By most accounts, it is the third rail of being a local church pastor: touch it, and you'll get zapped.
"It" is the long-standing question, "Should a pastor know how much a church member gives?"
In late 2015, the connectional giving team – staff from United Methodist Communications that "works to increase visibility, awareness and financial support for the connectional ministries of The United Methodist Church" – did a survey where 372 people responded to that question.
The results were clear as mud.
"Most definitely yes," said the Rev. Tom Barnard, pastor at Crum's United Methodist Church in Berryville, Virginia. "Resources come in many areas and financial resources are critical to know as this usually determines commitment to the work of the church and kingdom."
"I am a firm believer that this is something that is between the member and God," said Carl Sudduth, supply pastor at Gainseville United Methodist Church in Livingston, Alabama. "If the pastor knows too much about someone's finances, it might affect how he ministers to that family."
"I wanted to wait at least a year before I knew any financial giving information because I wanted to get to know the leaders, members and attendees first," said the Rev. Melissa Dodd, pastor at Asbury United Methodist Church in Springfield, Missouri. "Now I am aware of our top givers."
Some United Methodist churches have a policy that forbids the pastor from knowing what members give. Those that do will find themselves in violation of the soon-to-be-published Book of Discipline 2016.
General Conference 2016 passed legislation as part of a consent calendar amending Paragraph 340.2.c.(2)(c) of The Book of Discipline 2012 to read: "...the pastor, in cooperation with the financial secretary, shall have access to and responsibility for professional stewardship of congregational giving records." One purpose cited is to provide pastoral care. The legislation is effective Jan. 1, 2017.
To know or not to know
Stewardship consultant the Rev. Clif Christopher would agree with the move.
"The church is the only nonprofit on the planet that does not want its leader to know everything he or she can about how the nonprofit functions and pays its bills," writes Christopher in Whose Offering Plate Is It? (Abingdon Press).
In the book, he offers a plan for moving congregations away from the practice and writes, "Be sure that your leaders understand that your knowledge of giving is a spiritual diagnostic tool that you must have to be effective."
A pastor choosing not to know, Christopher continues, "constitutes clergy malpractice. ... It is well known that how one gives is one of the best indicators of the condition of a person's soul. If a person is not giving, you can just about take it to the bank that Jesus Christ is not the lord of his or her life."
Are there valid reasons for choosing not to know? The Rev. David Jones addressed the question in two 2012 blogs for The Rocket Company (www.therocketcompany.com). Now the pastor at First United Methodist Church in Decatur, Georgia, Jones wrote that he tells the congregation that, as their spiritual shepherd, he intends to lead them "without fear or favor."
"But," he added, "I found, early in my ministry, that promise was hard to keep when I reviewed people's giving record. It made too much of a difference in how I felt toward some people, especially those who talked much about what the church should be doing but gave little or nothing to get it done."
At Oakdale Emory United Methodist Church in Olney, Maryland, the Rev. Kevin Baker agrees with Jones, but he handles things a bit differently.
"I think a pastor has a right to know," he said. "Do I know personally about you or anyone else? No. The problem with knowing how much a person gives is the potential to treat them differently. If they are big givers, you give them more attention or, if they don't give at all, you treat them carelessly. Frankly, I don't totally trust myself. I fear that if I knew what a person gave it might influence me."
Baker does ask for giving numbers on a regular basis. Just recently, he asked for the giving numbers of each of the church's board members. "I just asked them to leave off the names," he said. "I didn't want to know so much how much any one person gave as much as I wanted to know how much integrity our board has in their own giving. I don't think it is ever right to ask the congregation to do something we the board and staff are not doing."
Talk about giving
Ultimately, the best way to foster a culture of greater transparency around giving is to talk about it more, notes Ann A. Michel, associate director of the Lewis Center and lecturer in church leadership at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C.
"Pastors and other key leaders can model the way by openly discussing how much they give and why," Michel said in an article at www.churchleadership.com. "This sharing should be done in thoughtful and appropriate ways, of course. But when we share testimonies about our giving, when we take encouragement rather than offense when someone learns about our generosity, we teach and inspire others about the importance of faithful giving."
Michel said that the "conspiracy of silence" around money and giving in local churches is contrary to responsible stewardship. "Accountable discipleship requires that we be far more honest and transparent around everything having to do with faith and money," she said. "And being a bit more open about our giving and a little less uptight about who knows are good steps in that direction."
Frank Robert, associate director of the Mid-Atlantic United Methodist Foundation, teaches stewardship classes throughout the region. This question, he said, comes up "all the time."
The answer, he said, has been changing over the years. The Mid-Atlantic Foundation has put together a two-year intensive financial academy for pastors. They teach that pastors need to know, and should know, what a parishioner gives.
"Me, personally, I think (knowing) is one of the measures of Christianity," Robert said. "If your giving changes, I think the pastor needs to know that."
Changes in a person's tithe, he said, could alert the pastor to other, perhaps more serious, issues in a person's life.
"Is Frank on drugs? Is there a divorce going on? Did he lose his job? What's going on?" he said. "It's a great sign for the pastor to know, or, at the least, to be alerted to the fact that Frank's giving changed."
Robert understands that people don't want to flaunt their giving and that is something Jesus taught. At the same time, keeping a person's giving "just between them and God" isn't very effective, he said.
"You don't take your money and just throw it directly up to heaven," Robert said. "It doesn't work that way. When you give, someone in the church is counting your money; you're claiming it off your taxes."
Underlying all this, Robert stressed, is that giving is a spiritual discipline; something that reflects one's relationship with God. In a day and age when giving to charitable causes is rising, to an estimated $373.25 billion in 2015, according to a report on Giving USA (givingusa.org), donations to religious organizations have stayed flat for the last 10 years.
"We need to teach the next generation about giving," Robert said. "The older generation understands it as a spiritual practice, but unless we teach this to the next generation, we're going to lose it."
The Rev. Erik Alsgaard is editor of UMConnection, official newspaper of the Baltimore-Washington Conference.