Before You Answer the Door (Part III)

The first two articles on the topic of providing financial assistance for the needy focused on strangers who visit the parish for the purpose of obtaining cash or other forms of financial assistance. This article will explore the challenges of assisting parishioners in need.

A few days before the end of the school year, a pastor received a telephone call from a parishioner whose two sons, one in eighth grade, the other in seventh, attended the parochial grade school. The parishioner explained that the school principal was threatening to prohibit his older son from participating in the graduation ceremony and that she would not release the transcripts to his future high school. The reason for this action was that he was behind in his tuition payments.

The pastor asked how far behind the parent was in tuition payments, and the parishioner replied that he was unsure, but that he would catch up all payments as soon as humanly possible. The parishioner went on to reveal a tale of woes about the family’s financial hardships and all of their efforts to be responsible parishioners. When the parishioner offered to sell a family heirloom, his grandmother’s wedding ring, to pay his tuition debt, the pastor’s compassion convinced him to forgive the debt in its entirety. The parishioner gushed with thanks. The pastor promised to send an email to the principal, which he promptly did after concluding the conversation.

The principal replied to the pastor’s email, seeking clarification. She explained that the family enrolled the two boys in the school two years ago, but had not made a single tuition payment. She wanted clarification of how much of the past due amount to forgive. The pastor replied that the entire amount should be forgiven.

On the second-to-last day of school, the teacher in the older son’s classroom asked the class to share their summer vacation plans. When it was the older son’s turn, he told the class that beginning next week they were taking a three-week vacation at a cabin on a lake so that they could try out their two new jet skis that his father recently purchased (at a cost of over $9,000 each).

As with unknown people coming to the parish office requesting money, sometimes parishioners who ask for assistance may not have genuine needs. In the case of the past-due tuition outlined above, it is likely that the parents really believed they could not pay the tuition. At the end of each month, after making mortgage payments, credit card payments and the loan payments on the jet skis, there was no money in the checking account so they thought that they could not afford to pay tuition. In fact, the parents did not prioritize their choices in life. The cost of the jet skis would have paid the tuition for both boys for both years with plenty left over.

It is not wrong for a pastor to want to help a parishioner who is facing a financial challenge. It is important, however, for the pastor to be sure that the parishioner is truly in crisis and one not of his own making. An approach that has met with success in some parishes is for the pastor to appoint a “needy committee” in his parish made up of parishioners with solid reputations of common sense, fairness and confidentiality. The task of the needy committee would be to review requests for financial assistance and make recommendations for distributing financial aid to parishioners based on established criteria and sound judgment. In the past-due tuition case, for example, the pastor would have referred the parishioner to the needy committee for analysis, and the committee’s review would have revealed that the family was in a priority crisis and not in a financial crisis.

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