Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Teaching Responsibility While Helping (I Hope)

Two weeks ago, we had a woman seek assistance from our community care fund.  Generally, we help out on the first request, no questions asked.  This was a first time request from someone needing help paying her electric bill.  The bill was not large in comparison with what I have seen--just over $150.  My council authorized me to approve such requests up to $400, especially since we are usually dealing with time sensitive bills.

The woman's bill was no exception to this rule.  Unfortunately, she came into our office the day before it was due.  My secretary explained to her the procedure in our congregation to cut checks:

1. We sent a check request to our CPA with documentation.
2. The CPA cuts the check and drops it off in the office overnight.
3. Two council members then are required to sign the check.
4. We, as a congregation, mail the check to the vendor.  We will not give out cash or write checks to those asking for assistance.

I approved payment of the electric bill, and we began the process--on Thursday afternoon.  (That's an important detail to this puzzle.)

Friday is my day off.  The church office is also closed.  No one was here to pick up the check or see if our CPA office had dropped it off.  This detail is important as well, because the "fun" started shortly afterward.

My wife and I had made a spur of the moment trip up to Washington on the Brazos State Park that Friday morning, and we were headed back to Bellville to pick my son up from Dayschool.  My phone rang.  It was a secretary in the county judge's office.  She informed me that the woman who made the community care fund request was in her office complaining that her lights were cut off. 

"Betty"  (not her real name) asked me if we could fax something to the city electric office to tell them we would be paying the bill.  I told Betty I was out of the office that day, our office was closed, and we couldn't do that. 

Silence.  Don't think she'd ever had a pastor or church tell her no on such a matter. 

I continued, "Betty, the problem is, the woman came in the day before her bill was due.  We have a process to get checks cut in the church, and her check is now in process.  It will probably be Monday before we can get it in the mail."

Betty asked, "So it's in process?"

I replied, "Yes.  It will be taken care of."

I thought that was the end of it, but I was mistaken.

Monday morning, the church office phone rings.  The woman who we were helping called my secretary.  My secretary explained to her very nicely (I can vouch because I overheard) that she had come in late and that the checks were in process.  We would mail the check to the city of Bellville that afternoon.  My secretary said, "I'm sorry your lights got cut off, but we're working as quickly as we can." 

End of story? 


That afternoon, I received a phone call from the woman.  My response to her, "Didn't you talk to my secretary this morning?"


"Then you know we have a process to get our checks cut.  Your check has been cut and put in the mail.  It will arrive later this week."

End of story?


The next morning, Betty calls our office inquiring about the check.  Once again, the woman had gone to the judge's office to complain about her lights being out.  And, once again, my secretary was very nice in handling the matter.  She explained the entire process once again, and informed Betty we were paying the bill.  She also reiterated the fact that the woman came in the day before the bill was due.

Afterward, my secretary, exasperated, asked if we were doing the right thing.

I responded, "The woman is trying to make her problem our problem.  Betty is trying to do the same thing.  This isn't our problem.  We are kindly taking care of her light bill.  It is not our fault she came in late.  It is her responsibility to take care of her payments, and if she has to suffer a few days without electricity, then perhaps she will learn her lesson and be more responsible next time."

Perhaps I am cold and callous by such a response, but I am well aware of a tenet of life expressed by my Bowen Family Systems teacher: "If you are always helping someone, they will become dependent upon you and fail to take responsibility for themselves."

Too often, I believe in our society, we see people taking advantage of those who are willing to help.  They will gladly take whatever you can give, almost never offer a "thank you", and come back repeatedly to see how many times they can get something out of you.  When something happens that causes the least bit of discomfort, they are oftentimes willing to complain and try to get others to make them more comfortable.  And since there are many, like myself, who do not like to see others uncomfortable, they work diligently to ease the worry and discomfort. 

But what is learned by those who fail to take responsibility? 


In the above case, I believe we as a congregation were compassionate in helping the woman out, but I also think we helped to teach her a lesson in responsibility.  If her lights hadn't been cut out and she hadn't had to endure that discomfort, she would more than likely repeat the same thing over and over again.  Perhaps her discomfort will motivate her to, at the very least, seek assistance earlier. 

A hard lesson to learn? 

Sure, but sometimes necessary.

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