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

Comments

Displaying 1–10 of 29 comments

Robert

March 20, 2012  10:47am

i like it. the pastor should have the facts when dealing with members. really, this "member" should've been fired as a member. it's time to get tough with members that are not supporting the church as their support pretty much indicates where their heart is or lack of it. the response was snarky, but with the removal of the couldn't find it verbiage and sticking with just returning their contributions would've been a good response. people need to understand accountability is both ways. so i'm all for responding to the person with all the facts. that way the pastor has a better understanding of the situation when crafting a response so long as people know how to analyze the information, which i often find people do not have that gift of analysis and which can be seen by the responses to this article. we must keep in mind thought he pastor asked for attendance records, financial records, and small group records. people may give but not necessarily all to the church they belong to, but the pastor was crafting a response based on the person's involvement in that church and regardless of the charity of the person elsewhere, how much effort shall one give to a person who hardly attends, hasn't given that year, and is not involved in the life of the church? for this instance where the subject involved unions, i am for the pastor in this instance as the person is hardly much of a member so responding to that person's union letter is all the pastor needed to waste his time on before getting back to what the active membership body was paying him for - to be a pastor to the involved body.

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Colin

December 22, 2011  3:29pm

Goodness! Very passionate feelings on both sides of the issue and a strong case can be made for either side. I believe it is imperative that people in leadership (including ministry leaders) in the local church should be examples of what is required of the general membership and so pastors should retain "the right" to know about the giving habits of current or prospective leaders. Whether he exercises that right on a "need to know" basis is up to him. It is, however, hypocritical for someone to be in a position of making decisions regarding the local church's finances if he or she is not a contributor. As for the pastor's letter, I do not believe he sent it though fankly, the bully to whom he was responding would have brought it on himself with his uppity and obnoxious behaviour. WWJD? The NT shows different sides of Him so we cannot say for sure. However, something tells me He would have said something to the man that "exposed" the hypocrisy in his heart. Someone suggest that pastor was "snooping" by getting the man's donation records. I strongly disagree. As a matter of fact, it was the man who brought up the subject of his giving. While $550 may or may not be the true amount of his contributions, the fact is he tried to use his giving as a rod. Under the circumstances, the pastor had every right to check into the issue this man had raised. So outside of situations similar to the one in question, and but for instances where leadership and ministry appointments are being made, a pastor shouldn't seek out membership giving information.

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Debbie

December 21, 2011  12:09am

I used to write very generous checks to a certain church - my tithe plus a very large amount for a missionary that I supported. One day, a woman whose husband was a deacon in charge of counting the offering money, came rushing up to me between services and cluelessly blurted out at the top of her voice in a crowded foyer, "I know how much you give, and you give more than anybody!" Her behavior was horribly humiliating. I never gave another trackable dime to that church, just dropped money in the offering plate. So just because someone is not writing a check that can be tracked does not mean the person is not giving. I have been giving anonymously for years. And sometimes people in leadership positions cannot maintain confidentiality about people who give generously.

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Randy Hood

July 26, 2011  2:17pm

As a senior pastor in a small church in Spokane WA, I support knowing the records when neccessary. I personally have never actually looked at the giving records of my church. However I have always held the right to. We came to this community some 19 years ago. At that time our church by-laws stated the leading board, to be qualified were to already be practicing the spiritual discipline of tithing. When the next year came along and we were processing through nominations, I called the bookkeeper and asked whether certain people were tithers, she responded, "You actually want me to tell you whether someone is a tither?" I assured her again of my intent. As I remember, we then talked about how do we know for certain? The general conclusion was that those who gave consistently on record substantial amounts were most likely tithing. Those who did not were more likely so low in their giving that it would be obvious. At that point, the bookkeeper said, "Well then you need to talk to your existing leadership, because several are not tithing right now". I was taken back. I did not ask for names but at the next meeting, I told the existing leadership what the bookkeeper had told me. I said, this needs to be resolved. Within a few weeks a couple member of the leadership quietly resigned their positions. Had there not been any accountability, I would never have known and consequently would have been allowing people to be making financial decisions in the life of the church who were not being biblical responsible in their own homes. How can we expect God to bless when we have that going on?

