Too Many Rules?

It all started with great enthusiasm. After months of planning, a church realized their dream of operating a clothing closet in the community. A clothing drive was held, volunteers were recruited, space was allocated, and hours of operation were established. The clothing closet opened with much fanfare in the congregation. And people in need in the community started to show up.

clothing closet

But everything did not go smoothly. Some people showed up too frequently. Some were disruptive and made a mess of volunteers’ carefully organized displays. Some took too many items. The volunteers wondered if they were re-selling them somewhere else. Some brought their children and the children were not supervised. Volunteers felt that they had lost control of the ministry.

So rules were established. A voucher system was created. Hours were limited. Volunteers learned to crack down on infractions. Over time, more rules were added, more restrictions were put in place. Some volunteers asked to have behind-the-scenes roles so they would not have to deal with the clients. What began as a hopeful, positive attempt to meet a need in the community became a tightly-run ministry characterized more by tension than by grace. The volunteers wondered if they could keep the ministry under control. Some said they should close the doors – it was just too hard to keep everyone in line.

And then a new idea was presented: What if we sold the clothes? The idea was shot down at first: “These are poor people; they can’t afford to buy the clothes – that is the point of this ministry!” “Ah,” said a wise one. “But what if we allow people an opportunity to volunteer in the pantry to earn credits they can use to buy the clothes?” The idea had merit. A new system was put into place. The clothes were sold for a reasonable price. Those who could afford to pay did so; those who could not were given the opportunity to volunteer. In time, the ministry began to turn a small profit. A businesswoman in the congregation put together a business plan to show how this newly-designed ministry model could become a real used clothing store. The church leased property in a strategic part of town and moved the ministry there. The store continued to turn a profit, which it invested back in the store. Soon, more help was needed, and jobs were created for members of the community.

thrift store.jpg

This scenario isn’t unrealistic. In fact, many church clothing ministries have been transformed in similar ways. The difference between the two models is one of empowerment. In the first, rule-laden model, the members of the congregation had all of the power, and they struggled to maintain control. In the second, the people who needed clothes were: a) given an opportunity to maintain their dignity by paying for the clothes; and b) given an opportunity to be part of the solution by helping operate the clothes closet. Consequently, the clothes closet ministry was transformed into something that no one ever imagined.

Good intentions for ministries to help people in need are often stifled when anxiety leads to tight restrictions and “rules” seem more important that “grace.”

Does our church have any ministries where power and control is held only by church members? Could those ministries be transformed by partnering with those we want to serve?

Prayer focus for today: Pray for those who feel overwhelmed because their need is great, but they don’t qualify for aid because the rules exclude them.

2 thoughts on “Too Many Rules?

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  1. As we’ve discussed, this is a very complex issue made more challenging by the modern “church” culture of providing material goods to those identified as in need. This model MIGHT require fewer volunteers but ones with deeper long term commitments.

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