Who Should See the Church’s Contribution Records?

collection plateAll 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. A key group in the church. In some churches, this group is the elders. In some other churches, it is the nominating committee.
  5. 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.
  6. 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?

Profile photo of Jay Guin

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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19 Responses to Who Should See the Church’s Contribution Records?

  1. Bob Brandon says:

    In social organizations that depend on membership participation to function but that give little actual authority to said members, there are only to ways to influence for the large majority of members: withhold participation (“vote with one’s feet”) or withhold funding (“vote with one’s wallet/purse”). These are all political tactics, as are most leaderships’ efforts to recruit/motivate/manage members. Not necessarily very appropriate for spiritual communities/organizations.

    Not that I have any better ideas on how to proceed.

  2. Bob Brandon says:

    Forgot to ask: are you doing better?

  3. David Himes says:

    Anyone who sees such records should be required to sign a confidentiality agreement

  4. Bob Brandon says:

    There are a variety of ways to disclose individual donation amounts while making it difficult to ascertain who is actually giving what (not that members don’t do that already). One way: simply rank by the check/online donation amount in descending/ascending order with no identifying information. Treasurer and elder overseeing invariably know the confidential information, since they sign the tax letters. No-one else really needs to know.

    This is still not a particularly community-building exercise, however. Worries over budget and contribution are ultimately worries about priorities, past, present, and future, and that should lead to open discussion about them, not fretting/gossiping about confidentiality of contributions. I don’t see such discussions often, if at all, anymore.

    Some congregations post the monthly budget information as weekly contribution figures alongside the monthly budget, so we all know how well/badly we’re doing month-to-month. Others extend this to year to date contribution and budget planned (which I find more informative, if occasionally discouraging), so we have the larger picture of the budget/fiscal year.

  5. Price Futrell says:

    The only person(s) who need to know are the ones responsible for issuing the appropriate tax documents. And I agree with David, that a confidentiality agreement/non-disclosure agreement should be in place.

    Otherwise, there is the temptation to put one at the head of the table and the other at the back of the room and we know what Jesus said about that.

    The Preacher, is a paid employee.. Transparency would dictate that the congregation know what he/she makes. As well as any employee of the church… It’s a budget item.. You might could limit the request to know to those that have contributed to the church and have a stake in it’s operation.

  6. Elders can make a statement about where contributions came from: % members, % non-members.

  7. Ed Dodds says:

    This is for when we are setting aside weekly for the contribution to be carried by an Apostle to the Jerusalem poor; is that correct? #I_love_precedent_based_theologies

  8. Profile photo of Jay Guin Jay Guin says:

    Ed Dodds,

    Correct. 1 Cor 16 has nothing to do with a general fund contribution but addresses a one-time gift to the Jerusalem church.

    Is it a binding example? If so, then it’s an example of the need for sister congregations to support each other in times of need — which is not unheard of in the Churches of Christ but is generally only found in cases of a natural disaster or a church plant. (This is also true of most other denominations with congregational autonomy.)

    I mean, when would one congregation donate to another congregation’s building fund (outside of mission churches)? When would one congregation donate to help another congregation not default on its mortgage? Our vision of “we” is strongly biased to our own congregation rather than the Kingdom.

  9. Profile photo of Jay Guin Jay Guin says:

    Counselingskills,

    In my church, virtually no money is donated by visitors. Some do, of course, but it’s not a material part of making budget. I suspect this is true most places.

    I’d be reluctant to report such a break down as in most churches, the number of visitors in a given service is generally small, making it easy for members to know how much the non-member gave.

  10. Profile photo of Jay Guin Jay Guin says:

    Price,

    I agree that individual donations should generally be kept confidential. I do think most members assume that the elders know — or have the right to know — but in my church, we tried to avoid knowing for some of the same reasons you mention. We checked giving by candidates for elder and when it appeared donations might be down due to a protest withholding of pay — except we had the accountant do the analysis and tell us if someone had stopped giving. No one had.

    It’s hard to know who gives and doesn’t give, since some give in the form of cash — and so it’s impossible to know who doesn’t give.

  11. Dwight says:

    The only reason “The Preacher, is a paid employee.” is because we make it such. In the NT the preacher was supported by one and many people who did so with the expectation that the Kingdom would grow as a whole and not a particular assembly. They supported the man in his work and not the work as a position.
    The occasion of I Cor.16 didn’t have the funds going to a Jerusalem church, but rather the church or people in Jerusalem. There is no reason to think that the elders in Jerusalem received the funds rather than the money just being given to those in need by Paul himself, but even if not by Paul but the elders, the money was still destined for the needy saints. There was no church filtering.

