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May 3, 2011

A Pastor's Thoughts on Knowing What People Give

Facts and assumptions about a good--but complex--question


Editor's Note: In November, TheYourChurchBlog.com published "Should Pastors Know What People Give?" It generated numerous responses, some in favor of the idea, some opposed. We recently came across another viewpoint on the question by Larry Osborne, pastor of North Coast Church in California and author of Sticky Church.

Larry permitted us to offer it today as a guest post:

One subject that’s always good for a little controversy is a discussion of whether or not a pastor should have access to congregational giving records. Years ago, I was a proud, card-carrying member of the “I-don’t-know-who-gives-what” tribe. But I changed my mind after being challenged and realizing that:

  • I had a hard time explaining why a pastor is any different from other ministry leaders (think missionaries, parachurch ministries, Christian media, seminaries, and the like).
  • I had a hard time explaining why capital campaigns are different. No one seems to object to the pastor knowing about large commitments and gifts to a building project. So how is this different than gifts to the general fund?
  • I found nothing in the scriptures supporting my viewpoint. Frankly, all the verses I used to support staying in the dark could just as well be applied to missionaries or anyone leading any ministry—even the church treasurer—something that no one I know of advocates. The idea that a local church pastor is somehow different is simply not Biblical.
  • Even though I took pride in not knowing, I still made subconscious assumptions. I couldn’t help it. It’s human nature. But once I had the facts in hand, I was amazed at how inaccurate most of my assumptions were.

Awhile back, I was discussing this with a group of pastors at a gathering I was hosting. The very next day I had an experience that showed once again why having the facts is always better than making assumptions—and how having the facts radically changes (and should change) the way we deal with individuals.

Our church was being picketed by the carpenters’ union. Their huge “Labor Dispute – SHAME ON NORTH COAST CHURCH” sign showed up during the week and during our worship services in an attempt to “motivate” us into firing a non-union subcontractor we’d hired to work on our new campus construction.

After the first weekend of picketing, we received an e-mail from a concerned parishioner. He informed us that after prayer and reflection his family would no longer be giving their “first fruits” to our ministry. He said he would still give the Lord what was His, but it just wouldn’t be to North Coast—at least not until the issue with the union was resolved.

He then went on to say that though he didn’t particularly care for the methods the union was using, he felt our church had a moral obligation to support companies that provide a living wage in order to show the community that we care about people and not just the bottom line. He concluded by thanking us for the way our ministry and teaching had blessed his family and promised that his entire family would continue to pray for us as we worked to resolve the issue.

If you were in my shoes, how would you respond—not just in terms of what would you say or write, but in terms of how would you feel?

Based on content and tone, it’s clear that the writer is a union member, but he’s also a strong Christian, fully committed to the church, praying for it regularly, and supporting it with his “first fruits.” My bet is that you’d wonder if other families like his were thinking the same thing—and if they were, what they might do in response.

Here’s how I responded.

I asked my assistant to get me some facts. Who was this gentleman? What was his attendance pattern and involvement in our small group ministry? And what was his giving record?

Here’s what I found out: He attended our church for a couple of years. He was never involved in a small group. His “first fruits” giving the previous year was all of $500. Year-to-date, it was zero.

Now come on. Let’s admit it. That changes things a bit, doesn’t it?

Frankly, for me, the facts changed everything. Rather than crafting a response appropriate for a strong Christian, highly committed to our church, I needed to put together a response designed for a "big hat, no cattle" Christian making an empty threat about cutting back his non-existent financial support. It needed to be addressed to someone who talked a good game, but whose deepest loyalty ran far more with the union movement than his local church.

Once I had the facts in hand, I realized the best way to respond would read something like this:

Dear _________

Thank you for sharing your concerns about resolving the issue with the protesters. I fully understand, in light of your union loyalties, why you might be hesitant to give God’s “first fruits” to a church that hires non-union workers.

Perhaps that’s a sign that we are not the best church for you or your family at this time; especially since we’re likely to continue to use our donated funds to hire the lowest qualified bidder on this and other projects in the future.

In light of your concerns, I have asked our finance department to return to you all the “first fruits” gifts you have given to our church so far this year so that you can forward them on to a ministry you can fully support. Unfortunately, we couldn’t find a record of any such gifts.

Rest assured, if we find any, we will send them to you posthaste. In the meantime, may God guide you and your family as you search for a church worthy of your full support.


Pastor Larry Osborne

Now, did I really send it?

That’s between him, me, and the Lord.

In the meantime, what would you done once you knew the facts? And how might that differ from what you would have done with nothing but some assumptions based on his e-mail?

Larry Osborne has served as a Senior Pastor and Teaching Pastor at North Coast Church since 1980.

