All churches have to make a decision about the confidentiality of contributions. The IRS requires churches to track who gives how much so they can issue a receipt, but otherwise the law is pretty much silent on the question.
So whoever makes the church’s deposits will know how much the checks are for, and if this is the bookkeeper, the bookkeeper will track gifts by donor. (If your church allows electronic giving, software will track gifts automatically.)
Beyond this bare necessity, church practices vary quite a bit. Here are Thom Rainer’s observations on practices:
- The lead pastor and one layperson. This perspective argues that financial stewardship is a spiritual discipline, and the pastor should have access to individual giving to be able to see how the members are doing in this regard. The layperson, of course, is the person who actually keeps the records.
- One layperson who guides the pastor. The layperson again is the member keeping financial records. He or she is the only one who has access to giving records. But that person is able to share information with the pastor or other leaders as needed. For example, the financial secretary can inform the pastor or elders about potential future elders according to their giving patterns. I took this approach as a pastor. I did not have access to individual giving patterns, but our financial secretary would let me and other leaders know if a person should be eligible for a leadership role according to that person’s stewardship in the church.
- One layperson only. In this example, only the financial secretary (or equivalent) has access to individual giving records. He or she does not provide any input that would reflect this information.
- A key group in the church. In some churches, this group is the elders. In some other churches, it is the nominating committee.
- A staff person other than the pastor and a layperson. The pastor is specifically precluded from individual giving visibility. Instead, another staff person, such as an associate or executive pastor, has access to the records along with the financial secretary.
- No church members. No church member can see the records. Instead, a non-member is recruited or hired to keep the records, but that person does not share the information with any church members.
No one makes the information available to the entire church. Transparency does have its limits.
When I was in high school, there was a sermon commonly preached in which the argument was made that the elders had the right not only to see contributions (most would agree) but also to see tax returns (many would not agree). Evidently, some congregations needing more money had taken up the practice of comparing donations to income and meeting with families to discuss a failure to tithe! As you can imagine, this did not catch on.
In my experience, most elderships do not routinely review giving. And my experience is that many members assume to the contrary — assuming that if they hold their check or half their check that the elders will notice. And this is largely untrue — unless you man up and tell the elders what you’re doing and why rather than being passive-aggressive and hoping they notice and ask you.
Should the elders routinely review giving? Should they know? If giving drops, should they check to see if some members have quit giving?
And this raises a related question: if you’re not happy with the elders, is it okay to cut your check? To stop giving altogether? If so, are you bound to go to them and tell them your concerns (and that you’ve cut your giving)? Or should you expect them to notice and come to you?