W the f$%k WJD?

This is long and probably deeply boring. But I’d welcome your advice. Even if this situation resolves, I need help thinking it out, because other ones like it will come along.

Ben came to church on Sunday. Nobody had ever seen him before. He looked slightly scruffy but not outside normal range – unshaven, wearing a somewhat shoddy down parka. He hung around for coffee hour and chatted with some folks. When he finally got my attention, after working over pageant plans with the pageant team, he told me that he’s unemployed and really looking for help and for work. He lives nearby & said he’d often passed near our property and thought about all the work he could do here, on our many trees – he worked for a pruning and landscaping company for a long time. I thought, Hmm, this could be useful, and told him I’d talk with our Buildings & Grounds folks about it. I tried to be clear that we have a process for hiring contractors, we don’t just jump into things – and that our funds are tight and we hadn’t been planning to pay to have any of that kind of work done this winter, though we know it’s needed. But I let him think there was a chance something might work out, because I thought there was. I also gave him $20 – explaining as I did so that I can’t and don’t usually give away cash. In the Episcopal Church, clergy generally only have access to their charitable funds via check – which works fine for paying someone’s rent or water bill, but limits other uses. Sometimes that’s frustrating, but overall I think it makes good sense.

Ben went away pleased enough. I figured I would contact him if it seemed like it might pan out to hire him to do some pruning.

Then he started coming to the church – once, twice a day. I don’t know if he came Monday, my day off. He came twice on Tuesday, twice on Wednesday, and at least once on Thursday. He came to ask whether it looked like we’d be able to hire him, and while he was at it, to talk about how hungry he was and mention that he was out of gas again. Tuesday afternoon – not yet having been told by my parish administrator that he’d also been by that morning – I reminded him that the church had neither the funds nor the inclination to jump into hiring someone to do property work, and that I am not the decision-maker regarding contractors for grounds work. I promised him that I would contact my Buildings & Grounds folks and ask them to think about whether we could use Ben in some way. As soon as he left, I wrote that message (giving some context on the situation).

Wednesday morning, John came by again, and my parish administrator gave him some string cheese and a can of soda and sent him away.

Wednesday afternoon, I went on retreat for a few hours. I spent a little of that time – more than I wanted to – thinking about Ben, trying to identify what felt so messy and uncomfortable about the situation. I realized that it would be deeply unwise to hire someone, even as short-term temporary labor, who had such a poor sense of boundaries and self-awareness. He clearly had no idea that he was being a pest, that he was pushing in a way that made his desired outcome less and less likely. I resolved to explain to him that he couldn’t come to us seeking both charitable aid, and to be taken on as an employee. Those relationships can’t overlap – at least, not in this fundamental way, right from the start. (If an established staff member gets into a hard time & needs a little help, there’s wiggle room there, of course. Still, it’s a touchy area.)

It helped me to find the word boundaries, to identify that the messiness and discomfort were stemming from Ben’s lack of awareness or regard for boundaries, and that I would be an idiot to employ someone like that. But it didn’t help my feelings about it. I felt – I feel – annoyed, angry with him. And that seems unfair – he’s desperate, he’s lonely, he’s angry, I shouldn’t blame him for being a mess. But I don’t know how to get rid of those feelings.

That evening, I talked with my Buildings and Grounds head. I knew by then that Ben had come by at least three times since his first contact on Sunday. I told him that I no longer thought of Ben as a candidate for employment. Things were just too messy. Folks here have had some history with poor boundaries; nobody’s eager to initiate another such relationship. And my B&G head is a hard-nosed pragmatist. If anything were going to work out with Ben, it would have to be because I was pushing for it, and at this point I am very disinclined to do so.

Thursday morning when he came by, we had the uncomfortable conversation where I told him that he couldn’t be someone seeking charity and someone seeking employment at the same time. I explained (again) that clergy aren’t set up to give away cash, because some of the folks who come seeking help may be substance abusers and we don’t want to empower that. He said, “Well, that’s where you use your discernment.” I thought but did not say, Oh, I am, and my discernment is telling me not to give you cash. He offered an unhappy rant about how his family wants him to give up his condo and give up his pets and go live somewhere more simply and cheaply, but how he would be miserable there. Finally – because it clearly wasn’t getting through to him at all how much he was shooting himself in the foot by showing up twice a day pushing us for more help – I told him that it was somewhat unusual for someone to come by twice a day like this. He got very offended and stood up to walk out of my office. I came after him, gave him $20 from my own wallet for gas, and told him to bring me his delinquent phone bill. I told him, “That’s the kind of help we’re set up to give. I can do that. I can’t fix your whole situation.” He got a little teary and asked me for a hug, and left. He’ll probably come by today with the phone bill.

OK, Jesus. What do I do with this guy? He pushes my buttons. He annoys me. I want him to go away. But You have been quite clear that kindness to the desperate, the mentally ill, the annoying, is a requirement of this path. What does kindness mean, in this situation?….

