Things were tough enough when Brent Williams lost his job, but quickly went from bad to worse when someone set on fire the American flag he displayed at the front of his house. Flames spread to the siding of his North Carolina home, causing extensive damage. When a local contractor read about Williams’s plight in the paper, he was moved to action, completing repairs for Williams at no cost.1
When Jim, Joan Maven’s husband, abandoned his family of seven in order to pursue an affair with another woman, he was so wrapped up in his own well-being that he evicted his own family from their home in order to make room for his new “love.”2 Joan, a stay-at-home mom, had no income, and Jim refused to pay support. When several church members learned of her plight, they came to the rescue. They helped the displaced mother to look for a new home, but the most they could afford was a dilapidated house badly in need of repairs and updates. Another parishioner heard about her circumstances and organized other families and volunteers who rounded up furniture; helped with painting, roofing, wiring; and even collected food. Additional volunteers worked to help Joan get public assistance. Today, volunteers continue to assist Joan with household repairs, groceries, and clothing.
When a small group from Creekside Church in Aurora, Colorado, United States, decided to hold a garage sale to raise funds for a local charity, they asked their congregation to donate items they could resell for their cause. As volunteers sifted through piles of donated goods, they found several trash bags full of what could best be described as junk—stained or filthy clothing, broken CD players, and dirty pots and pans. Puzzled, they looked at each other and mused over what the donors possibly could have been thinking to give items in such poor condition.
Why are some people so tenderhearted and willing to give back, while others are reluctant to part with their time or resources? Why do some church groups excel at serving the needy and hurting, while others cannot seem to take their focus off themselves? Could the compassionate nature of congregations trickle down from their leadership?
A church with a heart for benevolence takes its cues from its pastor and other key leaders whose hearts have been softened and broken for the hurting. According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, the two most familiar definitions of benevolence are either “an act of kindness” or “a generous gift.”3 Benevolent opportunities present themselves to us nearly every day, often when we are busy, entrenched in our daily schedules. Needs may seem inconvenient, and we may be unaware that our attitude toward those in need is one of more pastoral obligation than of sincere or deeper concern.
Why should we care?
Deuteronomy 15:11 reminds us, “There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your brothers and toward the poor and needy in your land.”4 Jesus said, “ ‘The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me’ ” (Matt. 26:11). Part of Jesus’ mission, as prophesied in Isaiah 61:1, was to “preach good news to the poor. . . . [And] to bind up the brokenhearted.” If God commands us to give back and charged His Son with caring for the less fortunate, then, as imitators of Christ, clearly benevolence is not an option. True, some may have the spiritual gift of giving (Rom. 12:8), but this does not mean that those of us lacking that gift are not to be concerned with giving back. Rather, we will have to work harder at being generous because benevolence is not something we excel at, even if we oversee this action in our daily operations.
No cheap grace
In 2 Corinthians 8:7, Paul urged the Corinthians, “But just as you excel in everything—in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in complete earnestness and in your love for us—see that you also excel in this grace of giving.” Charles Swindoll, in his book Growing Strong in the Seasons of Life, points out that King Amaziah did right in the sight of God.5 But Scripture also says he did not follow God’s commands with a whole heart but merely obeyed the letter of the law rather than the spirit (2 Chron. 25:1, 2).
When Cain presented his sacrifice to God along with his brother Abel, God was not pleased with his gift. Cain either did not give his best or lacked the right attitude (Gen. 4:3–5). Giving with the right attitude is important to God. Cain was like the parishioner who donated the bags of stained and filthy clothing to the garage sale for charity. Cheap grace is unattractive and insulting to the receiver and to God.
The right motive
Dictionary.com defines altruism as “the principle or practice of unselfish concern for or devotion to the welfare of others (opposed to egoism).”6 Our human nature makes us self-focused, and when we give back, we are actually working against our natural makeup. We are often inclined to ask, “What’s in it for us?” We may give cash to the needy person who solicits help because we feel guilty for saying no. Or we may give to earn credit with God or to look good in the eyes of our peers or parishioners. But do we have the recipient’s best interest in mind? Almost always we find it easier to hand out cash than to engage with someone desiring assistance and find out his or her deeper needs.
Becoming a pacesetter
Aristotle observed, “It is easy to perform a good action, but not easy to acquire a settled habit of performing such actions.”7 If it is this difficult to give with the right motives and attitudes, how can we sincerely show compassion to those in need? I believe benevolence is a learned skill. Like any discipline, the more we practice it, the better we become at it. For pastors, it begins on a very personal level. Starting out we may only give back out of obligation; but the more we do it, the more sincere and natural it becomes.
Deliberate acts of kindness. One of the uncomfortable facets of being a pastor is that, like it or not, we are in the spotlight, acting as mentors and pacesetters from whom people take their cues. If we exhibit generosity, others will be inclined to mimic us and do the same. If we actively look for opportunities to give back, we are more likely to see them. When benevolent opportunities arise at church, we typically help because it is an expected part of what we do. We field calls from congregation members needing help or outsiders in desperate circumstances, and there are biblical guidelines for managing these situations.8
Many benevolent needs, however, require extra effort. How many of us take the time to dig down to the root of the problem of someone who keeps coming back to ask for help? Usually, we find it easier either to give the money he or she wants or deny the request. Growing a benevolent heart may mean volunteering after hours or giving up some leisure time. We may resist deeper involvement because we fear the messiness of the situation or further helping infringes on our free time, and we argue that we have given enough already. James 2:14 reminds us that our actions mirror our beliefs: “What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him?” Though we are saved by grace, our deeds speak volumes about our spiritual maturity.
