I’ve been surprised as a member of the RS presidency just what percent of our leadership meetings consist of discussing requests for assistance and our plans to attempt to fulfill those needs. As you can imagine, such requests vary in terms of reasonableness, both in scope and specifics.
I’ve also been listening to the History of England podcast on my commute, most recently the part about the dissolution of the monasteries under Henry VIII. Interestingly, most of the monasteries that were first targeted were the local ones that were supposed to provide relief in smaller areas. These religious orders were supposed to be caring for the poor, and they were being shut down under the guise of being corrupt (the reality is much more mixed than pure corruption–yes, there were some abuses, but also, many in these orders were attempting to fulfill what they considered their order’s Christian duty). A statistic was shared in the podcast that roughly 7-9% of their money went directly to assist the local poor. That seemed like a rather low number to me. The rest of the funds must have gone to support the organization itself, its inhabitants (the monks and nuns and so forth). Some of these groups made goods (such as small beer or herbs) that could be sold in addition to selling indulgences.
So, what do dissolved monasteries have to do with the ministering program? Aside from the obvious similarities between the correlation movement and the dissolution, one observation is that these orders were intended to provide local support to those in need, much like our ministering program is today. When they were dissolved by the newly supreme royalty (just a little Henry VIII dig), and their goods were taken, their inhabitants turned out, and their livelihood made unlively, they could no longer fill that gap, which is one reason there was some unrest among the local and more outlying residents in the wake of the dissolution. There was suddenly more need than resource to fill that need, and instead of feeding the poor, the King’s coffers were enriched and his cronies suddenly got to live in estates with names like Northanger Abbey. 
But I digress. One key difference between the ministering currently done and that done in the earliest days of the Relief Society is that now the majority of our time is spent discussing requests that were made by ward members, and in the early days, the group was formed to do charitable works in general for the unwashed masses, not just those within the group helping others within the group. And those requests we are evaluating are sometimes odd, sometimes onerous, and sometimes outrageous!
I’m in an online group for those who are currently serving in a Relief Society Presidency, and this is also a hot topic of discussion, usually framed as “What should I do with this [weird] request?” One sister called the church’s hotline to get some advice on a long-term in-home health care request and got some great guidance, that many sisters found helpful. The advice was:
- no long term services
- no personal hygiene care
- no financial management
- no administering medications
Ministers should be friends, not full-time caregivers. My own principles are somewhat similar to these, and for a lot of the same reasons, but I’d add a couple more that are not strictly liability-based:
- Anything you can ask the sisters to do, you should also ask the elders to do. This counts both ways. Men can bring in a meal. Women can move boxes.
- People shouldn’t be asked to do for free what they do for a living.
- Don’t ask someone to do something for free that you can afford to pay for.
When my husband and I left corporate, we opened a small business that does professional house cleaning. Before we started this business we talked to friends in Salt Lake who opened an in home elder care business. They explained that one of their biggest competitors is the Relief Society! Which is kind of crazy, when you think about it. Now that I’m in this type of business (personal, in the home, with potential liability issues) I realize that church members volunteering have several risks (as do homeowners) when these services are provided for free:
- No training. People who are performing the work may not have a clue how to do this type of work, even if you think “everybody knows how to do this!” If there are tools or products or chemicals, they could be misused. If there is an expectation that the work will be done well, that’s probably unrealistic.
- No insurance. If something is damaged in the home, who is going to bear that cost? Will the person making the request expect the church or the volunteers to pay to replace things?
- No workman’s comp. If a worker is injured in the home, theoretically, the home owner bears that responsibility and could be sued. Likewise, if this is a church-sanctioned activity, someone could sue the church.
Not to mention that there’s an ethical issue with providing for free what local businesses use to make their living! Other questions that I’ve seen come up:
- Is it a need or a luxury? For example, if the request is to do a service in their second home, is that not by default a luxury?
- Is it something that is a monetary benefit to the recipient? For example, if we ask non-working women to drive a woman to her career job, is that fair when she is paid, and they are not? Should ward members do a move so that the person moving can pocket the relocation funds their company provides?
- Gratitude, not entitlement. Boy, nothing irks me more than trying to drum up volunteers when the person making the request is bossy and entitled about it, but when they are humble and grateful, there is nothing more I like than to help them out. I’m pretty sure we all feel the same way.
But switching to the other side, I can seriously see why local members often feel entitled to free help, not just when the need is dire. They have, after all, potentially paid 10% of their lifetime of earnings into the organization, so why shouldn’t they be able to rely on it in their time of need or even time of want, even if that need is longer term? I noted when I was younger that although people frequently joked about tithing being “fire insurance,” it really was a form of socialist insurance that would prevent people from going hungry, would get them through an illness, or would help them through a bout of unemployment.
Now that I’m older, though, I see that while this may work (with some caveats and limits) in the case of welfare funds, it doesn’t always work due to two main limitations:
- Tithing goes to the Church headquarters, but is distributed locally and has limitations as a result. More of your tithing money went to pay for college educations of BYU students (through the subsidy) than you will ever see in Bishop’s storehouse goods.
- Volunteer resources (people who, like you, paid their tithing to the organization) are not limitless and have to be allocated based on local needs.
As you may expect, the squeaky wheel often gets the grease, and 80% of the help goes to 20% of the people. That’s just the nature of the beast. If that’s because those 20% lost the hardship roulette, that’s usually not a problem. If it’s because they are the most entitled 20%, that’s not great.
- Do you see your tithing as an entitlement to local help when needed or do you think the way it is allocated is unfair based on most help needed being local?
- Where would you draw the line in handling ward member requests for help if you were creating guidelines?
- What requests have you heard of that raised an eyebrow for you?
 I guess H8 was a Republican, favoring tax breaks for the wealthy favorites, lots of warmongering to prove his manhood, and assuming the locals would take care of the poor through charity even as he stripped them of the means to do so through taxation and the dissolution of the monasteries.