Before You Answer the Door (Part I)

To save money, the pastor of a small parish mowed the parish lawn himself rather than hire it done. One day while he was riding the lawn tractor, he saw a man flagging him down to get his attention. The pastor stopped the engine and walked over to the man. He was a relatively young man who appeared to be in good physical condition.

The stranger said, “Excuse me, reverend, but could I ask you for some financial assistance? You see, I’m out of work, and I need $80 to get the electricity turned back on in my small apartment for my wife and kids.”

Because the man used the term “reverend,” the pastor assumed he was not Catholic, but then quickly decided that a man need not be Catholic to receive help from the Church. Hoping to allow the man the dignity of earning his pay, the pastor said, “Well, I need to finish mowing the lawn. I’ll tell you what. You get on the lawn tractor and I’ll get the hand mower and start mowing around the edges. I need the exercise anyway. When we have finished, I will give you the $80.”

The man replied, “I didn’t want to work for the money. Could you please direct me to another nearby church?”

The Church is in the ministry of helping people. When a person in need asks for assistance, it is generally the desire of those who have accepted the vocation of church work to offer help. We know, however, that the Church cannot meet every need of every person. That presents a paradox. The Church does not want to be gullible, that is, assisting people not truly in need who are attempting to scam the Church. Neither does the Church want to become cynical and question the true motive of every person seeking assistance.

There are some guidelines to help a pastor and his staff to discern between the two extremes. This is the first in a series of articles that will focus on one such request for assistance, namely, financial assistance, and provide some perspectives on how a church may responsibly respond to such requests.

It is important to face the fact that some people will lie to receive financial assistance from the Church. People who request financial assistance under false pretenses generally do so regularly. Over the course of just a few months they will ask literally hundreds of people for money, the point being that they have a lot of practice in asking for money. They learn which stories work and which ones do not. They learn to read people’s body language and how to adjust their stories when they get resistance from a potential benefactor.

Once a person who is merely attempting to receive cash discovers a benefactor, that person will return with more requests. The visits will become more frequent until the benefactor realizes that the person is not sincere and is taking advantage of his generosity. When the request is finally denied, it is hoped that the person will simply leave and not return. Unfortunately, however, there have been many reports in which a church worker has been assaulted by a person seeking money.

It is also dangerous to invite those seeking financial assistance into the rectory. One pastor maintained an inventory of prepaid cards for groceries and gasoline. A needy person saw the pastor open his top desk drawer and hand him a prepaid card for $50. During the night, the needy person returned to the rectory, broke in, and stole all of the cards, valued at nearly $1,000.

More stories and some solutions will appear in next month’s column.

MR. LENELL, C.P.A., Ph.D., is the director for financial and administrative services for the Diocese of Rockford, Ill. Dr. Lenell’s book Income Taxes for Priests Only is published by “Fathers Guide.” He lectures and conducts workshops and does consulting to several dioceses on priests’ taxes, compensation, and retirement planning. Write to Dr. Lenell, c/o The Priest magazine with questions, or e-mail him at WayneLenell@fathersguide.org