That is not to say that extracurricular giving and service should not be done with balance. The nature of our work makes it easy to overextend ourselves. How much time and energy we have to commit beyond our normal working hours depends on our individual lifestyles and commitments. We need to gauge and periodically readjust to maintain healthy boundaries. However, once again, we should avoid merely giving back the bare minimum while on duty.
Spontaneous acts of kindness. If you are weak in the area of benevolence, you can start building your compassion muscles through small acts of kindness. It may be as simple as buying cookies from the kids selling them in front of the grocery store, letting someone go ahead of you in line, or answering the phone when the office help is tied up with another call. If you are alert to opportunities, you will find them, like the man, who, on a frigid day, handed a hot cup of coffee to the traffic cop directing traffic in the pouring rain.9
I will never forget the time I was in the San Francisco Bay Area on business, having flown out to work on a Web site and newsletter for a friend’s company. Wendy was driving me back to the airport, and we were crossing a toll bridge into the city. I had about one dollar in change. Not being from the area, I had not thought about a toll at all and Wendy had completely forgotten about it too. She was fretting as we neared the toll booth because she did not have the needed funds. Imagine our surprise when the window attendant waved us on through. As we pulled up, she explained that the car ahead of us had picked up our tab. The driver had no way of knowing our predicament, but his or her random act of kindness touched us.
Compassion becomes contagious
Generosity is catching. When someone does something like that for you, the human response results in wanting to pass it on. How do we get our congregational members to catch the compassion? More and more, churches today are organizing outreach events that teach members to give back. Some do this on a quarterly basis, while others may engage more or less frequently.
Plan a Random Acts of Kindness Week. Once you have stretched yourself doing random acts of kindness on a personal level, you can motivate your congregation to get involved in doing them too. You might want to schedule a Random Acts of Kindness Week for your church. Encourage folks to do something unplanned and compassionate for people they chance upon all week long. Then select a few folks to share touching stories of what happened during your worship service the next week.
Go out and serve the homeless. Several months ago, our small coffee shop church had the opportunity to make and serve lunch to low income and homeless people. We set up a few griddles and organized an assembly line of helpers who buttered bread, slapped on cheese, toasted sandwiches, and handed out chips and drinks. Youth worked alongside of older church members, chatting amicably, many getting to know each other for the first time. When lunch was served, we prayed for the meal and then asked volunteers to sit among those eating to chat with them and find out if they had any prayer needs. Several people did share needs, and we were able to pray for them on the spot.
Our volunteers were touched and asked to do it again and so we have scheduled another event. Hands-on giving can have a strong impact. Most people find it easy and convenient to give cash or write a check for a cause, and financial contributions are always needed, but it takes a much more serious commitment to roll up one’s sleeves and get to work. Doing so puts a face on the need. When people see what their contributions of time and resources do to help, it can be life transforming for both the person serving and the person being served.
Work alongside your members. Scheduling planned opportunities takes more work than spontaneous ones, but they can have a far-reaching impact. Many church members want to help the poor but are unaware of how to do so. Be willing to search needs out and promote them to your people. A good place to start is your local city mission. Many pastors spend much of the week in their offices planning out the week’s events. Consequently, church ministry can be like working in a protective plastic bubble. Though we may have a heart for reaching the world, we may have difficulty getting out into it to make those connections. We can talk all we want to our members about helping a hurting world, but until we put our own faith in action, our words are merely empty. Do not just plan events for your church, be willing to get physically involved and work alongside your members.
Jesus said, “ ‘Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God’ ” (Luke 6:20). God’s heart breaks for the poor and hurting. Should not ours as well? Deep caring starts with personal transformation, a commitment to get out of our comfort sphere and change our lifestyles. It means being intentional, looking for ways to personally serve. As you do so, your eyes will be opened to the myriad of possibilities where your church can also get involved. The seeds of benevolence grow from the hearts of leaders. As they takes root, they will spread and compassion will grow like a wild thing.
1 “Good Samaritans, June 2011,” Daily Dumper (blog), http://www.dailydumper.co.cc/2011/06/good-samaritansjune-2011.html.
2 Names have been changed for privacy.
3 Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, s.v. “benevolence,” accessed June 7, 2011, http://www.merriam-webster.com/ dictionary/benevolence.
4 Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture references are from the New International Version.
5 Charles Swindoll, Growing Strong in the Seasons of Life (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1983), 48, 49.
7 “Goodness,” Quoteland.com, accessed July 1, 2011, http:// www.quoteland.com/topic/Goodness-Quotes/66/.
8 Teena M. Stewart, Benevolence: Ministering to the Poor and Needy (Kansas City: Beacon Hill Press, 2011).
9 “A Warming Gesture,” Random Acts of Kindness Homepage, accessed July 1, 2011, http://www.noogenesis.com/ malama/kindness/Stories/0033.html.