Monday, July 22, 2013

The Complexity of Help

I am a pastor. Coffeewife is a nurse practitioner on the psych unit of a children's hospital. We are both in what sometimes are referred to as "helping professions." That is to say that our jobs are primarily associated with the help that we provide to others--physical, spiritual, emotional, and so on. I doubt that there is really any official list of jobs that qualify as "helping professions." It seems to me that it's a pretty loose term used when it seems convenient to do so.

But it's not inaccurate to say that a large chunk of what Coffeewife and I do in our respective roles is help people in various ways. We are trained to give counsel in ways appropriate to our fields, and otherwise to direct those in need of assistance to people or organizations better suited to their needs.

There are certain side effects to being in a "helping profession." We end up bumping up against difficult people and situations. They are people and situations who do need to be helped, but the factors involved may make the nature of the help needed unclear, or the situation may be beyond the scope of what we can offer. Sometimes the help that someone says they need is only a symptom of something greater that they need to deal with. Sometimes giving help will only enable a bad situation, or make it worse. We're expected or feel called to help, but how best to do it?

For the church in particular, this can be a tricky thing.

My father served as interim pastor at a church that had a homeless man living on its front stoop. For a while this was not much of an issue for them: they were providing a small measure of hospitality by allowing him to do this. People would occasionally bring him food and make other small gestures of help to him.

After a while, however, problems began to materialize. The man was attracting and feeding pigeons and rats, which brought concerns about sanitation. He was also starting to talk about how God had called him to live on this stoop, indicating the possibility of psychological issues (though admittedly this is a touchy thing that deserves its own post).

Eventually, the man was asked to move on from the church stoop. The police got involved. The story even made the local paper. And many people asked the obvious question: how could a church, of all places, do this to someone who needed help?

The help that that man needed was more complicated than his needing a place to stay. Was allowing him to live on that stoop ad infinitum really going to be what he needed? Would he have been better served by helping him find a shelter or a social worker? And where is the balance between what the man needed and the church's concerns about health and safety?

On social media and other places, I see a lot of people begin sentences like this: "Why can't the church just...?"

Why can't the church just throw open its doors to the poor?
Why can't the church just let whomever come in and serve however they wish?
Why can't the church just let anyone who says they're called to ministry become pastor?

These questions are well-meaning. We're the church, after all. We're called to follow Jesus' example of welcome, acceptance, love, and peace-making. But sometimes the answers to the above questions are things like:

Because our building isn't properly equipped to house them.
Because the person in question is a registered sex offender and we need to take certain precautions.
Because this specific person who says they are called has displayed behavior showing they aren't ready for the responsibility, and they need proper evaluation, guidance, and training.

Maybe I've become a little jaded based on experience. And maybe I sound a bit like an institutional apologist. But I've learned that giving help can be more complicated and take more discernment than some realize. It's not that we shouldn't give help; we are very much called to help others. But the nature of that help may not be what we think it is on the surface, and it may not be within our means alone to give.