A woman who had experienced a painful divorce consulted me for counseling, hoping to find restoration in Christ and to learn how to emotionally support her troubled children.
“How much will this cost?” Beth asked me with a mixture of fear and anger in her voice. Prior to our meeting, she had contacted several Christian counselors, all of whom charged more than she could afford. Unable to pay such fees, she was cut off from the possibility of counseling, leading her to feel angry and vulnerable.
Having determined Beth’s desperate financial situation, I handed her my fee scale and responded, “I operate on a sliding scale. Those I counsel usually agree to pay one of the five fee slots shown on this sheet. If you can pay nothing, I will still counsel you and count it as part of my giving to the Lord.”
Each time this scene repeats itself, I struggle with the question of Christian counselors charging fees that the poor cannot afford—the same practice followed by most of our secular counterparts. When this happens, many low and even middle-income families cannot receive desperately needed counseling unless they incur large debts.
Christian counselors are not the only professionals who must guard against falling into this trap. Dentists, doctors, lawyers, and other Christian professionals also unintentionally deprive the poor of their services by charging a uniform fee. Usually it is too much for a family on a lower income and with limited insurance.
Don’t get me wrong: I have nothing against Christian professionals charging fees that provide a solid income and comfortable lifestyle. Our earnings reflect the years of intense, costly training necessary to our professions. But this should not prevent us from showing mercy to the needy by offering them our services on a sliding-fee scale or through some other creative avenue.
The Gleaning Principle
God demonstrated this concept by establishing a Hebrew custom backed by Mosaic law: “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap your field to its very border, neither shall you gather the gleanings after your harvest … you shall leave them for the poor and for the sojourner: I am the Lord your God” (Lev. 19:9–10). This was God’s welfare system, a program of mercy and love aimed at the less fortunate. Boaz employed this custom by letting Ruth, a poor sojourner, glean from his fields.
The principle behind this custom applies today. Christian professionals should not squeeze every penny out of their profession; at least the corners should be left for those who cannot afford our services. Given the cutbacks in the federal welfare system, such acts of mercy are becoming increasingly important. Christians should be the first to fill in the gaps.
Many individual Christian counselors are already creating their own workable systems for serving the poor. Some use the sliding-fee scale. Others block off a number of hours each week to provide free counseling.
Clinics that provide professional services could do this, too. For example, if five hours of paid service is needed to meet the cost of running the clinic each day, the practitioners could be flexible in their fee schedule for the remainder of the day. Such a system would work in counseling, dental, and law offices.
There are other ways. A Christian law agency in Chicago works with a panel of 40 attorneys who volunteer their services. Each lawyer pledges to tackle at least two cases each year that are screened and allotted by the agency.
Lawyers could also check into a pro bono publico program (work free of charge for the public’s good), which offers free legal counsel to the disadvantaged. Set up by some law firms but mostly by local bar associations, it operates with volunteers and/or paid staff. A Christian’s involvement here not only testifies to Christ’s reality and compassion to the poor, but provides a positive witness to other attorneys.
The Church As Clinic
Bringing varied occupations together in an organized, systemized way also provides the needy with an excellent resource. I know of a church that established a clinic several years ago where several doctors and a dentist offer their services without charge for a few hours each week. Poorer families in the surrounding community have wonderfully profited from this practical act of compassion. This clinic plans to expand to include other professionals. At the same time, the church is careful not to overcommit its volunteers.
The prophet Micah’s question to Israel could be asked of Christian professionals: “What does the Lord require of you?” We will honor the God of justice and mercy if we more freely care for those who cannot afford our services.
By James Hilt, director of counseling for The Chapel of the Air. He is the author of How to Have a Better Relationship with Anybody (Moody).
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