The Four Rules of Helping

by | Apr 26, 2021 | 6 comments

The Four Rules of Helping

“I’m tired of giving people $40 toward a shut-off notice, or a plastic grocery bag of Spam and crackers, or a one night’s stay in a hotel as our feeble attempt at outreach here,” Rev. Tina Cross told me, her voice rising with conviction. “I don’t want a vision that says, ‘Everyone will be fed.’ It simply doesn’t address the core issues here.”

The core issue at the church Tina and her husband served was that the people who came for help weren’t really being helped. Sure, the money and the food assisted them temporarily, but their baseline situation never changed appreciably. She knew that if she really wanted the church’s efforts to make a difference, they would have to do something different. These are important awarenesses to know about when it comes to helping as a church leader.

Do you find yourself in a situation like that?

Do you want to help people in a way that makes a real difference but you’re not sure how? You need to know about The Four Rules of Helping. Click To Tweet

The Origin of The Rules

I first learned these rules when I was in early recovery. Now that I was getting better, I wanted to help everybody else. My sponsor gave me a discernment tool that I have never forgotten. “Before you go out and save the world,” she said, “better run your ideas through these four rules.” I share them with you, fellow church leaders, because they apply to “do-gooders” everywhere.

A cross in someone's hands.

The Four Rules of Helping

Here are four rules for helping as a church leader:

1. The person has to need help. This first rule is crucial to keep in mind. There are all kinds of people you might like to change, fix, or re-direct. But if they don’t need help, keep your hands off. Your efforts will be wasted. Bottom line, each person has free will. Even if you don’t like or approve of their lives, if free will is good enough for God, it has to be good enough for you. Move on to be of service to others who actually need help.

2. The person has to want help. So let’s say your person needs help. Good. You and they are on the right track. The next question is, do they want help? Truth be told, some folks are in desperate need of help. But unless they want help, your efforts won’t make a bit of difference. Again, remember the reality of free will. Move on.

3. The person has to want my help. If your person needs help, and they want help, then consider the third rule: they have to want your help. This is where you have to be honest. Are you a fit? Does your congregation connect with the kind of person you want to help? Is it a good match? Because if it’s not, no amount of intention will make the match. You can either partner with the kind of group that appeals to the folks you want to help, or move on. If you are a fit, don’t leap into helping without checking out the final rule. It’s the most important one of all.

4. I can only help them to help themselves. If your person needs help, wants help and they are okay with YOUR help, then you’ve got a green light to offer a particular kind of help. This help isn’t about fixing them, changing them or saving them from themselves. Instead, you can do something even more valuable: help them to help themselves. This form of help is called empowerment. The definition of empowerment says it all: The process of becoming stronger and more confident, especially in controlling one’s life and claiming one’s rights. God gives us agency. Your empowering help will reconnect them with that agency.

Our spiritual superpower.

Let’s get back to Rev. Tina Cross, the example that kicked off this entire idea of getting better at helping as a church leader. When she and her congregation moved away from quick fixes, they landed upon the kind of vision that met all the criteria of the Four Rules of Helping. Their vision became, “Equipping people to thrive.”

I love this vision because it’s easy to remember, applies to congregation and community, is Biblical, and offers so much more than a quick fix. She wanted people to be able to see themselves in a new light: as new creations in Christ; as capable, confident, able, worthy human beings. People who had what it takes to rise to new heights.

Offering a quick fix can feel good in the moment. But it’s heartbreaking when you realize that it didn’t really make a real difference in someone else’s life.

So, how do you stop helping and start empowering others? One way to do that is to learn the best practices of creating a culture of renewal in your setting. Reach out for more information on how to do just that!

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  1. Donald A Ford

    These are 4 great rules for helping others. I would include a couple more I have learned after helping those in need for over 25 years. 1. Learn to understand where they are coming from. That is understanding poverty (most people in need are from poverty). 2. Ask questions of them. I learned from being a salesperson before ministry, “Tellin’ ain’t selling, asking is.” Just a couple of thoughts at add.

    • Rebekah Simon-Peter

      Don, I appreciate your additions to the conversation. I love the idea of asking questions. We can learn so much from and about others when we ask instead of assume! As you say, “tellin aint selling!”

  2. Gwenda

    These are wonderful, basic principles. I would, however, like to mention that when it comes to persons with serious mental illness, due to the illness itself, many are unable to see their need for assistance or treatment. These are very complicated situations to help! However, it doesn’t mean we need to ignore them. But the ways we help them might not be in the ways that we THINK they need help (although they probably do). Rather, we can show them love and respectfully treat them like human beings, perhaps learning their name, and just letting them know we care. To address the much larger problem of their untreated mental illness, we can learn more about mental illness and offer support to their families, and to those living with mental illness who ARE receptive to help. Organizations like National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) and Fresh Hope (latter is Christian-based) offer ways to help individuals and also to help a congregation do that.

    • Rebekah Simon-Peter

      Gwenda, you have added an important dynamic to the conversation. Thank you. I appreciate your respectful approach toward the topic. I’ve heard nothing but good about NAMI as a community resource.


    Rebekah, Thanks for sharing your perspective on discernment . I just used this idea to frame a personal story I just wrote.

    • Rebekah Simon-Peter

      Thanks Bobby! You probably recognize these four rules of helping from other aspects of your life. Helpful in ministry, too!


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