How Much Information Do Elders Have on Members' Financial Offerings to the Church?

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Around this time each year our council receives the financial results for the church year, and we also receive statistics on the annual giving of our members (without names). We then have a recurring discussion from the year before noting certain patterns and how many "zeros" there are. The question arises whether the elders and/or deacons should have knowledge of the names of members' financial contributions to the church. We feel there is no need to have this information unless we are actually planning to do something useful with it. What is a pastoral way to handle the information that we have? How do other churches deal with what people see as "sensitive" information? Especially in an age where people and organizations have privacy issues to deal with.  Thanks for sharing.

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This a complicated issue because it deals both with raising money and with pastoral care. When we look at the upper tier of donors, we have the issue of how to thank them, and how to acknowledge them. While persons who give large gifts may not want a lot of public recognition, they can and perhaps should expect that the pastor and few other key leaders know of the contributions they have made. Moreover, if you have a group of relatively wealthy persons, they usually know each other, and they often look for some assurance that everyone is pulling their weight.  This becomes complicated, however, if in your church, as we have in mine, you have made an issue of complete confidentiality about pledging and giving. I am hoping we can retreat a bit from that policy, because we need good relationships with these crucial financial supporters.

On the lower end of the scale, however, it is a matter of pastoral care. For those who give zero, the reasons could hardly be financial alone -- and even that would be a matter for diaconal concern. Almost always this is a matter of faith. Such people have more serious issues with their church and themselves and their relationship to God. Should the elders know this? Or the pastor? Perhaps so, but it does no good to bring up the poor giving as an entry point for discussion. As I read somewhere, but can't place it right now, you can't ask $10 from someone with a $5 faith.

Then there are those whose gifts are small. I had a conversation recently with a man who did not like to receive reports on his giving from the treasurer. He did not say directly, but I concluded that he felt some shame that his gifts were so small. I assured him that no one except the one person who recorded the gift knew what he gave. No one else saw his report. He relaxed. That man wears his faith on his sleeve. No one can doubt he is a follower of Jesus. I doubt that it would help any elder to know his record of giving.

So, I am leaning towards a policy where a small circle of people have some access to the giving records, a circle that would include the pastor. The pastor, who also knows the elders and deacons, might occasionally alert an elder or deacon privately about a particular case, but would not share this knowledge generally.

In my last church, after being there about 7 years I asked the elders for permission to get the names and numbers for the last 3 years of every member and to let the congregation know publicly that I was aware of them. They wanted to know why, of course. Reasons: 1. so I can say thank you to the 60+% who generally generously and continuously support the Lord's work, (the response to just that was worth it!) 2. to have an honest conversation with those who don't or who do little, when I have a  chance to do so. Sooner or later I will run into them, and amazingly, once they knew I knew, it was surprising how many came looking for me!  Sometimes someone would bring  up the subject at the most inopportune place or time.  For many guilt was bothering them and they were relieved when we could honestly and  openly talk about it. I also learned that many had no idea how the giving system works in their church, we assume they understand local budget, classical and denominational shares, etc.  Many younger don't and really don't care all that much either. For a number their motto is simple, "just send me a bill and I'll pay it," as they do everything else. For others it became a practical teaching opportunity.    

But I also became aware of the 10-20% who year after year do nothing.  Most of them avoided me or raised a stink about me knowing all this confidential info. I just tell them I ask WWJD and then point to Him sitting by the door of the temple watching everyone put in their offering and making a big deal of the widow who gave the most by giving the least!  

I think this needs to be part of a bigger approach. I regularly informed and told stories about the joy of giving and the need for gifts, the blessing of generosity and the open windows of heaven for those who will "test me." I also believe and stated that it is impossible to be a Christian and not give, Self-centered people end up in hell, in fact, they are already unhappy at experiencing the foretaste, if not the first bites of it. 

I also got the numbers for the elders and deacons and ledarned I had to start there. Once the motion passed, 3 of the 5 "guilty" came to me and immediately acknowledged they were going to change. I don't know if they did or not (that would show in next year's numbers.)

I believe giving is a simple spiritual thermometer, generally pointing out spiritual health but especially illness or "unhealth."  For a long time I preferred not to know any of this for then I was not accountable or responsible.  Because money is the other big god, we ignore it at our peril and very much to the detriment of our people. 

As an aside, once the congregation was aware that this is the "new reality" the overall income went up significantly every month, which led to more praise and .... it was a good cycle!  It probably proves the old adage, "We don't do what is expected; we do what is inspected."  

