Like many people my age, I grew up in a household with a mother who was a great fan of Oprah Winfrey. I had often dreamed that someday I would be a guest on the Oprah Show partly because I figured that would be the easiest way to ensure that my mother would have the chance to meet her. Unfortunately, Oprah managed to retire and start her network before I accomplished anything amazing enough to catch the eye of her producers. Nonetheless, there is a piece of advice that I obtained from watching her for all these years.
I don’t remember the exact day or even the topic of the episode, but somehow Oprah got on the topic of dealing with her friends and relatives after she was wealthy. She talked about how people would ask her to borrow exorbitant sums of money just because they knew she was a billionaire. Eventually, she became suspicious and wondered if the people in her environment were making foolish decisions that placed them in a lot of debt because they were confident that she would bail them out. As a result, she decided to stop being their designated safety net.
When I first heard this story, it bothered me. My mother and her siblings grew up pretty poor and managed to survive by pooling their resources over the years. She and her siblings passed a lot of those values onto the next generation in our family. We all feel that it is very important to go out on a limb to support each other’s dreams and take care of each other when we are weak. Aside from my mother and a few close friends, my cousins from that side of my family are among my greatest supporters. I couldn’t imagine ever being in a position where I would choose not to help one of them financially because they have always been there for me.
As time progressed, I began to understand what Oprah meant. The fact remains that my cousins and I were not raised in the same harsh environment that forced our parents to cling to each other for survival. As individuals, we are more educated than our parents were. We all have better jobs than they ever had. In most cases, we are living lives that they never dreamed existed. Nonetheless, we are still living under a lot of the same mindsets that our parents developed while trying to combat the forces of poverty in their lives.
This concept became clearer to me just recently when I was talking with my mother to try to refine some of our church’s policies with respect to the missionaries giving donations to people in need. After a few years of rather liberal giving, the treasurer and I decided that we would need to cut back if we ever wanted to move out of our pastor’s living room into a larger space. The only problem was that a lot of financial issues seemed to be coming up within the congregation. I guess we should have expected as much given this harsh economy.
I felt a bit guilty for a little while that we would not be able to help all of our members with their financial difficulties. Then, I decided to do a bit of investigating and I realized something disturbing–some of our members view the church’s missionary funds as a potential financial safety net. While the fund was initially created for emergency situations, it seemed as if people were becoming more willing to fall into emergency situations because they knew we would try to rescue them. Oprah’s logic finally made sense to me.
The reality is that some people will never try to work their problems out on their own as long as there is someone else willing to take them on. Oprah realized that her attempts to help her friends and family were actually crippling them by making them more dependent on her. In order to truly help them, she had to allow them to face the consequences of their actions. This is not to say that emergency funds are not helpful. I personally do not know where I would be without the support of several generous relatives. At the same time, emergency funds and generous relatives should never become a person’s “go-to” strategy for survival.
As the church, we are called to teach people to depend on God for their provision. That doesn’t mean that we as individuals do not play a role in such provision. However, it does mean that we need to be close enough to God to know exactly which problems in this world that he has called us to solve. No one person can be a jack of all trades. No one congregation can solve every problem in its community. Still, if we work on completing our individual God-given missions, we can make a difference in this world just as God intended.
Check out the second portion of this post here.