A stake president who has many bishops with a high welfare demand recently asked me how I approached welfare when I was a bishop. I don’t have the perfect answer but serving in a ward with high welfare needs definitely forced me to have a well-refined approach to welfare requests. I thought I’d share with you what I shared with him.
Keep in mind that my thoughts are from the perspective of a bishop with a heavy welfare load. If you are a bishop that has one or two welfare requests a year, this may not apply to you. Also, count yourself lucky, and on behalf of all the welfare wards out there, please thank your ward members for paying a generous fast offering. Some months it feels like we used every cent of it!
1. Your Only Job is to Say Yes or No
It breaks my heart to hear about bishops spending hours in their office combing through utility bills and reviewing member’s budget plans. If I would have spent time in the details of each welfare request I wouldn’t have survived—there were just too many requests coming in. It is important for a bishop to realize that the only part of the process he has to do is approve the check to be cut or the resources to be given. Either yes or no. Everything else can be delegated.
I was in such a heavy welfare area that the Church assigned three to four service missionary couples to my ward to help me with all things temporal. I could not have served effectively as a bishop without them. They generally came from the surrounding area of Salt Lake and brought remarkable experience and strength to the ward. I would assign each companionship to specific individuals or families in the ward that needed routine assistance, and they would worry about all the details: the budgets, the bills, the jobs, the food needs. They would then come to me or call me on the phone, review the situation, and give their recommendation as to how the ward should help. I would then ask further questions until, in about 5 to 10 minutes, I would make a decision and say yes or no.
This freed up my time and I was then able to put my focus where I really wanted it to be, like activation, or with the youth.
I realize few wards are blessed with an inner-city mission that supplies them with service missionary couples to help in this manner, but you can easily call a ward welfare specialist (or two or three) from the ward. Or you can leverage the auxiliary leaders and their counselors. No matter how you structure it, remember, your only job is to say yes or no.
2. Create Clear Boundaries
I highly recommend the book Bridges Out of Poverty. It is not published by the Church, but the Church sponsors trainings in Salt Lake and other areas teaching inner-city bishops and service missionaries about the principles taught in this book. If you are a bishop, buy it! You can also listen to my interview with one of the authors for further insights.
One section of the book talks about the “tyranny of the moment” that faces many low-income communities. These are moments when the simplest event (e.g., expired speeding ticket, garnishment of wages, sickness) causes a person’s life to spin out of control and suddenly he or she needs immediate help. These events don’t impact the middle- and upper-classes as much because they can afford insurance or have savings in place to soften the blow.
When temporal needs are urgent, the bishop loses control. He loses time and has to make decisions in haste. I remember several times regretting a certain way I used sacred funds because I felt like I had to make a decision too fast. It’s crucial for the bishop or welfare specialists to slow down the process. This is done by setting clear boundaries with members. Boundaries I often set were telling them upfront that our ward’s assessment process took 7 to 10 days, at least, before any decision could be made. So if they came in with a three-day or vacate eviction notice, I told them there wasn’t enough time and they would need to find another solution. This boundary caused many people to figure out other options and then come to me the next month with plenty of time to process their request.
Other than rare exceptions, I would only cut welfare checks when I was already going to be at the church. I didn’t want to drop everything and run to the church to cut a check just because this person didn’t plan well. Once members knew this boundaries they respected them.
Having an assessment process alone was a powerful boundary. If a member needed welfare assistance he would first need to meet with one of my welfare specialists. If he tried to circumvent the process by setting an appointment with me directly and skip the assessment, I would kindly tell him he needed to do the assessment first before I could make a decision.
Side note: Please know that in my ward three out of every four people that requested help I had never met before. If a member of the ward who had no history of welfare assistance, and whom I was familiar with, had requested help, I would help them right away most of the time. I don’t want to sound too hard nosed. 🙂
3. The Plan is Everything
Many bishops constantly wonder how long is too long to assist a family with the Church welfare program. The Church has no specific policy on how long a family can be helped other than stating the goal to help them reach self-reliance.
The way I gauged it as a bishop was by keeping the family’s plan central to the welfare process. If they wanted me to use welfare funds to help, I needed them to develop a plan that showed this would not be a long-term need. The plan they proposed might take three to six months, but as long as I, with the input from my welfare specialists, felt like that was their best plan, I would be willing to help them for that long. But if that plan didn’t work out, it gave me a reason to stop paying and encourage them to find another resource.
If they came back and needed additional help outside the planned time frame, it was easier to help them see that a better plan needed to be formulated. If they were unwilling to change the plan additional help would not be given.
4. Use the Needs and Resources Analysis Form
I am embarrassed at how late into my tenure as bishop it took me to discover the Needs and Resource Analysis Form the Church provides. This form was a lifesaver as I tried to juggle so many welfare requests with my team of service missionaries. Don’t try to reinvent the wheel here, just use it. I found that not only did it provide a great way to develop a plan with the requester but it also created a reference point when discussing each case with the welfare specialists. My favorite part of the form is the area on the back that allows the bishop and the member to sign the form. This created a higher level of commitment with the member.
5. Separate Yourself from the Emotion
One of the biggest benefits of working with welfare specialists or service missionaries was being able to separate myself from the emotion of the situation. As Elder Richard G. Scott has said, “An individual … who lets his or her emotions influence decisions will not be powerfully led by the Spirit.” The members requesting welfare assistance are in heavy situations. When someone first meets with them, the members are speaking from a position of strong emotion. The bishop is trying to make a logical decision, but as we know emotion can blind logic.
By sending in a service missionary or welfare specialist and having them report back to me with the facts, I could take a more rational look at the situation. I could then make a better decision that I was less likely to regret later. I wouldn’t avoid meeting with the member, because that is an important part too, but I would allow most of the emotion to be filtered out through the welfare specialists.
So what do you think? What approach have you taken in administering welfare?
I also recommend that you read the article When the Bishop Doesn’t Pay the Rent.