New term for the day: time banks. Time banks are volunteer networks, typically established by non-profit groups. They are becoming increasingly popular for health-care organizations  but hold interesting potential for churches as well. The term is fairly self-explanatory: Members of a time bank make deposits in the form of volunteer hours, and can make withdrawals when they need help from other community members. Help can take many forms: household repairs, assistance in preparing a tax return, or something as simple as dog-walking or a ride to the pharmacy.
The last item is important. Transportation is a simple but crucial deficit in many cases. Millions of elderly or infirm people lack the independent means of transportation to allow them to keep medical appointments, go grocery shopping, or attend to other health-related tasks. Hospitals and HMOs are keenly interested in ways to promote preventive care, to prevent hospital admissions and, in particular, re-admissions. For overall cost savings, it is often well worth it for hospitals to pay for taxi fare or similar, just to help convalescent patients make their out-patient appointments and other health-related trips -- to the pharmacy, for example. If a time bank can partially bridge that gap, at no direct cost, that is an attractive proposition for the health industry.
But time banks hold promise not just for those on the critical verge of in-patient care. Any bank depends on a large cadre of "depositors" strong enough to "pay in." Research has shown that all of us get health benefits from social connections and friendly interaction. A doctor in London, England reflects that chronic disease sufferers need inner confidence before they can tackle changes in ingrained outer behaviors. Contributing to a time bank can help build that inner sense of well-being in its members:
"It is very hard to change the way you look at food or exercise... Working with time banks, where everyone is valued and everyone has assets, helps people to revalue themselves. Only when you start to feel that positivity about yourself do you feel more able to take on these challenges."
The doctor alludes to the unusual logic of time banks, a different logic than we see in the normal cash economy. No money changes hands, and each person's time counts the same. There are no distinctions about skilled and unskilled labor. A time bank is an equal respecter of all persons. (Ironically, to help time banks be adopted more widely, policy experts are busy trying to value their benefits in dollar terms.)
It occurs to me that a time bank is a twist on the way a vibrant congregation functions. A local church is a place to share fellowship, make connections, offer help, and (hardest of all for many of us) be open and vulnerable enough to ask for help when needed. The banking paradigm might be unnecessary in the context of a Christian congregation. Then again, many local churches also seem to operate on the 80/20 rule, a minority of members supplying the majority of time and effort. Maybe borrowing concepts from accounting could strengthen accountability, a quality none of us should shrink from.
Anyway, the time bank is an intriguing idea that offers hope for a more humane and healthy civic polity. It's some of the best news to come out of the banking sector in quite a while.
John James, M.A.
Research Analyst, Clergy Health Initiative