A stake president who has many bishops with a high welfare demand asked for insights on ways to approach welfare in the Lord’s way. Now that the elders quorum and Relief Society president carry a major portion of these efforts, it’s important to have insights to assist them in their efforts of providing caring and self-reliant resources. We blended comments from several wise and busy priesthood and Relief Society leaders to provide you with a few things to consider.
Keep in mind, most of these 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.
1. Your Only Job is to Say Yes or No
In section 22.6.5 of the Church’s General Handbook of Instruction, there is a simple table that easily explains the roles of those involved in handling Church welfare. It is an invaluable reminder that the bishop only has one role that he cannot delegate – to say “Yes” or “No” for assistance. The Relief Society or elders quorum presidencies have the delegated responsibility to assess needs and assist with the self-reliance plan and are an integral part of a bishop’s welfare assistance team. (Relief Society or elders quorum presidencies, welfare specialists or service missionaries)
Thus, there is no need, nor is it a good use of his time, for a bishop to be spending hours in his office combing through utility bills and reviewing members’ budget plans. It is important for a bishop to realize that the only part of the process he must do is approve the check to be cut or the resources to be given. Either yes or no. Everything else can be delegated.
As a side note: When meeting with a member, it is beneficial to refrain from saying “money” or “check” and instead say “sacred funds” or “fast offering donations”, etc. This helps keep it from being transactional.
If there is a higher need for welfare assistance, the bishop can call ward welfare and self-reliance specialists. Additionally, if it is a heavy welfare area, the Church can assign service missionary couples to a ward to help with all things temporal.
With the bishop teaching self-reliance principles and approving checks and/or orders, his time is freed up and he is able to put his focus where it really needs to be, in activation efforts or with the youth.
2. Create Clear Boundaries
We 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 Kurt Francom’s interview with one of the authors.
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 must make decisions in haste, and he may later regret a certain way he used sacred funds. It’s crucial for the bishop or welfare specialists to slow down the process. This is done by setting clear boundaries with members. Boundaries may include:
- 7-to-10-Day Decision Process – Advising them upfront what the ward’s assessment process takes seven to 10 days, at least, before any decision can be made. If they come in with a three-day eviction notice, then you explain there isn’t enough time to process their request and they need to find another solution. This invites them to figure out other options and come back the next month with time to effectively process their request.
- No “Drop Everything” and Run to the Church – Other than rare exceptions, try to only cut welfare checks when you are already going to be at the church. It gets too chaotic to drop everything and run to the church to cut a check just because this person didn’t plan well.
Once members know the bishop’s boundaries, they can respect them. Plus, it removes the chaos and invites time to be guided to the best welfare plan for that individual.
Since this plan includes meeting with either the Relief Society or elders quorum president or a welfare specialist, it provides time for adequate assessment. If someone goes directly to the bishop, kindly advise them that an assessment has to be done before a decision on assistance can be made.
Side note: There are specific details in the handbook section 22.5 on how to best help regularly-attending members; those who you may not know due to them being non-attending members; non-members in your ward boundaries or the homeless.
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.
One way to gauge it as a bishop is by keeping the family’s plan central to the welfare process. If they want the bishop to use welfare funds to help, they need to develop a plan that shows this would not be a long-term need. The plan they propose might take three to six months, but as long as the bishop—with the input from his welfare specialist team—feels like that is their best plan, it may make sense to help them for that long. If they come back and need additional help outside the planned time frame, it is easier to help them see that a better plan needs to be formulated. If they were unwilling to change the plan, additional help may not be a good idea and you can encourage them to find another resource.
4. Use the Self-Reliance Plan
Don’t try to reinvent the wheel here. Use the forms and resources provided by the Church. Not only will it provide a great way to develop a plan with the requester, but it also creates a reference point when discussing each case with your welfare assistance team.
Here are helpful steps from the handbook:
“When providing Church assistance, leaders follow the principles in sections 22.4.1 through 22.4.5. Bishoprics and clerks are encouraged to review the video “Sacred Funds, Sacred Responsibilities.”
The handbook also teaches:
“Principles for Providing Church Assistance:
- Encourage personal and family responsibility.
- Provide temporary assistance for essential needs.
- Provide resources or services rather than cash.
- Offer work or service opportunities.
- Keep information about Church assistance confidential.”
5. Separate Yourself from the Emotion
One of the biggest benefits of working with your welfare assistance team is being able to separate yourself from the emotion of the situation.
“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 one of your welfare assistance team and having them report back to you with the facts, you can take a more rational look at the situation. You can then make a better decision that you are less likely to regret later. As the bishop, don’t avoid meeting with the member, because that is an important part too, but allow most of the emotion to be filtered out through the welfare assistance team.
The Lord’s Way
There is a way and it’s the Lord’s way and it works perfectly. The Lord’s way includes meeting with whomever is delegated to by the bishop to be the point person on the welfare assistance team. This allows bishops to do two things: feel peace about their diligence in protecting the sacred funds of the Church and, even more importantly, to ensure the recipient is on a path to self-reliance.
Remember, the sacred funds of the Church are to sustain life (not lifestyle or credit scores).
With that said, there are some scenarios where members should be asking for help but may not; this too is not good. They should not forgo medical treatment, emotional/mental counseling, or personal investments such as communication/transportation that help a person earn an income.
So what do you think? What approach have you taken in administering welfare?
We also recommend that you read the article, When the Bishop Doesn’t Pay the Rent.
This article has been updated with contributions from Beth Young and members of the Leading Saints Helpers Group.