Why Pastors Should Know What People Give

Recently, I was with a group of clergy when a dreadful topic came up: whether pastors should know what members of their congregations give to their churches. The room was about evenly divided. Some of the pastors insisted that it was important that they know. Others insisted that they should not know. Two things about the conversation struck me. First, that the pastors who said that they should know didn’t seem to know why they should know. Second, the pastors who said that they shouldn’t know gave a very specific reason for that; one that many parishioners give when they’re asked about pastors having that information.

Let’s start with the first issue. Many pastors know that should know what the members of their congregation give. They’ve picked that up from plenty of church fundraising consultants, and they’re right. What those same pastors usually don’t understand is why they should have that information. And because they don’t understand the ‘why’, they don’t quite know what to do with that information when they have it. Or, worse, they never get that information because they can’t explain the ‘why’ to the people in their congregations who do have that information (if anyone does).

So, why should pastors know what the members of their congregation give? There are at least three reasons.

First, and most importantly, there is a pastoral reason. Unexpected changes in giving can indicate that a person is having a problem. Decreases in giving might indicate that a congregation member has had a significant unplanned expense (like a medical bill or a relative in financial trouble), a sudden drop in income (like a job loss), or that a person is disconnecting from the church. Even an unexpected increase in giving can indicate problems: people contemplating suicide often give away their possessions. Any significant and sudden change in giving should be treated with the same seriousness as a significant change in church attendance, a drop in participation in church activities, and so on.

Second, it’s one of the first steps to improving your annual stewardship campaigns. It’s a simple fact that there are only two ways to increase giving: getting new donors and increasing the amounts that existing donors give. It’s also much easier to increase the amount that an existing donor gives than in is to get new donors. But if you—or someone on your stewardship team—is going to work on getting members to increase their giving, then you need to know what they’re giving now (and it’s especially useful if you can estimate what each family is giving in relation to their capacity).

Third, it’s vital information if you ever embark on a capital campaign. Raising a large amount of money is much easier if you can count on a few large gifts. And it’s much easier to find those large gifts when you can think in terms of multiples of annual gifts. In other words, you don’t want to ask for a $10,000 gift from someone who gives $500 a year; but you can ask for that kind of gift from someone who gives $5,000 a year. If you don’t know how much people in your congregation give, you’ll be left asking people for more-or-less random amounts… and that makes it less likely that your capital campaign will succeed.

So, those are one pastoral reason and two fundraising reasons. While it’s possible to get around the fundraising reasons—you just need someone else to know what people give—there’s no getting around the pastoral reason. And, honestly, wouldn’t we rather that the pastor, who is trained in keeping confidential information confidential, know what people give than a member of the congregation (and probably a different member of the congregation every few years)? Yes.

So what about the second issue? Why are some pastors—and a lot of lay people—nervous about letting the pastor know what members of the congregation give?

The reason that the pastors at this clergy gathering gave was that they were afraid that, if they knew what members gave, they would treat the members who gave more better than those who gave less.

And I just don’t believe that’s true.

Look, it’s easy to believe that once we know who gives what, we’ll be tempted to treat the people who give more better than than the people who give less. But I can tell you that when I was a fundraiser—and when I knew exactly how much each of my constituents gave—I was never tempted to do that.

As pastors, we get to know a lot about the people in our congregation. Some of it is superficial and some of it is confidential. We know people’s favorite hymns and their opinions on how we do the prayers of the people. We know what traditions they want to get rid of and what traditions they will never let go of. We know who is having relationship troubles and who just got a cancer diagnosis. How much a person gives is just one more piece of information that goes into the mix… and helps us to serve them better.

So, please, pastors, give some serious thought to how you could help your congregation—as individuals and as a church—if you knew people’s giving habits. And please have a serious conversation with the appropriate people in your congregation about having that information. It really can make a difference.

Right now, there is a movement in churches and nonprofits arguing that charity is toxic, that helping hurts, and that the entire nonprofit sector needs to be reformed to truly lift people out of poverty. These charity skeptics are telling Christians that traditional charity deepens dependency, fosters a sense of entitlement, and erodes the work ethic of people who receive it. Charity skepticism is increasingly popular; and it is almost certainly wrong.

Now available from Wipf and Stock’s Cascade Books imprint, Radical Charity: How Generosity Can Save the World (And the Church) weaves together research and scholarship on topics as diverse as biblical scholarship, Christian history, economics, and behavioral psychology to tell a different story. In this story, charity is the heart of Christianity and one of the most effective ways that we can help people who are living in poverty. Charity—giving to people experiencing poverty without any expectation of return or reformation—can save the world and help make God’s vision for the church a reality.

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