If a state's nonprofit corporation law does not specifically authorize pastors and board members to inspect individual members' contribution records, then such a practice could expose the church to possible liability for invasion of privacy. While this risk may be remote, it should not be ignored.
In the final analysis, the question comes down to the membership requirements in the church's governing documents. If a church's bylaws mandate tithing or some other specified level of financial commitment, then there would be stronger justification for the senior pastor, and possibly the church board, to access individual donor records in order to enforce the membership requirement. Of course, if the church bylaws require a specific financial commitment, and the pastor or members of the board inspect the contribution records of individual members in order to enforce this requirement, this means that members who fail to satisfy the contribution requirement may need to be suspended or dismissed from the active voting roll. Obviously, this would be a highly controversial action in many churches. Also, in order to determine whether individual members are in fact complying with a contribution requirement, a church would need to have access to members' tax returns so that an accurate judgment could be made regarding their compliance with the membership requirements. This is the only realistic way that this can be enforced. There is no way that a church's contribution records, by themselves, will indicate compliance with a minimum contribution requirement in most cases.
Few churches would want to make a specified financial commitment a requirement of church membership in light of these consequences and ramifications. And, if a specified financial commitment is not a membership requirement, then there is little if any justification for the senior pastor or board members having access to members' contribution records.
Richard R. Hammar is an attorney, CPA, and best-selling author specializing in legal and tax issues for churches and clergy. A graduate of Harvard Law School, he is the author of more than 100 books, including Pastor, Church & Law and the annual Church and Clergy Tax Guide .
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