Would a separate charity ever be helpful?
The short answer is ‘yes’, but only when the time is right. The trigger for creating a separate charity is probably when a) it interacts closely with the world, particularly in the area of finance or of partnering with a secular agency; b) when the risks of this aspect of the church’s ministry appear so significant that it is worth ‘ring fencing’ from the core church finances; c) if the ‘ownership’ of the ministry does not sit fair and square in the church vision but it is something that some members are keen to do and the church wants to support in part (see ‘Proceed with caution’ below).
Many secular donors do not like giving to the church; they feel their donations may be used for ‘proselytising’. Also, any substantial donor will wish to see your annual audited accounts before making a donation. Since these probably show a significant turnover of funds due to the generosity of your people a donor may, understandably, ask ‘Why do you need my money since you appear to have plenty?’ They do not, of course, see all the other ministries the church is funding!
So if you are seeking funds from outside sources it can be helpful to have a charity with separately audited accounts to show why donor funding is needed.
In terms of partnership I counsel that you join with others only after having carefully assessed benefits and disadvantages. Unequal yoking can force you to compromise your values about how overtly you are able to apply Christian values and principles in the ministry context. It also affects such issues as employing only Christians, but this is a minefield I do not wish to pursue here.
Proceed with caution
So there can be times when having a charitable structure which is separate from the church may be beneficial. Why then do I strike a note of caution? There are several reasons; here are just two.
- Independence. Ministry among those who are poor is often led by very passionate and focussed individuals. Praise God for such people! However, they may be quite ‘tunnel-visioned’ and get frustrated by the lack of priority ‘their’ ministry receives within a church structure, or the perceived slow decision-making which is sometimes found in elderships. So, if there is a separate charity it has the potential of giving freedom for such people ‘just to get on with it’ if they get frustrated, not recognising the value and importance of such ministry being embedded in the life of the church under the spiritual oversight of the elders.
- Classification. Ministry with those who are poor or disadvantaged is about reaching people. However, their identity is often seen as being defined by their problem (‘the homeless’ etc.) not their character and personality. You may have noticed that I have been careful not to speak of ‘the poor’ any more than I would speak of ‘the disabled’. First we are all people. Second we may have a problem of poverty or disability. That problem should not define our identity. Having a separate charity tends to reinforce this focus on the problem (which a charity is set up to solve) rather than on the person. Charities are often referred to by their focus – an AIDS charity, a homeless charity – which reinforces people being defined by such classification. (I acknowledge that the Bible does refer to ‘the poor’ and so I shall from time to time use this shorthand now that I have made the point!).
I shall refer to examples and challenges such as these as the series develops, but next time we will consider implications to the local church.