As the partial government shutdown nears its third full week, churches across America are reaching out to employees who are furloughed or working without pay. The financial impact of the shutdown, currently the second-longest in U.S. history, is expected to intensify as paydays come and go without checks.
One congregation stepping up to help is First United Methodist Church in Manhattan, Kansas. On January 8, the church set aside $15,000 from its discretionary account to establish a Barnabas Fund for impacted workers. Two days later, two families had contacted the church for assistance.
The Government Shutdown and the Golden Rule
First UMC Pastor Troy Bowers tells ChurchLeaders.com the idea came from church leaders and fits in well with the congregation’s “DNA as a community church.” People requesting money from the fund don’t need to be members of First UMC or even people of faith, he says. “You just have to be a person in need.” It’s simple, he says: “A family needs $500, we loan them $500.”
Barnabas Fund money can go toward expenses such as mortgage payments, medical bills and other basic needs, according to the pastor. The church considers the assistance as interest-free loans or one-time grants, but no paperwork is involved. “We don’t sign a contract or put anyone’s name on a dotted line,” Bowers tells a Topeka TV station. “It’s all honor system. If they can repay it, great; if they can’t, that’s fine too.”
After previous shutdowns, Bowers says, the government has paid employees retroactively. If that happens this time, First UMC will welcome any repayments people are able to make. “Then we can use [the money] to help other people,” the pastor says.
The shutdown is affecting Manhattan, Kansas, in several ways, according to Bowers. The town has a small airport, with TSA officials. At Kansas State University, some federal employees conduct government research. And the state’s Agriculture Department is located in Manhattan, the agricultural center of Kansas.
First UMC welcomes donations to its Barnabas Fund. Bowers tells ChurchLeaders.com that other local congregations have contacted him, indicating a willingness to pitch in if more money is needed.
In addition to helping furloughed and unpaid workers, the Barnabas Fund benefits the congregation as a whole. “It gives people something positive and encouraging to focus on, instead of just a course of lament—or even disgust” about the shutdown, Bowers says. “Innocent families are in the crosshairs, and it doesn’t seem fair. But this fund gives church members a chance to do something about it.”
When asked if Bowers views this outreach as part of the church’s Great Commission work, he said it goes beyond that too. “I also view it through the lens of the Golden Rule,” he says. “If we were in this situation, we’d appreciate people offering assistance to us.”
The fund is a great way to embrace the larger community, Bowers says. People in Manhattan know that First UMC is open for funerals, for example, and now they know the church can assist during financial difficulties too.
Effects of the Government Shutdown Are Wide-Ranging
An estimated 800,000 federal employees are being affected by the partial shutdown, which began on December 22. About 380,000 people are on furlough from agencies ranging from NASA and the State Department to the IRS and the National Park Service. Another 420,000 federal employees are working without pay, though some have started calling in sick.
Consequences are extending beyond workers and their families. Restaurants, hotels and driving services that rely on business from federal workers also are feeling the pinch. If the shutdown lasts until January 11, many federal workers will miss a paycheck. And if it lasts until January 18, funds will run out for federal district courts. Some cases already are being delayed.