Related Tags: finances, giving, pastors, relationships, tithes


it seems to me that this article makes a strong case for why a pastor should NOT know the giving records.

treating someone differently because they don't give as much doesn't pass the "smell test" of trying to be "biblical" (James 2).

it seems that a pastor should try to disciple his people toward the next step of their discipleship journey, regardless of where they currently are. Why not sit down with this man and talk through some of the biblical principles about conflicts, stumbling blocks, and unity?

David, I think Larry was calling this man to biblical principles and maturity. The facts allowed for a gracious, gentle, and pastorally motivated correction. Nothing in Scripture would say a believer should dishonestly posture about their giving.

And this is not a James 2 issue. He was not showing more 'honor' to someone based on their wealth. He was telling a man he is not the committed follower of Jesus he wishes others to believe he is. It's the same with the man who says he's a great husband and is addicted to porn, or the woman who says she's a loving mom but beats her children.

I personally don't know what individuals give in our church, however, I think of Acts 5 often. This man was clearly being dishonest with his church and by extension God.

To me, what was done with the information presents a better arguemtn for why pastors don't need to know than why they do need to know. The amount people give or don't give really shouldn't alter our response to them; if it does, seems like we're saying money talks. Also, the article says that the pastor asked his assistant to check up on the person's giving records and involvement in small groups, but the letter to the guy claims that he did so with the aim of returning the funds to the guy. Why not just tell the guy you checked him out?

Did the man who left the church serve in other ways, within the church and/or without? Did he give anonymously? Might there be some biblical legitimacy to his expressed concern to pay workers a living wage? It would be nice to see these issues addressed also.

It seems to me that all the comments with regards to this article contained more wisdom and certainly more integrity than the content of the "response" to this man by his pastor, who crafted a creative response but not based on integrity of intent (i.e. refunding the man's offerings of record. As a church treasurer, whose pastor does not want to know what members or non-members give, it is my opinion that a pastor is best off, as is his congregation, not knowing what individuals give. It's too easy for humans to play favorites anyway (personalities, friendships, "clout", etc.) without the added influence of, as one mentioned, "money talks" being added to the mix of trying to be a true pastor and not a financial/political analyst within a church.

The problem is not a simple matter. First, the Pastor's job is to look after his flock's interests, saving money and getting a good job done. Most of our church building work is done by church members either through the fix-it group or through contractors who are members of our church. We never ask if they're union or not, we feel that's the workers business, especially if the workers don't bring it up. I don't like the threat in the email, in it's cohersion angle (do what I want or I'll leave). My Church through the elected elders make a lot of decisions I don't really care for but I would never think of threatening leaving. This is from a union member. Churches need financial savings as they are barely making it financially, while companies can pay union wages while they're making profits of millions. And the pastor should know the income when the threat is removing that income, it steers him towards his necessary response because this threat can't be ignored. If the pastor gives in this email person in the future will use his new found control even more, that's the way power grows.

While I dont know Larry well I do have additional insight about him as I have been to his home for church leadership training. This insight enhances my discernment of Larry's thoughts on this touchy subject. A pastor is afforded additinal insight when he has knowledge of who is tithing and who is not which can help him discern a parishoners thoughts and intentions. Scriptually speaking, tithing is a form of worship and just as a pastor should know who is attending church and if needed he should be able to know who is worshipping.

Acts 4:35 They laid their offerings at the Apostles feet would seem to indicate that they knew what was being given.Perhaps this is the way offerings should be received today.

I would suggest some additional reading; "Not Your Parents' Offering Plate" by J. Clif Christopher. Two chapters are especially relevant to this discussion, #3 All Members Are Not Equal, and #4 The Pastor MUST Be A Fundraiser. There are compelling reasons why a pastor is a less effective minister and leader when ignorant of what the membership gives. Ignorance may be bliss, but it is no excuse for being a less effective leader of the flock.

The only time I think you should know what some one is giving is when you are considering them for a leadership position in the church, deacon, elder, teacher etc. If they are not completely committed then they should not be in these positions. I do see the person writing the email thought more of his union than he did the church, but that is something he has to wrestle with and threats to leave, then leave.

I think the financial question usually boils down to should or could. Should the Pastor know? Generally, I would say no except for people in positions of leadership. As a leader in my local church, I have told my Pastor that he is free to look at my giving any time, without question.

However, with this specific church attendee I see a worse problem, bullying within the church. Do it my way or else. Bullying has no place in the church and needs dealt with directly and quickly. Not though passive aggressive statements

It seems to me that if we belong to the church, that is if we are part of the Body of Christ and belong to each other, then our giving should be a matter an open record to the church membership. Why should we give our money more privacy than the other parts of our lives, especially since the way we handle our money has a large affect on the church? I can't think of one biblical passage that would make our contributions to God a secret. I wonder what would happen to pastors if they had to reveal their giving to the church?

