Access to the church’s emergency relief fund should be conditional and based on a minimum set of eligibility requirements. They should be Scriptural and published to the congregation. Here are the basic components that should be a part of relief qualification…
The deacons are usually charged with administering the church’s charity funds. They may not have to help their own members too often during normal times. But recessions happen. They are a part of reality, and they will be for as long as central banks like the Federal Reserve System are allowed to operate.
When recessions hit, unemployment rises rapidly across multiple economic sectors. The church may experience a large increase in aid requests from members. Hopefully, it has set aside money to establish and stock a church member emergency relief fund.
Access to the fund should not be “free.” It should be based on Scriptural criteria. The criteria should be published for everyone to see. Members should know them in advance before applying for pre-qualification, and they should be reminded when they do apply. Deacons will likely need to work with their pastors or elders to develop specific criteria.
The criteria that qualify a family for assistance should be designed with the goal of fostering responsible family finances that conform to Christian principles. With that in mind, I suggest that the minimum eligibility criteria consist of the following:
- Paying off their debts
Members should not delay because this program is best implemented during the “seven fat years.” We must prepare for the lean years during the fat years.
First, tithing is mandatory. Tithe means 10%. God, as sovereign creator, owns everything (Ps. 24:1). What we have, God has given us. We are stewards of His resources. He requires only a small token payment to his church that lets Christians acknowledge this relationship and their submission to His authority in their material lives as well as their spiritual lives. Families who do not tithe are robbing God, and they are “cursed with a curse.” They are in rebellion, declaring that God is no longer entitled to His tithe. A family who is having financial difficulty will be much more successful in reconstructing their personal finances if they have God on their side instead of on their backs. Making tithing a requirement will also require a family who isn’t already tithing to gain control over their budgets and reduce their expenses in other categories to free up God’s portion.
Second, a husband must have a term-life insurance policy (at least 5-times his gross income) to protect his family and unburden the church in the event of the statistically predictable, even though unlikely, event of his death. His wife must own the policy. This protects the wife and children (and church) from being written out of the husband’s death benefit should he ever abandon his family. Likewise, wives must have a term-life policy to protect her family and the church in the event of her death. The husband must own the policy, for the same reason. Also, the family should have health insurance. If they do not have a policy through an employer, then they should sign up for a Christian health sharing ministry. The health insurance will prevent catastrophic medical expenses from wiping out the family’s resources.
Third, the family must develop a budget. We are called to multiply our talents. This means we must establish a way to measure our performance to judge whether our talents are, actually, multiplying. This is the point of a budget (Mat. 25:14-30). The deacons can offer to rework the family’s budget to meet the fund’s criteria.
Fourth, the family must get out of debt. They must develop a plan to pay off all but their mortgage debt and enact it. The deacons can help a family or individual members develop a debt reduction plan. If consumer debt is growing, then the family is falling behind. Your spending habits reveal your heart. Racking up consumer debt reveals intense present-orientation. We are called to be future-oriented (Proverbs 22:7, Deuteronomy 28:44). As Christians, we must stop living for the present, and instead look towards the future. We should develop the grace of liberality, of openhandedness (Deut. 15:11) towards others. But this openhandedness is only possible if we have excess income available after accounting for all monthly expenses. Debt is a temptation to live beyond our means. Debt is a form of bondage and servitude (Prov. 22:7). Living beneath our means is the path towards Christian liberality.
Lastly, the family should be saving at least 10% of their net income. This is to be stored up for future emergencies, or for retirement, and with the goal of leaving behind an inheritance to the children (Prov. 13:22). Increasing consumer debt works against building up an inheritance. Getting out of debt and staying out of debt frees up more money that can be put towards saving or offerings above the tithe. Families with savings are less of a burden on the Church. They may be able to draw down their savings during their period of hardship until they find another job and forego having to tap the church’s resources at all.
The specifics of the criteria can be discussed among the diaconate, pastors, and elders. But they should include the elements listed here.
The criteria should be published. The existence of the emergency relief fund should be advertised as a member benefit.
The church should develop a financial course that their members should take. It should touch on these principles. If a church doesn’t have the resources or knowledge to develop its own course, I have developed one that deacons can use free of charge: Christian Financial Training – a free 12-Lesson video course that deacons can use to qualify church members for future emergency financial assistance.
Members who go through the program and conform their finances to these minimum requirements will have leaped ahead of most households in terms of financial preparedness.
They will also be less likely to be severely impacted by economic disturbances. This will be good for the church and good for the members.
By establishing universal criteria applicable to all members, the deacons can more easily screen those who request assistance. If they pre-qualified, then there is little debate. If they did not, then they must submit their household finances to the deacons and agree to implement the program starting immediately. If they refuse, then the deacons can turn them down with a clear conscience.
The criteria provide a method for allowing the deacons to judge fairly and consistently. They also help strengthen household finances for those families who implement them. Their spending and saving patterns will be brought in line with the Biblical ethic.