  12. Profile photo of Jay Guin Jay Guin says:

    Bob B,

    My church has, since before I became an elder, reported total donations as against budget, so any deficit or surplus was revealed. Many elders are reluctant to report a surplus, for fear that people will stop giving, but we’ve never seen that happen. I was pleasantly surprised the first year we had a surplus, reported it to the church (weekly), and giving held up.

    I do think the budget should generally be made with the input of the ministry leaders affected. And the process should be transparent in that leaders should report to other leaders how they plan to spend the money.

  13. Profile photo of Jay Guin Jay Guin says:

    Price,

    I don’t believe salaries should be reported to the congregation, but I realize many disagree.

    1. Most members aren’t familiar with what ministers make — and the alternative would seem to be to teach them the ins and outs of ministerial compensation. For example, it’s not fair to the preacher to report his pay unless the members also know that he has to pay the 7.65% Self-Employment Tax “match” that, for non-ministers, the employer pays. It’s not apples to apples. Then there’s the impact of election out of Self-Employment Tax, the housing allowance, and the marketplace. That is, if you don’t pay what other churches pay, you’re going to find it hard to hire a preacher, no matter how strongly you feel that he’s being paid too much.

    2. I really get tired of the “not a real job” and “shouldn’t be worried about money” members who wish to see the minister in poverty. We can be very stingy toward our paid staff. And many want to argue that the payroll budget “ought” to be no more than x% of the total, as though you can compare church 1 in Alabama to church 2 in Dallas, Texas or to the church so and so came from where, 30 years ago, they only paid the preacher $20,000. (I’m not making this up.)

    3. It’s hard enough to get the elders to pay a fair wage even in confidence. Put their pay decisions under 200 microscopes, and the result will be preachers who are paid even worse than what we pay now. We pay preachers starvation wages, offer no health insurance or retirement benefits, no disability insurance, and then complain when they make far less than most church members. I just don’t see how the realities of poor preacher pay get improved by reporting wages to the congregation.

    4. I work in a secular job and employ dozens of people. Their bosses know what they make. No one else does. It’s considered private by employers and employees alike. Why would the preacher’s pay be open to anyone other than his bosses — the elders?

    I think this where I most differ with many (maybe not you): I don’t see the members as the preacher’s supervisors or bosses. They are people he will serve — but they are not his bosses, overseers, or supervisors. He is an aid to the elders, who are given oversight of the church by the Spirit.

    Hence, for the members to insist on knowing what the preacher makes is, in effect, to insist on taking on supervisory power over the preacher, so that the members can have input into a decision that is not theirs to make. I mean, he who controls the purse controls the church. Those who set the preacher’s salary are his de facto bosses. And churches are not, according to scripture, democracies. They are governed based on the Spirit’s giftings. Not everyone is gifted as an administrator, leader, or overseer. In fact, in the Churches of Christ, we often deny to elders the authority scriptures give them to have oversight, to lead, and to be submitted to. We insist that they may only lead by example, have no office, and otherwise undermine their labors on our behalves.

    5. I find that ministerial candidates — especially those with some experience — insist on confidentiality of their pay. Good candidates often have many opportunities to pick from. Public announcement of wages is a very good way to have the candidates most in demand withdraw.

    It’s hard enough negotiating pay with the elders. Preachers hate these conversations (as do most elders). Having to then defend each decision to the congregation as a whole makes it a three-party negotiation — and those are even less fun.

    6. Have you ever heard a member complain that the preacher is underpaid? Have you ever heard a member complain that the preacher is overpaid? Wise elders do not want the preacher to be underpaid or overpaid. The goal isn’t to get him hired for the least possible pay. The goal is to be fair — and to have a preacher who is happy to work for you. (See http://enrichmentjournal.ag.org/200902/200902_066_Sheep_Attack.cfm; http://www.patheos.com/blogs/christiancrier/2013/12/15/average-pastor-salaries-in-united-states-churches/; http://desperatepreacher.com/pastorcare/ministrysalaries.htm; http://moneyhelpforchristians.com/pastor-salary/)

    When I start hearing members concerned that we might be underpaying the staff, then I’ll be open to advising them of their pay. So long as the only push is to squeeze the preacher for the most work for the least pay, I’m not cooperating with that attitude.

    (Mal. 3:5 ESV) 5 “Then I will draw near to you for judgment. I will be a swift witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired worker in his wages, the widow and the fatherless, against those who thrust aside the sojourner, and do not fear me, says the LORD of hosts.”