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Jim Sparks

June 27, 2011  7:24pm

The author's request for information about a person was flawed, for it only brought into consideration what the person in concern was "recorded" as giving. What if he didn't put his offering into an envelope, marked with his name and address? What if he put his offering into the plate "anonymously", so that no one would ever know - keeping his giving between him and his God? In such a case, searching for his "giving record" would be irrelevant. He did not want his "giving record" to be known, therefore it wasn't known to anyone but he and God. I also find it appalling that this pastor judged a man's commitment to the church based upon whether or not he came to a "small group". There are many men who do not for reasons of work, family, etc. It says nothing about their commitment to Christ or the church, it just means that, for reasons of their own, they cannot come to a small group. (As an alternative, find out of this man showed up to a church busy bee!) This pastor never telephoned the person. Never talked to them, he only sought "how much does he give and what group is he in". I sincerely hope that he did not send his letter to this man, for if he did, then this "pastor" was anything but a "pastor" to this individual.

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J Strouse

June 10, 2011  10:40am

There is only ONE idea in Larry's post that I can agree with: "The idea that a local church pastor is somehow different is simply not Biblical." (I would like to know what other areas of church and ministry he would apply this premise to, or is this the only instance in which this 'justification' works?) Following his logic, not only should all leadership be aware of giving patterns, then ALL the church leadership should be involved in deciding how to deal with these situations. To take his point a step further, not only is the pastor 'not different', but Christ establishes for us that those chosen to lead, should go above and beyond to consider others as more important (Mark 10:42-43; 1 Cor. 12:22-23; Phil. 2:3). Today, we have exactly the opposite when it comes to church leadership. People are expendable for the sake of the bottom line, the greater good of the program, or even for the sake of reaching more unchurched people (none of which is a Biblically justifiable reason for asking someone to leave the church). The most important asset a church has is each other ... not the budget, not the facilities, not even the ability to draw the community in! Our FIRST responsibility is to 'build up' and edify one another (Ephes. 4:16)! The CEO mentality for church leadership just simply does not mesh with the principles that Christ left His church! As for the specific issue of who knows or doesn't know what we give, I think a review of Matthew 6:1-4 makes it clear enough. And in regards to money being 'laid at the Apostles feet' in Acts 4, it is interesting to note this offering was not kept by the apostles, it was not added to the church storehouse, nor was it chalked up to the building fund, it was distributed to those among them in need. I believe we can learn a couple things from this. First, not everyone had/has the ability or resources to give (which is also true of the Old Testament Tithe), and second, we should more concerned about meeting the needs we have among each other than about the bottom line of our 501(c)3!

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Terry Austin

June 09, 2011  2:18pm

Why do we assume that it is wrong for a pastor to treat people differently based on their giving. Treating someone differently is not necessarily showing them preference (i.e. the James passage). We respond differently to people who actively attend or who serve as leaders, etc. People who do not give need a different ministry than those who do give generously. In order to successfully help someone grow spiritually, it is usually best to have as much information about their needs as possible.

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Concerned

June 04, 2011  8:00am

So, if I may ask, would the pastor's response had been any different if he found out that the union member had given huge amounts of money to the church? If it would have been different (more positive) would this not be the exact reason why a pastor should not know how much each member gives - namely that it might give rise to favouritism? Should the pastor not have responded based on principle - explain why the church chooses to get the lowest bidder (being a good steard of its resources) and let the chips fall where they may, knowing that even if this union member gave millions each year to the church, that God would still provide for His church, regardless of whether the man took his millions elsewhere?

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whit

June 04, 2011  12:09am

I agree with Steve. The response by the pastor is very poor. Two major problems. First, he does not have all the facts about the man's giving as he supposes (i.e. cash giving "off the record", or potential giving to other Christian ministries). Bigger issue is, now that the pastor (supposedly) knows the writers giving level, he automatically dismisses the criticism. By doing so, he denies himself and his church a chance to honestly examine their actions and misses a great teaching opportunity for the church. I don't see how pastors response moves this man or any other church member closer to God or deeper in discipleship?

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Steve

June 03, 2011  11:31pm

This pastor is out, way out, of line. His response verges on horrific. He does nothing to actually meet with this man face to face, as indicated by Mt. 18:15 when a brother "offends" (if there even has even been an offense here). He does nothing to find out if that seemingly paltry $500 is in fact the man's firstfruits, cf. Mark 12:41-44 about the widow's mite. He seems never to have read Phillipians 4:5 ("let you gentleness be made known to all") and instead launched into an ad hominem fallacy. He does not debate the man's point about supporting living-wage workers based on its ethical or moral merits; he does not even consider the idea. Instead he constructs an ad hominem case against the man based on his perceived financial use to the church! Awful! The man and his family are indeed better off not being under the 'pastoral' care of this person. Heaven help those still in this man's parish.

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