I also taught that using the 10% tithe as a "starting guideline for giving to God and others" (not in a cold legalistic way) was a good place to start.  In sermons l urged members to try if for 6 months and if they regret it, to let me know and I'd go to the deacons and ask them to return the money that they gave.  I also offer to subsidize it with 5% interest.  Though I have made this offer for nearly 20 years, no one has ever come to collect; I have had many testimonies to the opposite, "I wished someone had challenged me to start this long ago!" One just can't outgive the Lord, many need to "test Him" to discover that He means it, for others, nothing less than repentance is needed. We do them a favor by calling and discipling for that!

I'm the church treasurer. We handle things a bit differently in that we base our annual budget on the pledges of our members. (We start with the pledges and build our budget on that--sort of zero-based budgeting, if you will.)

Most, but not all, of our members pledge. For those that do pledge, I do create a report that goes to the Pastor (only) reporting on pledge giving. This is used primarily for pastoral concerns: sometimes we know that someone is not meeting their pledge due to public circumstances (job loss, etc.). In that case no contact is made directly referencing the pledge. But if there is a significant discrepancy where there isn't a known reason, contact is made--both for diaconal and pastoral concerns.

Giving by non-pledgers is not reported. In addition, we have some members who pledge but then give in cash, so that is not tracked (although hundred-dollar bills in the offering plate are a pretty good indication).

The pastor does preach annually on giving. We are a church with a large number of recent converts and have found that there is a need to introduce the concept of tithing. We also cover it in our membership class, but we have found that the annual teaching does help remind everyone of the importance of this type of faithfulness in the Christian life.

Obviously, this depends on the context and mindset of each individual congregation and its pastor. This is one of the questions pastors disagree about regularly, even for themselves. And this has been reflected in the various answers already given.

My current congregation has a policy that the Revenue Administrator may contact the Pastor of Congregational Care and/or Co-Chair of Elders (Pastor of Care is the other co-chair) if the Revenue Administrator is concerned that a member is not giving faithfully (read 'giving $0'). The Pastor and/or Chair of Elders may also request to know if a certain person is giving faithfully (and thus receive an answer of "yes" or "no."). Note that in this set up, the Pastor nor the Chair of Elders never know the exact amount unless it is zero. They only know if the Revenue Administrator deems a person's giving as faithful or not. The Pastor of Care can then deem which of these need new follow-up. (For instance, a college student living in another city may not need follow-up and a stay-at-home mom whose husband abandoned her is already being cared for.) The Consistory or Council as a whole NEVER know those numbers, and I would advise against it. Only the Revenue Administrator knows numbers.

I would observe from your post that the concern the elders have is not individual giving, though it may seem like it. Their concern is with overall giving and "the pattern of zeros." The elders would be well served to look at the overall culture of the church and what they can do foster generousity, understanding of the giving process, and enthusiasm for the ministry of the church. The 'touchy' issues can be dealt one-on-one by those specially trained to do so.

If you are interested in a short but helpful book to consider this issue, I suggest,

Not Your Parents’ Offering Plate, by J. Clif Christopher

I don't agree with everything in it, but on the whole it offers helpful guidance. It is especially relevant for churches with a substantial portion of people who are not long-time faithful givers because it is a window into how most people view their giving today -- church is one place of many worthy places to give.

At our church, I suggested the deacons read a chapter a month in their meetings. It has helped educate and broaden discussion. The highlights of the discussion have even made it to the full council meeting.

The author's premise is that churches need to highlight the life-changing effect of the gospel that is augmented by their ministry so that Christians can be excited about being a part of that mission.

More relevant to the original question, there is a whole chapter on reasons the pastor should have offering information as well as what migh be done with the information. I'll offer a couple quotes.

"When one is gifted with extraordinary talent, one has the choice of using it for God’s purposes [for Kingdom purposes] or for some other purpose. Pastors need to share with individuals how to use their talents and gifts for the Lord."

"Just as it would be clergy malpractice to not visit someone who was dying and needed prayer, it is also clergy malpractice to ignore a member who is being pulled into hell by the weight of his wallet.... There are not many indicators available to us on what is happening inside one’s heart, but giving is a good one."

In summary, there is a "wealth" of information in giving statments, both about the giver and to some extent, their view of the importance of the ministry. The pastors and leaders of a church who ignore such information do so at their peril -- especially since the generation who unquestionably gives to their local church is shrinking.

I don't think this things really matters if you have faith and you can prove it to the community so it's not a big deal or any tough job to join as a member.