    This is from Christianity Today (http://www.christianitytoday.com/pastors/1981/spring/81l2066.html):

    Following the principle of I Timothy 5:17-18, we can see that Scripture doesn’t caution us against paying our minister too much, but it does caution against paying him too little. If we want to know how much to pay a pastor, the Bible seems to be telling us that anything up to double an ordinary wage is not too much and is pleasing to God.

    Paul’s choice of this verb may have been influenced by the saying of Jesus, ἄξιος ὁ ἐργάτης (Mt. 10:10; Lk. 10:7), which Paul quotes in v. 18. τιμή is used here in the same double sense as the related verb was in v. 3, i.e., “honor, reverence,” but more particularly in the sense of “honorarium” or “compensation,” as v. 18 makes evident with its reference to wages. διπλοῦς refers to this double sense of τιμή and has the meaning “double,” i.e., “twofold,” both “honor” and “honorarium.”

    George W. Knight, The Pastoral Epistles: A Commentary on the Greek Text, New International Greek Testament Commentary, (Grand Rapids, MI; Carlisle, England: W.B. Eerdmans; Paternoster Press, 1992), 232.

    The preacher is not an elder, in most cases, but Paul’s logic extends to any employee of the church.

    (1 Tim. 5:18 ESV) 18 For the Scripture says, “You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain,” and, “The laborer deserves his wages.”

    The scholars disagree over the meaning of “double honor.” But no one argues that it means “less than the rest of the church members.”

    This is from the same CT article,

    The second important New Testament passage is Galatians 6:6:

    “Let him who is taught the Word share all good things with him who teaches.”

    The phrase “all good things” again includes more than money and possessions, but it does include at least that. Here is Paul’s provision for the spontaneous expression of the love that believers have for their pastor, a love that will show itself in a natural and free sharing of whatever blessings the Lord gives us.

    One day I received some money unexpectedly, and I went to the bookstore to buy some books. While I was there, the Lord brought this verse to mind, I think, to show me I had been lax in obeying this principle of Scripture. Why should I spend all the money on books for myself? Shouldn’t I also get some books for my pastor and thereby “share all good things with him who teaches”? Then as I thought more, I began applying this to other areas of life. Shouldn’t we apply this verse to everything the Lord has given us?

    If I take my wife out to dinner (using money that the Lord, in whatever way, has made it possible for me to have), shouldn’t I be sure that my pastor has enough money to take his wife out to dinner occasionally as well? If I buy some new clothes, shouldn’t I be sure my pastor has enough money to buy some new clothes too? If I take my family on a special vacation, shouldn’t I be sure my pastor is able to take his family on a special vacation too? When we begin to think about all the gifts the Lord has given us, our list of “all good things” begins to get very long indeed.

    In short, I see so many churches abusing their preachers by underpaying them, and only hear complaints from members who fear we just might be overpaying, I think there’s a serious attitude problem in churches toward paying the preacher. The NT plainly teaches that a gospel preacher should be well paid — but we don’t teach this and few preachers have the audacity to preach this.

    So I assume, perhaps unfairly, that the effect of including the congregation in salary discussions is that the poor preacher will be paid less. And yet there’s a great need to provide better pay for ministerial staff.

    There’s a concomitant need for ministers to be accountable for their time and to come to work ready to work. Many do, but there’s a very real streak of laziness present among some of our ministers. They need to be fairly paid and fairly held to account for how they spend their time. (I know of a church that hired a professional human resource manager to oversee some of the ministerial staff. You’ve never heard such squalling from the ministers! They were actually required to account for their time! To make plans for their week! To have effective ministries! They were held to the same standards as their members, and yet they’d never experienced such a thing. Fair pay requires fair accountability and work.)

    The cure isn’t to assume (as many do) that the ministers don’t work and therefore shouldn’t be paid. Rather, we should pay for what we want — fairly — and then insist that the minister do his job. You can’t solve a minister’s laziness by underpaying him. You just enable unscriptural, sinful behavior when you do that. And no secular employer would even consider allowing laziness and then paying less for it. Rather, lazy people get better or get fired.

    Sorry for the rant — but I feel so much better …

  14. Price says:

    I understand your concern over the politics. But, as a shareholder I think I deserve to know how my money is being spent. The real problem sounds like lack of education. Perhaps it wouldn’t be so political if people were better informed. Perhaps that’s Utopian in concept but I’m all for transparency. In the end it’s the folks that are giving that provide the resources to pay the staff. Besides, as long as there is a ladies Bible Class there will always be members who know.

