Care-giving (like parenting) is not for the sake of friendship, it is for the other. It is not give-and-take, but give-and-give.
I am a care-giver to an elderly lady who has no family except a nephew many miles away, with whom she only talks twice a year, but who never comes to see her. One day, she took a two-carat diamond ring off her finger and gave it to me. No one was around to see this. What do you do as a Christian?
What do you do?
The first thing I do is remember analogous experiences I have had. Perhaps the one situation most similar to this one occurred in my pastoral ministry many years ago. While visiting in the lifelong home of a 90-year-old parishioner, she asked if I wouldn’t please take her old upright piano home with me for the benefit of my spouse and future benefit of my children.
Well, Miss Daisy didn’t put it that way exactly. That is how I later reinterpreted the offer in an attempt to justify accepting it. It’s not for me, it’s for them. What the would-be giver actually said was something about not wanting her vintage 1914 piano being put out to auction after her nephews and nieces placed her in a nursing home. That transition was imminent, and though “auction” was never mentioned in her presence, both she and I—and they—knew what had to be done with her accumulation of a century of stuff.
The old upright had been a teen-age birthday gift from doting parents. It was worth relatively little money now—maybe $150 or so, the auctioneer later told me—but remained of significant sentimental value to Miss Daisy. She wanted the preacher to have it. Who was I to say no?
The next thing I do as a Christian in this sort of situation is pay attention to my God-given sense of moral qualms. Something in the pit of my stomach indicates that all is not well here, nor in the situation above involving the anonymous care-giving congregant. So what else is going on of moral significance?
In both cases, there is a “care-giver” relationship going on. Regardless of the particulars of that role (professional or lay, pastoral or medical), a care-giver role assumes a relationship that is “fiduciary” and “beneficent.” In other words, it is based in trust and goodness. The care-giver is one who can be trusted to do what is good for another who is in a relatively vulnerable position of needing care.
Power in such a relationship is unequally distributed, as are the benefits. The care-giver is relatively powerful in the face of another’s vulnerability, and that power is to be used solely for the benefit of the care-receiver. It is a one-way relationship in intent, if not always in effect.
One reason, then, for the moral qualms I feel in a situation of gift-receiving while care-giving, is that the relational dynamics have shifted. Instead of giving, I have become the beneficiary in this relationship; and in the process, I have placed myself at risk as well. Even if I have not used my power to coerce the material “gift,” there is the likelihood of someone else assuming that I have acted inappropriately and in an untrustworthy manner. I feel, and truly am, vulnerable in that regard.
Even though “no one was around to see” this sort of transaction, the giver is free to talk, the heir-apparent may ask questions or harbor suspicions, and, more importantly, other care-receivers may wonder what will be expected of them in order to continue receiving my care.
Also, gift-giving, like care-giving, wields a sort of power relative to the receiver. The moment the gift leaves her hand and is received by mine, relational power shifts along with it. Obligations often ensue, or at least expectations of some particular response beyond mere gratitude. The relationship has become complicated rather than one marked clearly as “fiduciary” and “beneficent.”
In a friendship, such “give-and-take” is expected. But care-giving (like parenting) is not for the sake of friendship, it is for the other. It is not give-and-take, but give-and-give.
Power is a good, as is the ideal of shared power, of empowering the weak to maximize their own caring potential of self and others. Yet this must be done by means that do not diminish one’s own power to do good. Will gift-receiving while care-giving have that effect?
And yes, receiving the hospitality of a cup of coffee clearly is different in scale, and effect, than accepting family heirlooms—no matter how sincere the offer.
So what should be done?
· Refuse or return the gift—graciously and with gratitude for the offering.
· Explain that my care is given without obligation (beyond the terms of my employer’s contract), and that I cannot accept gifts beyond that very valued one of our relationship—particularly not material gifts of monetary value.
· Elicit and listen to the motivations—and concerns—underlying the gift-giving.
· Discuss alternative means of allaying those concerns, including potential alternative and trustworthy recipients of this gift.
· Thank God for renewed clarity of relationship and of conscience.
Tarris Rosell is associate professor of pastoral care and practice of ministry at Central Baptist Theological Seminary.