As a pastor, I field calls at least a couple times a month asking for money from strangers. It's one of the harder things I do, because I almost always have to say no, then I spend a day or two feeling guilty about it while at the same time knowing I did the right thing. Trying to communicate with people in desperate need is hard, so I want to pass some wisdom along.
A. Go to church. The most likely people to help in your time of crisis are people who know you, love you, and with whom you have a history. If you don't want anything to do with church, you should consider how hypocritical it is to ask for help from people you don't like enough to sit with for an hour. Also, remember that you are not the only person in need. There are people who do go to church who are also in need and they will get attention more immediately than you will. This is a logistical fact as well as a matter of responsible benevolence. When our resources are limited we are compelled to distribute them as wisely as we can.
B. Start with proximity not "A". Going through the phone book is a good way to solicit rejections (think "telemarketer"). If you do not attend church and you need help, start with the churches closest to your house. You are more likely to get help from a neighbor than from a person whose location you cannot even pinpoint. Churches are part of their communities and want to be seen that way. They want to see their neighbors thrive and are much more likely to see you than strangers far away. Besides, they will always harbor hope that if you do decide to go to church, you'll go to a close one that had your back when you were in need.
C. Don't call, come. In the first place, a personal visit exerts more pressure than a voice on the phone. If you really want help, this is a surer way of getting it. However, on a less cynical note, the phone is impersonal. A pastor cannot tell a thing about you over the phone, cannot respond to facial expressions, gestures, and body language, has no way of guessing whether you are lying or truthful. When a person has limited information upon which to make a financial decision, it is better to give them more information, not less.
D. Don't ask for prayer if what you really want is money. A pastor will pray with everyone who asks and many who do not. Rest assured, if you ask for money, you will likely get a prayer too. I have fielded calls asking for prayer and when I prayed and did not read between the lines, the person on the other end of the phone became irate, as if I should be able to hear thoughts.
E. Be prepared to invest in the process. Not money, of course, but you cannot expect a person to give to you if you want to maintain a high wall of privacy. Nobody wants to be up in your business, but this is not a bureaucracy that gives based upon statistics, these are caring people who give based upon relationships. You will be asked about your situation, your family, and your prospects for long-term recovery. You will likely be asked for a bill (like an electric bill) that can be paid so that money does not change hands and become subject to abuse. Even this is a concession, so don't be offended. Your benefactor has no way of knowing whether you are prone to abuse money, so he or she wants to be sure the gift does what it is meant to do. Remember, it's the church's money to use as they think best. That makes a few basic things the pastor's business. If you have other resources, you are likely to be turned down. An expensive or newish car in the driveway, an apparent cell phone, or a TV dish on the roof are means by which you may be helping yourself and are arguments against true need. Consequently, asking for help with your cell plan or cable bill is probably not a good move.
F. Offer to attend services ... sincerely. These are folks who are getting you out of a jam. The least you can do is come around, if nothing else, to express gratitude. Here's the thing, the pastor will not betray your confidence. He will never tell the congregation that you are in dire straights or even that their money helped you. You need never reveal that. That's ok. Gratitude can be expressed to your own satisfaction without it ever being articulated. However, it might also be good to see what these nice people do, what they believe that makes them willing to help a stranger, what makes them generous and kind. You might have something besides money to gain by getting to know them and learning what they learn.
G. Don't expect seconds. If you received a gift from a church one time you will not be given a second gift. This is not the church being self-serving, it is simple math. They will help as many people as they can and they will not help fewer people multiple times. Repeat gifts would be interpreted as irresponsible behavior on their part. However, repeat requests also make the pastor feel used and he or she will not volunteer to continue in that role. Even church members are seldom helped more than once, for two reasons. One, there isn't enough money to go around, and two, nobody is anxious to create a relationship of dependency or entitlement.
H. None of this guarantees a response. If the church is small, as most are, they are likely struggling financially. They are not "refusing" to help you. They are unable to help you. There is a vast difference. When a person says, "Nobody will help me," it is a sure way of commuinicating to the person who is saying no, "You don't care," and that is probably not true. If you want to know what the Church's checking account balance looks like, look at your own. They are probably similar. The pastor feels bad about not being able to help. Rest assured, the pastor's heart is that nobody does without basic needs. Arguing your point, emphasizing your need, accusing him of calousness, or calling repeatedly will not change the fact that the stone has no blood in it.
I. Remember that smaller requests will get a hearing faster than larger ones. If you call asking someone to pay your rent or fill your oil tank, a prospect that can quickly exceed $500 you are asking for a lot and nobody is small-hearted when they say no. If you can rearrange your finances though, asking family to help with a bill, and getting a church to buy your groceries, you may be able to creatively meet your need. A church will much more readily meet an affordable need, and food is among the most vital and understood needs. However, you should also be prepared to get what you get. The pastor might just drive around and get food donations from members and then deliver them to your house, so, once again, no money changes hands. That's the nature of being in need.
J. Finally, know before you get into the situation that the pastor's resource is primarily spiritual, not financial. If the church is small, he or she is probably living on a sub-standard wage too. This is a person who likely knows what it feels like to come up short and survives on other things. Jesus said, "Man does not live on bread alone," and the pastor knows what that means. When they offer to pray for you, it is not an empty gesture. They are taking you to their own personal resource, and the fact that it is intangible does not mean it is not valuable. Take it from a pastor, everyone can use all the prayers they can get.
Pastor, Norma Mennonite Church.