Louis Weeks: Should pastors know what members give?

It may be common wisdom that congregational leaders should be blind to who gives how much. This is misguided.

“Only the church treasurer should know the giving of members here.”

“Our giving is one the best indications of our spiritual health. Of course the Session and the pastor should know what we give.”

These opposing claims came from two different leaders of a Presbyterian congregation in Alabama during a recent weekend retreat. As you might imagine, we had a good discussion about questions like these: Who should know what people give? Should the pastor know? Should lay leaders?

Ask in most churches, “Does the pastor know what you give?” and you will receive a double-take of horror and some response that amounts to “Heavens, no.” Most congregational cultures now severely restrict the knowledge of receipts. Many retain the same “Offering Counters” for years.

Let me state baldly here what I put in more measured terms in my recent book, “All For God’s Glory: Redeeming Church Scutwork” (Alban): Pastors and lay leaders should know what people in the congregation give.

Consider these insights from some retired pastors who believe they and their lay colleagues should know about the giving of members. I name the current practice in most churches as “Common Assumption” (CA) and counter with what seem to me “Actual Facts” (AF).

CA The fewer people who know what people give, the better.

AF The more people who know, the smaller the possibility of embezzlement, the less chance of extortion (“If we don’t do what I want, then I will quit giving”), and the more ownership of the mission of the church. One pastor of more than forty years told me “I had to grow into believing more knowledge was a good thing. But once I learned it, our giving increased, and our life together bore less dysfunction.”

Another pastor told of an actual embezzler at her first charge. This one treasurer counted the money, made the deposits, and signed the checks.

CA Pastors should not know because they would give preference to those who gave more than to others who gave less.

AF All pastors naturally are drawn to some members of a congregation more than to others. All must develop practices and checks on their preferences in the interest of fairness and health of the church. Many pastors are tempted to pay the most attention to those who make the most noise, spread rumors most effectively, collect perceived troubles most vocally, and engage in other attention-getting. Moreover, pastors can lean toward preferential treatment of people on the basis of perceived, rather than actual giving.

Isn’t it better to seek fairness in sharing pastoral attention out of knowledge than out of ignorance?

CA Pastors usurp lay responsibility when they are nosy about money in a congregation.

AF Lay leaders are generally familiar with a “tax” structure for giving money, both for real taxes for local regional and national governments and pretend taxes for club dues or giving groups in non-profits. United Ways have relied for decades on a sort of tax structure for businesses and employees. Groups that tax naturally know, and don’t obviously undermine responsibility.

In most congregations, the pastor is the best placed person to learn and teach about discipleship and giving. One pastor told me, “I especially want to know when the giving of a member or household changes, either up or down. There is the sure indication of something of pastoral concern.”

According to retired pastors I respect, actual facts argue for shifting the culture of a congregation to permit pastors much more knowledge of the giving of members.

These topics are complex. But I find that the proverb, “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing” has a corollary: “No knowledge is even worse.”

Louis Weeks is president emeritus of Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Virginia.