A Pastor's Thoughts on Knowing What People Give
Facts and assumptions about a good--but complex--question

Editor's Note: In November, TheYourChurchBlog.com published "Should Pastors Know What People Give?" It generated numerous responses, some in favor of the idea, some opposed. We recently came across another viewpoint on the question by Larry Osborne, pastor of North Coast Church in California and author of Sticky Church.

Larry permitted us to offer it today as a guest post:

One subject that's always good for a little controversy is a discussion of whether or not a pastor should have access to congregational giving records. Years ago, I was a proud, card-carrying member of the "I-don't-know-who-gives-what" tribe. But I changed my mind after being challenged and realizing that:

  • I had a hard time explaining why a pastor is any different from other ministry leaders (think missionaries, parachurch ministries, Christian media, seminaries, and the like).
  • I had a hard time explaining why capital campaigns are different. No one seems to object to the pastor knowing about large commitments and gifts to a building project. So how is this different than gifts to the general fund?
  • I found nothing in the scriptures supporting my viewpoint. Frankly, all the verses I used to support staying in the dark could just as well be applied to missionaries or anyone leading any ministry–even the church treasurer–something that no one I know of advocates. The idea that a local church pastor is somehow different is simply not Biblical.
  • Even though I took pride in not knowing, I still made subconscious assumptions. I couldn't help it. It's human nature. But once I had the facts in hand, I was amazed at how inaccurate most of my assumptions were.

Awhile back, I was discussing this with a group of pastors at a gathering I was hosting. The very next day I had an experience that showed once again why having the facts is always better than making assumptions–and how having the facts radically changes (and should change) the way we deal with individuals.

Our church was being picketed by the carpenters' union. Their huge "Labor Dispute – SHAME ON NORTH COAST CHURCH" sign showed up during the week and during our worship services in an attempt to "motivate" us into firing a non-union subcontractor we'd hired to work on our new campus construction.

After the first weekend of picketing, we received an e-mail from a concerned parishioner. He informed us that after prayer and reflection his family would no longer be giving their "first fruits" to our ministry. He said he would still give the Lord what was His, but it just wouldn't be to North Coast–at least not until the issue with the union was resolved.

He then went on to say that though he didn't particularly care for the methods the union was using, he felt our church had a moral obligation to support companies that provide a living wage in order to show the community that we care about people and not just the bottom line. He concluded by thanking us for the way our ministry and teaching had blessed his family and promised that his entire family would continue to pray for us as we worked to resolve the issue.

If you were in my shoes, how would you respond–not just in terms of what would you say or write, but in terms of how would you feel?

Based on content and tone, it's clear that the writer is a union member, but he's also a strong Christian, fully committed to the church, praying for it regularly, and supporting it with his "first fruits." My bet is that you'd wonder if other families like his were thinking the same thing–and if they were, what they might do in response.

Here's how I responded.

I asked my assistant to get me some facts. Who was this gentleman? What was his attendance pattern and involvement in our small group ministry? And what was his giving record?

Here's what I found out: He attended our church for a couple of years. He was never involved in a small group. His "first fruits" giving the previous year was all of $500. Year-to-date, it was zero.

Now come on. Let's admit it. That changes things a bit, doesn't it?

Frankly, for me, the facts changed everything. Rather than crafting a response appropriate for a strong Christian, highly committed to our church, I needed to put together a response designed for a "big hat, no cattle" Christian making an empty threat about cutting back his non-existent financial support. It needed to be addressed to someone who talked a good game, but whose deepest loyalty ran far more with the union movement than his local church.

Once I had the facts in hand, I realized the best way to respond would read something like this:

Dear _________

Thank you for sharing your concerns about resolving the issue with the protesters. I fully understand, in light of your union loyalties, why you might be hesitant to give God's "first fruits" to a church that hires non-union workers.

Perhaps that's a sign that we are not the best church for you or your family at this time; especially since we're likely to continue to use our donated funds to hire the lowest qualified bidder on this and other projects in the future.

In light of your concerns, I have asked our finance department to return to you all the "first fruits" gifts you have given to our church so far this year so that you can forward them on to a ministry you can fully support. Unfortunately, we couldn't find a record of any such gifts.

Rest assured, if we find any, we will send them to you posthaste. In the meantime, may God guide you and your family as you search for a church worthy of your full support.

Sincerely,

Pastor Larry Osborne

Now, did I really send it?

That's between him, me, and the Lord.

In the meantime, what would you done once you knew the facts? And how might that differ from what you would have done with nothing but some assumptions based on his e-mail?

This content is designed to provide accurate and authoritative information in regard to the subject matter covered. It is published with the understanding that the publisher is not engaged in rendering legal, accounting, or other professional service. If legal advice or other expert assistance is required, the services of a competent professional person should be sought. "From a Declaration of Principles jointly adopted by a Committee of the American Bar Association and a Committee of Publishers and Associations."

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