Safe and Sound: Being Compassionately Wise

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I have a friend, Bert, who is a strong follower of Jesus and also is homeless. He travels from church to church, from homeless ministry to another, receiving when he must and helping when he can. He’s often a bit too loud, and sometimes he just has to suddenly leave, but he has been a great encouragement to me for many years.

Bert related a story about a time he visited a church who was going to have a free meal for the public after their Sunday service. My friend, as was usual, arrived as the sun was just rising. He squatted against a wall and read the Bible, preparing for a long wait. Unexpectedly, it began to snow. Bert wasn’t ready for that, and his camp was a distance away. He wasn’t sure what to do, when he noticed that the church had a basement window open. He said to himself, “I’ve helped this church out a lot and they know me. I’m sure they won’t mind that I slip in out of the snow for a couple hours.” So he entered through the window and hung out in the basement. It was so warm and cozy in the basement, he fell asleep.

He awoke to a screaming church member who discovered him in the basement as she was preparing for service. She ran to get the pastor and Bert gathered his wits to get out. The pastor confronted him and Bert tried to explain. The pastor was already on the phone with the police. In a brief time, Bert was arrested for breaking and entering, and ended up spending that day in jail.

When every church begins a ministry to the homeless or poor, allowing non-members on their facility, there are questions that get brought up:

  • “Does our insurance cover this?”
  • “What happens if the property is damaged?”
  • “How do we deal with violence?”
  • “What precautions should we take against theft?”
  • “What will be the neighbor’s reaction?”

Questions like these are important to consider. They must be brought up, and precautions should be made. Some may want to say that such questions are unworthy of a compassionate church. After all, we should be welcoming, not cautious. It is true, we need to be welcoming, but we also need to recognize that for every hundred people we serve, most of whom will be grateful and helpful, but a few will want to take advantage of more than just our hospitality. Very rarely, but occasionally violence can occur. Rarely, but occasionally a thief will steal in with the sheep. And we must be wise, recognizing that we will have to deal with it.

But if we are going to minister to the poor, we need to be sure that our compassion outweighs our concerns about security. If we, or some of our congregation, have a tendency to call the police at every sign of trouble, our ministry will be considered a blight not only for the poor who know we cannot be trusted, but for the police who are spending time caring for our anxieties instead of serving the public. If we are going to serve a needy population, we need to be prepared for the inevitable problems that will be “unacceptable” to most of the church.

Love is dangerous Every true ministry involves risk. Jesus recognized this when he said, “If you love only those who love you, what reward will you get? Even sinners love those who love them.” Jesus was trying to communicate to us that our love should not be determined by worldly limitations. Our love should be dramatic, overflowing, even unthinkable. If we are living out the love of Jesus, outsiders should be able to say about us, “Those church people are crazy, but they are helping people no one would help.” We should get complaints from neighbors that we are too generous, too kind. And yes, at times we should be so generous that we might get our insurance cancelled.

Obviously, this is a difficult calling. But let’s face it: love is difficult. And to truly, completely, unconditionally love means facing problems that the average church member would consider unimaginable. But choosing ministry over security means entering an adventure of love—and adventures are never comfortable.

On the other hand, there is a balance. We must be innocent as doves and as wise as serpents. We must love adventurously but not recklessly. We want our environment to be both compassionate and safe. Here are some recommendations to have our ministry strike that balance:

  1. Be generous to a fault and to a point. Be free in what you can give, and try to be as joyfully generous as you can. But also make determinations of what you give and what resources you provide. Get used to saying, “We don’t provide that, but let’s see if we can find someone else who does.”
  2. Set boundaries. Basic boundaries are necessary for the safety of all who come to the facility. There will need to be rules, and the rules should be posted. If they are posted, they should be simple and not long. We have four posted rules: “No violence or provoking violence. No stealing. No alcohol or drugs on the property. No blasphemy.” We have posted that no one can spend the night without written permission.
  3. Plan for the worst. Have your staff gather together to talk about potential situations and about situations that have occurred. Everyone should be allowed to express their concerns, but in the end, Jesus’ call to welcome all and to care for all should win out. It might be recommended for some of the staff to obtain peacemaking training or training on working with the mentally ill.

Some tips on dealing with conflict in ministries to the poor.

When should we call the police? There is a time to call the police, and a time not to. Every church must make that determination themselves, but it should be decided ahead of time. Some of these issues are discussed in this article This essay might provide a beginning point for discussion.

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