  15. Price says:

    @ Dwight. Yeah but sometimes they all sold their assets and shared everything in common. They sometimes met in catacombs. It seems that in every generation Cultural influences have impacted the nature of the assembly. And yet Jesus is preached and men are saved. I doubt any of us would feel comfortable with the setup of the first century. But so what ? Jesus is still exhalted.

  16. Profile photo of Jay Guin Jay Guin says:

    Price wrote,

    Besides, as long as there is a ladies Bible Class there will always be members who know.

    You know your church politics!

    I would dispute the concept of a member being analogous to a shareholder. A shareholder is an owner — and hence the final and absolute authority in the institution. But it’s Jesus’ church: the church of Christ.

    A better argument would be that the members, as donors, are entitled to know how their money is spent — which in Anglo-American law would be very true. It’s a fiduciary thing. But this is very problematic in the church context.

    For example, if the elders (or a deacon or a committee) use money to help a church family pay their power bill this month because the husband was laid off, do the members have a right to know this? The argument for giving them that right is strong:

    A. They gave the money. They are entitled to know how it’s spent.
    B. Elders (deacons or committees, etc.) have been known to grossly over-support members in trouble (about as likely as grossly overpaying a preacher, I would think).
    C. Transparency protects the church against abuse.
    D. The members joined voluntarily and asked for help voluntarily and relinquished any privacy concerns when they went to the church for money.

    But, of course, most people would find this argument repugnant because, if they were in need of support, they wouldn’t want their financial business spread across the church.

    To me, the preacher’s salary is closely analogous. We live in a culture in which a family’s financial situation is considered private. It’s an American thing and not true in many other cultures. But in this culture, the Golden Rule says keep the support paid by the church for a family in need is private. Besides, many people would go to a title loan shop for the money rather than the church, preferring the high interest to the loss of privacy. (I’ve seen it — just because of the fear of loss of privacy despite very genuine assurances to the contrary. We are a proud people.) (PS — the large number of title loan and similar services popping up everywhere is a testament to the church’s failure to support its own members. Most of the borrowers go to church somewhere — at least around here.) In my church, we sometimes go to the extreme that only the chair of the elders knows the person’s name — just so people will let us help them.

    The minister’s pay is, of course, a bigger number, but otherwise I see no distinction in the two cases. There is a conflict between the desire for transparency and the desire for privacy.

    My church (going back long before I became an elder) reports the budget to the congregation and, on request, will provide year to date expenditures vs. budget. The budget categories are more detailed than most financial statements — 30 or 40 line items at least. Salaries are lumped together — and so the amount of salaries as a percentage of gross contributions is no secret, and if the preacher were being paid something ridiculous, it would be obvious. But the elders before and after me, quite independent of me, have always considered it unwise to give the employee-by-employee detail. And I’ve met with ministerial candidates who wouldn’t consider being hired by us unless we kept their salaries confidential — because of bad experiences at their prior churches.

    We have members who dislike the policy, but I wouldn’t want to be an elder at a church where salaries and benefits are subject to second-guessing by all church members. Life is too short.

  17. Price says:

    While I certainly agree that Jesus is the owner, and has cattle on a thousands hills to provide what is necessary, it is a fact of life in the modern church that “giving units” keep the organization functional. Again, the sensitivities you mentioned are reasonable to most folks. Why would there be any anticipation that the majority would disagree. There could be limits placed on family assistance funds without having to know details. Lots of ways to find agreement and yet maintain greater transparency. It may not be true but I’m sencing a lack of trust between leadership and lay person and vice versa. Perhaps that is the bigger issue

  18. Randy says:

    I disagree. I am the Senior Minister. If that is the same as the Lead Pastor in this article then I disagree. I do not want to know what people give. I don’t want to think about who gives what when dealing with different issues that may arise or any other situations with church members. My fear is not that I will give deference to the best givers, though I am certain that some would do just that, but I do fear that I would a t prejudice against the best giver just to ensure that I wasn’t giving him or her deference. So, not right for me.

  19. Monty says:

    As a preacher for a small church my pay is known to all who care to look at the monthly financial report posted on the bulletin board. It’s OK with me. Once the cat is out of the bag you can’t put him back in and my cat(pay)has always been out since day 1. That said, though, I believe it should be personal. I have been a member of another congregation where the preachers compensation got leaked and it caused quite a stink with some of the members who didn’t think he should be paid that well. It put the elders on the defensive of course and it caused a rift between the preacher and the offended members. Usually the members who give really well get ” leaked” too.

    As a preacher I have never known and do not want to know who the best givers are for the exact reasons stated by Randy. I know this isn’t always true but if you have bigger church with 4 or more elders then you have 8 people in the church who know the preachers pay and usually(not always) there is a wiki-leak.

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