I was told, “the treasurer is the only one who ever sees what anyone gives.” The pastor of this smaller congregation explained to me how good this little church was at keeping the contributions of members a secret. It was as if this was a point of pride for this congregation. They aren’t the only one I’ve come across where the secrecy of giving was touted this way. I’ve heard similar explanations before.
People are funny about money. We hear references to “keeping up with the Joneses” as people try to appear to have what everyone else has, with one neighbor trying to impress the other with the new car they bought. And yet, when it comes to actually revealing anything about our personal finances, we go silent. Early in my career, I was a life insurance agent. Part of my responsibility to a client was to ensure the amount of life insurance they purchased was sufficient to cover what they wanted covered. This involved a series of probing questions into the personal finances and preferences of the individual. As you can imagine, the personal preferences were far easier to pull out of the person than the finances. In fact, all too often, when we were wrapping up and the decision was made, the person would say, let’s make it a $1 million policy instead of $500,000. When I questioned why we would double the insurance, after all of the work we did to calculate the adequate and appropriate amount, I would then learn they chose not to disclose some aspect of their finances that needed to be covered.
In the local church, we hear scriptures about not letting the left hand know what the right hand is doing and find ourselves very supportive of the idea that no one knows what we give. Maybe we feel we give too little. Maybe we have the opportunity to give generously, but we don’t want that to get out and result in a lot of people asking us to give to all the other things they ask money for at church. Whatever it is that motivates us individually, there seems to be a value set upon secrecy in giving at the church.
I would like to suggest we move from secrecy to confidentiality. Confidentiality is a word often used in ministry in reference to ministers being told things in confidence. In Boundary Awareness Training, we encourage ministers to understand the difference between keeping a secret and keeping a confidence. A secret is understood as “you tell me and I tell no one else.” Confidentiality is understood as “only those who need to know will know.” Nothing a minister hears can be secret. The laws that govern our state and ecclesiastical ethics require that those who need to know, know.
If we apply this to giving in the church, just who needs to know? Obviously, we aren’t looking for a list to be published in the weekly bulletin or the monthly newsletter (although I have seen that done in churches where the culture is open). So, who needs to know? J. Clif Christopher, a certified church growth consultant and prolific author on the subject of giving and financial stewardship points out that unless you are giving cash, someone knows; often many people. But who really needs to know?
In many churches, it is just expected that the Treasurer knows. That isn’t always true, but often enough. Maybe it is the financial secretary or the office administrator. If we are honest with ourselves, we really don’t care who knows as long as it doesn’t get out and, heaven forbid, the pastor should know. Just where the fear of a pastor knowing the giving of a church began, I can’t tell you, but it makes no sense, especially in a time where the pastor’s role increasing is becoming that of a fund raiser for the church.
Christopher, in his book, The Church Money Manual describes it as the “secrecy sham.” He points out that the local church pastor is the only executive director of a non-profit who is prevented from knowing the donors to their organization. He demonstrates that the trust explanation usually doesn’t work as well. The trust explanation goes, “we can’t trust the pastor with that information because s/he might treat some people differently if s/he know what they give.” Christopher’s response is if you can’t trust your pastor to know what you give, s/he shouldn’t be your pastor.
I have had pastors tell me that don’t want to know what people give so they don’t treat people differently. My response is this, if you are a person who will make judgments based on financial wealth, you are doing it anyway. The only difference is that you are probably doing it with the wrong people. So often, we learn that those we think give the most don’t. Sometimes we learn they never have given to the church. All too often, those who seem to have the least to give are some of the largest contributors. Giving, especially within the church is a spiritual act, or so it should be. Your pastor has a responsibility to speak to the spirituality of giving, helping the members experience the grace and joy of the spiritual relationship of their financial resources, stewardship and giving.
I recommend that three people, certainly more than one, know the giving of members in the church; the Treasurer and or the Financial Secretary, the Pastor and another member of leadership who work together to manage the finances of the congregation, provide spiritual leadership in the areas of finance and hold one another accountable.