ellen2Deacons know the tough decisions involved in helping people in need, even though it looks easy for Ellen Degeneres. Because she is best known among conservative Christians for her stance on gay marriage, her “help” for poor people may be falling under the radar.

Degeneres sure looks generous giving away thousands of dollars on her hit television show. The award-winning host comes off as the kindest, sweetest person in the world as she solicits needy ones to make their best pitch for her aid.

Coworkers Danielle and Norma have both filed for bankruptcy and now depend on the bus and a local food bank. Ellen surprises them with ten thousand dollars and a shiny red Hyundai. On another program, she awards a down-on-her-luck Ruby Tuesday waitress a flat-screen television, a hefty check and a new car for picking up the twenty-seven-dollar tab of two National Guards. Ellen’s representative shares lots of love with a Philadelphia family at a home they won a year earlier but can’t afford to furnish. Now they have furniture.

The lucky ones squeal, scream, leap up and down in ecstasy. They’ve hit the jackpot! The audience cheers euphorically. The Queen of Nice glances at the camera, and smiles.

So what’s the problem?

First, are massive giveaways the most effective way to help people? Can you truly appreciate an unearned bonanza, let alone steward it wisely? When winners don’t understand the value of a dollar, winnings can disappear in a jiffy. After taxes, and when the well runs dry, the “lucky” ones can’t even afford to change the oil in their new car. The receiver is left empty-handed, praying for another handout.

Second, doesn’t this create false hope for viewers dying for their number to come up? After all, are they any less entitled than those on TV? Instead of focusing on reaching their full potential for legitimate earnings, they lie on the couch waiting for lightning to strike, often overspending in the meantime with the delusion that Ellen, Ed McMahon or some other money bag will soon bail them out.

Finally, what’s in it for Ellen? Of course we must help the helpless in appropriate, empowering ways. And we may also champion systemic reform for the working poor. Deacons think about these things all the time (cf. Acts 2:45; Acts 6:1–4; II Thess. 3:10). But is that Ellen’s agenda? Good intentions notwithstanding, it appears she’s exploiting a low-income demographic for publicity strokes while dancing all the way to the bank. And do not motivations get confused when philanthropy is broadcast on national television rather than accomplished incognito (cf. Matt. 6:3)?

Before we get all teary-eyed and goose-bumped over a poor family raking in cash and a car, let’s dare to ask how best to help folks get ahead. While Ellen makes for entertaining daytime television, it has yet to deserve an Emmy for philanthropic effects. And this get-rich-quick mentality in our culture makes diaconal work all the more challenging.

To encourage best practices, diaconates would do well to ask the following questions:

  • Does the gift promote empowerment or entitlement?
  • Does it encourage independence or dependence?
  • What are the possible unintended consequences of the gift?
  • Could the cash or gift be diverted for an unintended purpose?
  • Would job or financial training be of more use to the recipients?
  • Do the recipients need help accessing public assistance?
  • Are they making the rounds to other churches or making progress in getting back on their feet?

This article by H. David Schuringa originally appeared in Christian Renewal and is reprinted with permission.