What would Jesus do for this guy? He’d probably ask him some incisive question that would help him see his own path forward, and send him away with a loaf of bread to get him through the day. I can provide the bread – or the $20 – but I don’t have the question, or the authority with which to ask, and to send.

What if I try to see Jesus’ face in Ben’s unshaven, anxious countenance? What then? Somehow paying his phone bill and asking him politely to leave us alone seems … inadequate, limited. I believe we have met the letter of the law of Matthew 25 - we welcomed him when a stranger, we provided him with some food. But he wants more from us, and I feel that we’ve given what we can, and I don’t know what Jesus would make of my pragmatic sense that we’ve got to set some limits or this guy will eat up our time for weeks to come.

I could invite him to keep coming to church here, to make this his spiritual home. But I fear that his desperation and lack of self-awareness mean that he’ll be hitting folks up for a ten-spot during coffee hour. I am really really not OK with that. Am I wrong?

Tilt says the Episcopal Church should set up a hotline, covered by trained social workers, for clergy who need advice on handling situations messier or weirder than our seminary training prepared us for. Until that very good idea gets implemented, at least I have a blog. I have you.

7 Responses to “W the f$%k WJD?”

  1. jillian Says:

    It doesn’t seem to me that you have the resources to help this guy, in any case. For one thing, he’s apparently living beyond his means and refuses to change his lifestyle to live within them. For another, on top of his money problems it seems he has mental health problems, which you’re not really qualified to deal with. The truth is that you don’t really KNOW what all his issues are, having just met him, although it seems to me that your intuition is warning you away from what may in fact be a dangerous situation.

    Are there community resources that might help, that you could connect him with?

    Your church should be a place of refuge, but it seems to me that there is a real danger of spending your refuge capital on a visitor and not having any left for your members. Will people avoid coffee hour if they know Mr Creepy is going to be there? Will you have less money to help your community if you spend it on him? Maybe that’s not PC to say, but I get to say it since I’m not clergy ;)

  2. thomas Says:

    I’m not sure about this, but it makes me think of the distinction between Healing and Curing. Healing is what people get in church, with friends, alone in the woods, that sort of thing. It seems like, to be cured, he needs to see a doctor & a social worker and submit job applications and things. I agree with you, I don’t think it’s your job to do the things that they would do.

    How can you help him find healing? Could you pray with him? Offer that he can come and pray with you more, but you’re not giving him any more money? Is he addicted to anything? Do you have someone who would bring him to a 12-step meeting? It’s not your job to heal him, only he and God can do that. But if he chooses to try to be healed, you could be a part of that.

  3. Baba Yaga Says:

    All these opinions offered at my customary rate of $0.02/each.

    At the request of our Rector, our vestry set a policy: no more than $100 a month, no more than $300 a year. No cash ever, no checks, nothing spendable. Grocery vouchers, meds vouchers, bills, ok, we might pay them but we are never, never giving out money.

    When you get out your wallet you are asking to be robbed. Start taking your pit bull to work with you. WOOF.

    Talk it over with your local NAMI. Also, cops are your friends.

  4. Eli Says:

    +1 to phone up the cops, tell them there is not a problem right now but this could become a problem in the future, ask them if they know about this person. They won’t tell you of any possible criminal/mental health history, but will make a note.

    +1 to no more money in any form.

    Is there a community service hotline where you can put him in touch with mental health services, fuel bill help, etc.?

  5. the other goddaughter Says:

    I have to confess my first thought is “wow, you must have been sheltered at St. Cosmus.” This was my daily life at my last call. One major challenge was keeping my sexton from taking them all home and becoming den mother to a bunch of unpredictable and probably unbalanced people.

    I agree on no more cash, and forming connections to community resources, stat. One frustrating thing in my last context was the fact that the local safety net was full of holes and often we just had nowhere to refer. Here, (a) the local safety net is much stronger and more comprehensive (and several of those agencies the parish had a role in founding) and (b) my secretary has an extensive background with this kind of work, knows everybody (including who are the spongers to whom nothing should be given under any circumstances) and can make all kinds of referrals and connections. It’s pretty ideal.

    As for the larger questions – if you do become Ben’s pastor, it may be necessary to reclaim the pastor’s ancient role as the challenger, the asker of hard questions. THis is, obviously, much easier said than done.

  6. weirdbird Says:

    Thank you all for all of this – I appreciate the wisdom in each of these responses. Still finding my way through the situation… Ben keeps coming to services, though he’s been giving me more space… We shall see.
    (And TOG, you’ve been to St Cosmus – of course we were sheltered there! I think somebody came to the door looking for a handout once, to my knowledge, in my 2.5 years there…)

  7. the other goddaughter Says:

    Well, hey, if he’s showing up to services, that’s HUGE. In three years at Former Church I think I had one household who were recipients of discretionary assistance first and later became active in the parish. And they were unusual in that their FIRST contact with us was seeking help with a demonic presence in their apartment. (Long story, would be happy to tell it in more detail in some other forum!)

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