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The time to give

Jennifer Marshall Patterson | Budgeting our money and our time year-round to build trust that transforms


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The time to give
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No doubt you still remember December’s flurry of appeals for charitable donations. The timing of the appeals tells a story about our giving habits. The requests count on year-end largesse due to Uncle Sam’s tax rules and the annual settling of personal financial affairs—plus the sentiments of the season, of course. Giving out of gratitude after a good financial year is Biblically sound, and maximizing resources for generosity through tax deductions is wise. But catch-up contributions on Dec. 31 can miss opportunities to better meet needs throughout the year. The deepest challenges in our communities require advance generosity. All year round, effective compassion calls for our strategic budgeting of time as well as treasure, to build relationships as well as resources.

“Relationships are the necessary condition for transforming others, and trust is the common currency,” writes Bob Woodson. For more than 40 years, Woodson has worked with neighborhood leaders across the country to address poverty, gang violence, addiction, and prisoner recidivism. In Lessons from the Least of These, Woodson shares observations about what changes lives and communities. One of the primary lessons is this: The trust that transforms comes through personal presence. That means being available to those in need, even to the point of our personal inconvenience.

Time is a precious—and powerful—resource to give. Effective compassion is relational, and that requires time. This perspective should shape our personal acts of service, the charities we choose to partner with, and our churches’ approach to mercy ministries.

Opportunities are numerous for personal acts of service that prioritize relationships. Needs span the life cycle, from tutoring grade schoolers to spending time with seniors emerging from COVID isolation. Non-profit organizations like pregnancy centers and prison ministries need volunteers who will commit the hours to train and to show up regularly.

When choosing ministries with which to invest time and money, look for groups committed to face-to-face, trust-building, long-term work. WORLD’s annual Hope Awards for Effective Compassion is one source that identifies such organizations. A directory of nominees dating back to 2006 provides a good place to start in locating groups committed to personal, Christ-centered service addressing many individual and social challenges.

All year round, effective compassion calls for our strategic budgeting of time as well as treasure, to build relationships as well as resources.

Church ministries should also put these principles of effective compassion into practice. After all, the church exists because of a restored relationship. Because of that, Christians should particularly see the importance of relational outreach that addresses the whole person. Even so, church mercy ministries can end up focusing narrowly on material need—which is often most obvious and urgent—to the neglect of other concerns.

Years ago, First Baptist Church of Leesburg, Fla., identified this limitation in its outreach. Day after day, the same men kept coming to the church’s soup-kitchen shelter. Church leaders realized that the men needed more than a meal and a roof over their heads. They needed holistic help to address deeper issues, particularly substance abuse. The church started a residential rehabilitation center for men to find freedom in Christ, overcome addiction, and gain practical skills like financial literacy and job training.

Not every church needs to follow that specific model. But every congregation should consider whether its mercy ministries address the whole person, from the spiritual to the emotional to the physical. Resources from the Chalmers Center at Covenant College can guide deacons and other ministry leaders in that reflection, particularly concerning “Helping Without Hurting.”

Material and relational needs shouldn’t be pitted against each other, as though we must choose to address one or the other. Meeting material needs is part of the process of building relationships, as Chris Sicks points out in his book Tangible. As Pastor Sicks says, our mercy ministries ought to “demonstrate and declare God’s compassion for bodies and souls.”

Just as volunteering time requires planning ahead, so does wise financial giving. Pledging to donate regularly is good for those we support and for us. Committing to consistently support ministries throughout the year allows them to plan and exercise wisdom in their operations. Planned giving is also an exercise in faith for the giver, making a prayerful pledge before knowing how the books will close for us this year.

The tradition of year-end giving can be a wonderful sign of the joy of Christmas. Plan now to share that joy this coming December. But holiday season contributions should complete a year in which we made time to build trust that transforms and changes lives.


Jennifer Marshall Patterson

Jennifer Marshall Patterson is a visiting lecturer and director of the Institute of Theology and Public Life at Reformed Theological Seminary (Washington, D.C.).

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