Should a pastor know who gives?

I will always remember the phone conversation. The church treasurer told me that she is the only person to know when someone is about to leave the church. In such cases, the giving stops before the involvement does. Secrecy around giving means that the pastor doesn’t know what is going on. Recalling the conversation still makes me sad. The knowledge of who is leaving the church is a heavy burden for one treasurer to carry alone.

When someone stops giving to their church, it is likely a pastoral care moment. Job loss? Marriage problems? Financial troubles? Illness? It could be an expression of anger at the church too. If someone stopped singing in the choir or volunteering at the food bank, folks from church might check in to see if everything is okay. But if someone stops giving (or never gives at all), the church doesn’t respond.

I do stewardship webinars for church folks and I learn so much - the questions are excellent. Recently someone asked me, “should I ask my terminally ill parishioner for a bequest?” Imagine answering that one in real time. I prayed fast. The best time to have the planned giving conversation would have been as part of a group conversation with the whole congregation. So that minister will also need to pray fast and rely on God’s guidance. I’ve been a pastor and I’ve been at that bedside moment. The conversation I’d like to have with my dying parishioner is thank-you. Thank you for your faithful giving to this church over many years. Thank you for your prayers, for your caring, for the jars of soup and the cookies. I’m so grateful that we will be able to keep saying your name and to continue to say thank you as we thank God for your bequest too.

For a pastor to have this final thank-you conversation, she would need to know if that person gave to the church. (Usually there’s 20 to 40% of church members who don’t give, so it can’t be assumed.)

Many Christian leaders - folks whom I respect a great deal - have trouble with the idea of pastors knowing about who gives. A concern I’ve heard a lot is that if pastors know about giving, they will treat people differently. This is true, just as a pastor should treat the couple who just had a miscarriage differently than the couple with a new baby. Pastors have such intimate involvements with people in the church. Life, death, loss. Why is money off limits?

One person wondered how a pastor could address someone’s adultery if the pastor knew that person was a big giver. I don’t know the statistics on adultery among women in their 80s but I think it’s a low risk, all things considered.

That said, I’m not here to pile more on pastors’ plates. I’ve heard concerns of financial abuse. Our church has a sexual abuse policy which includes having windows on Sunday School room doors, including the pastor’s door. We value transparency. So there needs to be ways to handle money both to honour God and to honour people (2 Cor 8:20-21). I’m still thinking this through. For starters, I would want to check in with the pastor. Is he in debt? Does she owe $45,000 in student loans? Henri Nouwen writes about The Wounded Healer - the idea that Christians can’t minister to others until their own wounds are tended. So pastor’s fiscal health might be one starting place in the pastors and money discussion.

Silence and secrecy around money in church gives money more power than it deserves. The spiritual discipline of giving is part of Christian discipleship, and discipleship teaching requires conversation. I hope pastors can be part of that discipleship conversation.