Most Pastors are not paid the “prevailing” wage; I think most lay persons would be likely to underestimate what a Pastor who is committed to Christ gives compared to his/her income versus the same relative income of the average lay person. As for the Pastor knowing the amount - that is up to the individual Pastor and or Church policy. Jesus watched each person giving when he spoke of the widow and her sacrificial giving. True giving is not measured by the dollar amount but by the commitment to Christ in that person has as it is related to his/her giving.

We live in a culture that prizes anonymity when it comes to those things we consider personal: our wages and how we spend it, our sex life, our weight, our age, etc. Yet our culture is becoming more intrusive with informational technology beckoning us to share our private thoughts and information online (facebook and twitter) as well as making the threat of identity theft very real for many. I believe Larry is pointing out that many folks have grown up with the thought that the pastor should not know what people give, but that does not help the pastor or church leadership shepherd or hold folks accountable. The prevailing argument against this has been that that keeps the pastor from providing preferential treatment in favor for those who give more. Should we not be more concerned that our culture has led us into thinking (wrongly) that our giving is no one's business but our own? The world holds people accountable by posting salaries (for instance, many counties publish public servants' and teachers' level of pay); pastors' salaries are often published as part of an annual budget. Why should we continue to buy into the cultural system which is neither biblical or consistent? Often the Church is unable to hold people accountable in this culture because people can always find another church to go to that won't. Being obedient to God's Word in the areas of giving and submitting to one another in love should be what we are seeking; otherwise, we will continue to see a decline in our families, our churches, and our culture.

After reading the post above that are so condemning of the Pastor, I have determined many of these people who are quick to condemn the Pastor are most likely people who would have been receving this type of letter also. I have found that most people who are quick to criticize and condemn others are trying to take the spotlight off something in their own life that is not lining uo with God's Word. I certainly believe the Pastor had every right to know and also to respond in like he did. This man is trying to control what the church does without properly supporting the church in the way he should. He was trying to pass himself off as something that he was not. He deserved an open rebuke according to the scripture.

After reading this, I see two things even more clearly. The first is that a pastor should NOT know what people give, especially if that knowledge is used to judge worthiness.
The second is that while $500 is small to some, the widow’s mite was smaller to those same people. To God, a mite might be big.
A response to a concerned member should be based on what is right, not upon what is wrong. Am I any better? No. Should I be? Yes!

Readers need to decide if financial support is a discipleship issue or a "personal and private" issue. If it is a discipleship issue, then it does bear knowledge by biblically qualified elders. Is the church not responsible for seeing increasing discipleship of the flock (Col 1:28)? If financial support is a discipleship issue, how are people to be specifically challenged without specific knowledge? People caught in pornography seek out specific accountability, making know their private internet viewing habits. Giving, or the lack thereof, is perhaps a more insidious sin than our internet viewing habits.
If it's a personal and private issue, then pastors should request that people not come to them with ethical and relational issues - since those are private too. Goodness, a divorce is a personal issue ... I'd think pastors would quite like to be free from that messy responsibility!
The issue in giving is certainly NOT equality in amount ... giving to God requires walking a line between giving that is "in proportion" and "sacrificial". It is odd that American Christians are the richest in the world, yet most secretive about their financial support of the church. I guess I'd want to keep it private too if someone making 1/20th of my salary was giving more sacrificially ... I might even have to give up my iPhone. Perhaps if we were not so stingy, we wouldn't be so offended by spiritual leaders knowing about what we were supposed to be doing anyways.
When we make church members sovereign consumers that get to decide what they want to be accountable for and what not, then I suppose you get the tepid spirituality you find in the USA!

I am the trasurer of our church and our policy is to keep confidential all the giving records. That includes the pastors and the elders. My intial reaction of the response was "I laughed" the guy deserved to be called out on his lie. However the pastor should not have snooped, regardless of what he found. I feel it would have been more appropriate to have the treasurer write a responses that whould simply thank the sender for letting the church know his intent. An annual statement will be mailed reflecting his year todate gifts. If it's the policy of the church not to mail statements for gifts for the year of less than $100 (for example) then the poor guy will get what he deserves. This removes the pastor from the position of making a judgement as to whether the guy was lieing or not. Having the experience of gift records and conversations with members, I know that some members would perfer giving cash with no record of them selves because they use the STANDARD DEDUCTION method on their tax return, which precludes the need for a statement.

I give regularly to my church - but I support ministries outside of my church as well, because I believe in supporting the Church (big C not small c). I hope that my leaders don't treat me differently because of my convictions.

This pastor is out, way out, of line. His response verges on horrific. He does nothing to actually meet with this man face to face, as indicated by Mt. 18:15 when a brother "offends" (if there even has even been an offense here). He does nothing to find out if that seemingly paltry $500 is in fact the man's firstfruits, cf. Mark 12:41-44 about the widow's mite. He seems never to have read Phillipians 4:5 ("let you gentleness be made known to all") and instead launched into an ad hominem fallacy. He does not debate the man's point about supporting living-wage workers based on its ethical or moral merits; he does not even consider the idea. Instead he constructs an ad hominem case against the man based on his perceived financial use to the church! Awful! The man and his family are indeed better off not being under the 'pastoral' care of this person. Heaven help those still in this man's parish.

