Paternalism is defined by the dictionary as “the policy or practice on the part of people in positions of authority of restricting the freedom and responsibilities of those subordinate to them in the subordinates’ supposed best interest.” The word comes from the Latin “Pater” meaning “father.” It is a term whose use is not restricted to the relationship between a father and his children, however. Most of the time paternalism is seen as a negative behavior that restricts the freedom of those upon whom it is imposed.

I don’t aspire to be paternalistic to other people. But that is easier said than done.

“Pastor, is there any way you could help with a tank of gas?”
“Pastor, can you help with Christmas. My kids don’t even have a tree?”

I field requests from people who come to me as strangers in need of help. Somehow they have identified the church as a place where they can get help. We don’t run a social service agency and we don’t have budget for buying tanks of gasoline or providing cash assistance to those who are in need. But for some, often those who do not participate in any form of church activities, the church is seen as a place of last resort when they cannot meet their needs. Once, years ago, I helped a family who needed gas to get home from a funeral of a relative. The next morning there were six vehicles in the church parking lot because the recipient of the tank of gas reported at a local shelter that I gave away “free gas.” For the record, there is no such thing as “free” gas. It all has to be paid for. And yes, there are weeks, including the one just passed where I pumped more gas into the cars of others than I did into my own. I paid for it all out of my own pocket.

But that isn’t the point.

The point is the nagging question in the back of my mind about whether or not I am doing what is best for others. Making someone dependent upon my generosity, or even my presence, doesn’t solve their problem and it may be restricting their freedom. It quickly becomes paternalism.

“Pastor, our committee needs more money to do our work.”

I also field a lot of requests from members of the church who are dedicated and involved and who are trying to do what is best for our institution. So I invite the individual to meet with the people who serve on the stewardship and budget department of our church. There is a big difference, however, between arriving at a meeting with a wish list of projects that one would like to see funded and arriving with a serious budget proposal. In the former case, the list probably contains necessary items and expenses that the entire church would want to approve. But by presenting it as a wish list instead of a serious budget proposal, the one asking loses the ability to prioritize the list. Since no church can afford everything that is wished, someone has to sift and sort and decide what is most important. Taking the wish list to the Department of Stewardship and Budget results in turning over that process to the department. It also means that the one with the list can blame someone else if an item isn’t funded.

The result is nearly as paternalistic as handing out a limited amount of financial assistance to strangers.

In its best sense, paternalism is behavior that can motivate growth. A father seeks a relationship with his children that helps them to grow up. If support is granted with careful attention to increasing freedom and responsibility and fostering independence rather than dependencies, it can be a vital part of a child’s growth to maturity.

There are times when support is appropriate. There are also times when the most loving action is saying, “No.” And there are times when I am tired and overwhelmed and I respond to a plea for help by thinking of the easiest short term solution to the immediate problem.

I know I have been guilty of paternalism in my relationships to others.

I know that there are many times when I simply perform a task that someone else should be doing because it becomes the easiest way to get the job done. I have been guilty of contributing to dependencies.

God, on the other hand, continues to act for the freedom of the people of God. That is, of course, evident in the dramatic moments of history. God provided a ram to Abraham to free all future generations from the practice of human sacrifice. God led the people of Israel out of slavery in Egypt into a life of freedom. God became incarnate in Jesus to offer freedom from the fear of death. It is equally true, however, that God works for human freedom in smaller and more subtle ways. God provided manna in the wilderness, and not seven course meals. When the people complained about the food they had to eat, God didn’t change the menu. God gave the freedom for the people to worship other gods, but God did not liberate them from the responsibility for their behavior.

God has provided us with a wonderful and compassionate community where people reach out with generosity to others. And our church isn’t just some kind of mutual aid society. We genuinely want to help others and are continually reaching out to those who live their lives beyond the walls of our congregation. There have been times when we thought that we were helping and our actions weren’t the best thing for those in need.

I’m pretty sure that some of the helping actions of this generation aren’t really enabling people to solve their problems. We do our best, but we do make mistakes.

So I try. I try to listen carefully for the real needs as well as to the words. I try to help when I am able to do so. I try not to give gifts with strings attached. I try to offer help that honors the dignity and agency of the recipient. But I worry that I am being paternalistic.

Perhaps the reason I have the freedom to hurt as well as the freedom to help is that God is working on my maturity. There is much that I have yet to learn. Maybe I should be thinking beyond my wish list when I take my prayers to God.

Copyright (c) 2016 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!