To know or not to know … that is the question. When I was a pastor in the 1990s, it seemed there was a fairly common understanding between the pastor and the congregation. It can be summarized like this: “Pastor, we will trust you with our greatest joys and deepest sorrows. We will share with you the most intimate details of physical and emotional problems. But, what we give to the church, well that is an entirely different story. That is between us and God or at least, between us and our accountant!”
Many folks didn’t want the pastor to know and many pastors really didn’t want to know. Perhaps both feared that such knowledge might change their relationship.
But all of that has been in considerable flux for the last decade or so. Clif Christopher (Not Your Parents’ Offering Plate) has argued persuasively that not knowing is actually a dereliction of pastoral responsibility. At least for United Methodist pastors, this will come to a head soon. Effective January 1, 2017, pastors will be required to have access to congregational records. The rationale for this change is to give the pastor greater ability to “ensure membership care including compliance with charitable giving documentation requirements and to provide appropriate pastoral care…”
For many, not much will change. No doubt, many pastors already are given access to giving records. It may come as a surprise to those churches that some clergy do not know what members and constituents give. But to many more local churches this new duty may be less than welcome.
Regardless of denominational affiliation, it seems that as clergy navigate the consequences of this responsibility, it will be very important to keep the “pastoral” rationale front and center. Even though it was not my practice to review the giving records when I pastored, I have come to believe that there are important pastoral reasons for knowing. Two come readily to mind:
1. Changes in giving may signal more than how pleased (or displeased) the giver is with the direction of the church. Something much more important than “How do you like me now?” may be at play.
Decreases in giving may be the clearest indication that some form of financial setback has occurred. Perhaps there has been an illness or a job problem. Perhaps an aging parent or a child is in need of money and the giver did not anticipate when they thought through their stewardship commitment.
On top of all this, the giver who has decreased their gift may feel guilty or ashamed. These givers should not bear such a burden alone. Good pastoral care may assure such a person that Christ’s love is not based upon how much they give.
2. I have come to believe that giving is one of the clearest indicators of our spiritual temperature or how well we are responding to the basic reality of God’s gracious love. Karl Barth said words to the effect that in so far as it is God’s very nature to give a primary human response is to say “Thank you!”
One of the best ways that we say thank you is to give in response. Our willingness to share those things that we value most (and for many of us, that certainly includes our money) is a very strong indicator of our seriousness to follow Jesus in the way of the cross. It is most certainly not easy work, but pastors need to challenge their people to follow God beyond what is easy and convenient. Knowing what people give and their knowing that the pastor knows may very well create opportunities for people to assess how serious they are about the faith.
Now, what I said above also holds true here. God does not love us more when we increase our giving. God’s love for you and me is already complete; it does not wane or ebb based upon our response to grace. In other words, Jesus does not draw nearer when we open our wallets! But at the same time, when we do open our wallets wider, it may very well be the case that we are also opening ourselves wider to a more profound understanding of the depths of God’s remarkable love for the world. And why would we want to withhold that blessing from anyone?
So, to know or not to know? How do you answer that question?