pump it). If they need bus fare, buy them a day-pass at a local grocery store. If they need a train ticket, take them to the station and buy them the ticket. Locate a couple of nearby cheap motels so that if you are convinced that you must get provide a motel room for the night you’ll know where to take them. Put it on your credit card but be sure to restrict it so that the walk-in cannot extend it to cover more than the room.

7. Sometimes the recipient's problem is cash flow, and soon they will be able and want to pay the money back. One good way to handle this is to tell them that the way to pay it back is to write a check to the church and annotate the check for "Local Compassion." Encourage them to pay it back by telling them that if they do so they are helping the church say "yes" to the next needy person. I don't recommend chasing down the money as if it were a formal loan, although I suppose you could do this if the amount is substantial. And I don't expect that the church will get the money back. However, in 20 years I've seen it happen a couple of times.

8. To get reimbursed from the Local Compassion Committee you’ll generally need to get the recipient's name (photocopy their driver's license or of some form of identification is best, but if nothing else just at least write down their name and the date), and receipts for whatever you spent.

9. Whether you decide to help them or not, offer to pray for them. Say something like, “Can I pray for you before I help you (or before you leave)?” Then pray for them right there - standing in a parking lot, sitting in a car, wherever.

10. When I help an adult who appears chronically disconnected from all community (which is common), and accustomed to a life of asking strangers for a handout, I often end up saying something like this: “Look, I helped you this time. But don’t expect me to help you again unless you have connected with our church or some sort of Christian community. It’s the first question I’ll ask if you return.”

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