People who engage in helping ministries to meet human need often experience a sense of fulfillment and joy. It is a beautiful thing to be able to provide something in a moment of need.
The experience of receiving and the experience of giving are two sides of the same coin. Yet sometimes the experience of receiving help when we need it is not one of joy, fulfillment and beauty. It can even leave us feeling shamed.
Churches prayerfully design their helping ministries by paying attention to the experience of receiving alongside the experience of giving. This spiritual design work can expand the arena of joy and beauty to include both the giver and the receiver.
One pastor described the experience of her church’s food pantry, “The people who are receiving the food sit in their cars waiting for us to unlock the doors. Then they line up and provide the information our screeners are required to collect. They get their sacks of food that our volunteers have packaged and they walk back out to their cars. It’s very efficient, but they are not having a good time at all.”
I asked, “What would you prefer they experienced at the food pantry?”
“Well, I’d like them to be happier. I’d like them to feel loved,” the pastor told me.
I said, “One of the things I learned from Bryant Myers in his book, Walking with the Poor, is the principle that in healthy ministry relationships everyone needs to be both a giver and a receiver. When someone is only able to receive in the relationship, they are diminished in a profound way. When someone is only a giver, they are also diminished. I wonder what opportunities you might have so that the people who are coming to receive food could also be givers?”
“That’s really interesting,” she said. “I hadn’t thought about how they might be givers. We’ve just been thinking about meeting their food needs.”
“Right. That’s the point. We need to think of each other as whole human beings instead of just someone who has a need. The people who are hunger have a lot to offer alongside their hunger. For example, what would it be like if they were invited to pack the food that was to be distributed? Or what would it be like if they were invited to come into the church to help set up for the distribution instead of just sitting in their cars waiting?” I asked.
The pastor talked to her food pantry team members about the idea of helping everyone be a giver as well as a receiver. They tried a new approach.
They unlocked the church doors as soon as two people were there to get started. Anyone waiting in the parking lot was invited into the church fellowship hall. The guests were asked if they’d like to help and almost everyone said, “Yes!” They fixed coffee. They set up the tables and chairs. They helped the church members pack the bags. The needed information was collected and the distribution took place. Then at the end, the people who now had some fresh food in their cars hung around to help put things away, sweep and mop the floor and take out the trash.
The next time I spoke with the pastor, she said “Steve, it was amazing the difference. The people were chatty. They were laughing. They wanted to help. It just changed the experience for all of us. It was beautiful.”
So if you are running a helping ministry, prayerfully consider how you can design the ministry so that everyone can be a giver as well as a receiver.
Here is the story of such a food pantry at Good Shepherd Covenant Community Church in Calavaras County, CA: