The Trouble with Emergency Relief

Here is some practical guidance for deacons on how to help church members who have fallen on hard times. There is a problem that isn’t often discussed which I deal with here…

Imagine this scenario.

A church member loses his job and comes to the diaconate for emergency relief. He had been making $3,600 per month after taxes before he lost his job. Along with their standard living expenses and utility bills, his family has a mortgage, $500 in savings, a student loan, and credit card debt. Though their income was $3,600 after taxes, you learn their monthly budget on average was $3,800. Also, they don’t tithe.

They had $1,800 in their checking account before the husband lost his job, but it’s been two weeks and he hasn’t found a new one. The family’s checking account is now down to $375, so they have a total of $875 in cash. Their $1,400 mortgage payment is due next week, and they also need groceries. Minimum credit card and student loan payments are coming up soon also.

Your church has less than 200 members and an average budget of $200,000. One percent of the annual church budget is allocated towards the mercy ministry: $2,000.

How would you help this member family?

Consider another case.

A different church member loses his job. He, too, earned $3,600 after taxes before he was laid off. However, the only debt his family has is a mortgage payment of $900. They have also been faithful tithers and have a monthly budget of $2,500. They had accrued $4,000 in savings before the crisis hit, but they are down to their last $1,000, and the husband hasn’t yet been able to find a new job.

How would you help this member family?

More importantly, however, is this question: what would you do if both members approached you in the same week?

How would you allocate the church’s money? How much should you allocate? What consistent criteria would you use to evaluate these two cases?

For any church or diaconate that is unprepared for this scenario, there are no easy answers.


The best way to handle scenarios like this is to prepare in advance. There are two aspects to this preparation:

  1. Preparing the church budget
  2. Preparing the congregation members

The first aspect is self-explanatory. In a time of crisis, the likelihood that the church will see a larger volume of requests for emergency aid from its members increases. Economic crises like recessions hit multiple sectors of the economy at the same time.

Such a situation goes beyond the standard annual mercy or outreach budgets. This is why it is best to be like Joseph in Egypt and prepare in advance.

In Genesis, we read that God sent Pharaoh a dream (Gen. 41:1). Then, he sent Joseph to interpret that dream.

When explaining Pharaoh’s dream, Joseph told Pharaoh that there would be a famine in Egypt. Once the famine began, “all the plenty will be forgotten in the land of Egypt. The famine will consume the land” (Gen. 41:29-30).

Joseph’s solution was to plan ahead: “Let Pharaoh proceed to appoint overseers over the land and take one-fifth of the produce of the land of Egypt during the seven plentiful years” (vs. 34).

He is called wise for doing so.

The church needs to set aside a portion each year during “the good times,” before the recession hits, into a church member emergency relief fund. This will reduce the odds that it will have to cut its budget elsewhere, such as in programs or salaries, to be able to help its distressed members.

During recessions, giving falls. This is because income falls. People lose their jobs. Members may move away in order to pursue a replacement job.

The second aspect is more difficult. This is the elephant in the room that no one seems to want to talk about: How do you allocate the money? When there is no plan in place, then the default method of allocation becomes “first come, first served.”

This is the preferred method of allocation for welfare state bureaucracies. But this is not Biblical.


Access to the member relief fund should be based on pre-qualification. This means the church needs a set of universal, quantifiable criteria that will apply equally to every member of the church. There must be equality and fairness: “Do not cause judgment to be false. You must not show favoritism to someone because he is poor, and you must not show favoritism to someone because he is important. Instead, judge your neighbor righteously” (Lev. 19:15).

The criteria need to be published, and they need to be verified by the church leadership. This should be announced along with the program.

Access to the money should not be unconditional. This is not the Biblical way (Lev. 19:9-10; 2 Thess. 3:10). Any member who wishes to gain access during their time of trouble must meet the eligibility criteria established by the diaconate or whoever is administering the relief program.

Evaluating a member family’s financial health against the church’s eligibility criteria establishes the screening process that becomes the default method of allocation.

The welfare state mentality of first-come, first-served, does not screen people based on moral worthiness. This means that some people who do not deserve the aid get it at the expense of those who do. Counter to this, access to church money should be based on Bible-based ethical requirements.

The program will be a benefit to the congregation’s members, and it should be advertised to the congregation, at a minimum:

  • From the pulpit whenever the pastor should feel called to discuss the Christian’s obligation to be financially responsible
  • To prospective members in the new member’s class, if the church has one, as often as it is offered
  • In the bulletin when officer elections approach, to help underscore the benefits the congregation makes available to its members, and the responsibility the officers have in administering them

Congregation members should be encouraged to act immediately and not wait until hardship hits to apply for the program. Meeting the eligibility criteria in advance will ensure rapid access to the fund. It will also generally put them, and the church, into a better position to survive when hard times arrive. 


Establishing a church member emergency relief fund is really a moral imperative for churches. However, the welfare states in the Western world have taken over the church’s duty of administering charity. This is because it has assumed the role of healer for society’s problems. This is a messianic impulse. The welfare state is a false messiah.

As a result, churches have not had to think about this problem in a long time. There is little demand for emergency relief from the church. That’s because the welfare state has crowded out the church from the charity business. But a church should take care of its own members (1 Tim. 5:8). It should not send members to the welfare state.

But to be able to do this, it must start planning in advance. On this site, I am offering a plan. I think it is a reasonable, Bible-based approach that God will reward.

The trouble is this: in this modern era, establishing ethical criteria as a pre-requisite to gain access to emergency relief money is not a popular message. This is because the humanist ethics of moral and cultural relativism have undermined the universal, unchanging ethic contained in the Bible.

But the welfare states will fail. They are already bankrupt. Their bankruptcy simply hasn’t become apparent yet. But there will be an economic crisis that breaks the system. The welfare state checks will stop coming. What will the church then do when government welfare programs like food stamps, unemployment insurance, cash payments to low-income families, subsidized housing, Social Security, and Medicare finally end?

People will once again start turning to other sources of aid. They will turn to the churches as a source of true healing. Members will have no other choice but to turn to their member church.

The sooner deacons get practice setting up an emergency relief program based on pre-qualification criteria before the Great Default arrives, the stronger the churches will be when the crisis does arrive.