I agree with Steve. The response by the pastor is very poor. Two major problems. First, he does not have all the facts about the man's giving as he supposes (i.e. cash giving "off the record", or potential giving to other Christian ministries). Bigger issue is, now that the pastor (supposedly) knows the writers giving level, he automatically dismisses the criticism. By doing so, he denies himself and his church a chance to honestly examine their actions and misses a great teaching opportunity for the church. I don't see how pastors response moves this man or any other church member closer to God or deeper in discipleship?

So, if I may ask, would the pastor's response had been any different if he found out that the union member had given huge amounts of money to the church? If it would have been different (more positive) would this not be the exact reason why a pastor should not know how much each member gives - namely that it might give rise to favouritism? Should the pastor not have responded based on principle - explain why the church chooses to get the lowest bidder (being a good steard of its resources) and let the chips fall where they may, knowing that even if this union member gave millions each year to the church, that God would still provide for His church, regardless of whether the man took his millions elsewhere?

Why do we assume that it is wrong for a pastor to treat people differently based on their giving. Treating someone differently is not necessarily showing them preference (i.e. the James passage). We respond differently to people who actively attend or who serve as leaders, etc. People who do not give need a different ministry than those who do give generously. In order to successfully help someone grow spiritually, it is usually best to have as much information about their needs as possible.

There is only ONE idea in Larry's post that I can agree with: "The idea that a local church pastor is somehow different is simply not Biblical." (I would like to know what other areas of church and ministry he would apply this premise to, or is this the only instance in which this 'justification' works?) Following his logic, not only should all leadership be aware of giving patterns, then ALL the church leadership should be involved in deciding how to deal with these situations.
To take his point a step further, not only is the pastor 'not different', but Christ establishes for us that those chosen to lead, should go above and beyond to consider others as more important (Mark 10:42-43; 1 Cor. 12:22-23; Phil. 2:3). Today, we have exactly the opposite when it comes to church leadership. People are expendable for the sake of the bottom line, the greater good of the program, or even for the sake of reaching more unchurched people (none of which is a Biblically justifiable reason for asking someone to leave the church). The most important asset a church has is each other ... not the budget, not the facilities, not even the ability to draw the community in! Our FIRST responsibility is to 'build up' and edify one another (Ephes. 4:16)! The CEO mentality for church leadership just simply does not mesh with the principles that Christ left His church!
As for the specific issue of who knows or doesn't know what we give, I think a review of Matthew 6:1-4 makes it clear enough. And in regards to money being 'laid at the Apostles feet' in Acts 4, it is interesting to note this offering was not kept by the apostles, it was not added to the church storehouse, nor was it chalked up to the building fund, it was distributed to those among them in need. I believe we can learn a couple things from this. First, not everyone had/has the ability or resources to give (which is also true of the Old Testament Tithe), and second, we should more concerned about meeting the needs we have among each other than about the bottom line of our 501(c)3!

The author's request for information about a person was flawed, for it only brought into consideration what the person in concern was "recorded" as giving. What if he didn't put his offering into an envelope, marked with his name and address? What if he put his offering into the plate "anonymously", so that no one would ever know - keeping his giving between him and his God?

In such a case, searching for his “giving record” would be irrelevant. He did not want his “giving record” to be known, therefore it wasn’t known to anyone but he and God.

I also find it appalling that this pastor judged a man’s commitment to the church based upon whether or not he came to a “small group”. There are many men who do not for reasons of work, family, etc. It says nothing about their commitment to Christ or the church, it just means that, for reasons of their own, they cannot come to a small group. (As an alternative, find out of this man showed up to a church busy bee!)

This pastor never telephoned the person. Never talked to them, he only sought “how much does he give and what group is he in”.

I sincerely hope that he did not send his letter to this man, for if he did, then this “pastor” was anything but a “pastor” to this individual.

As a senior pastor in a small church in Spokane WA, I support knowing the records when neccessary. I personally have never actually looked at the giving records of my church. However I have always held the right to.
We came to this community some 19 years ago. At that time our church by-laws stated the leading board, to be qualified were to already be practicing the spiritual discipline of tithing.
When the next year came along and we were processing through nominations, I called the bookkeeper and asked whether certain people were tithers, she responded, "You actually want me to tell you whether someone is a tither?" I assured her again of my intent.
As I remember, we then talked about how do we know for certain? The general conclusion was that those who gave consistently on record substantial amounts were most likely tithing. Those who did not were more likely so low in their giving that it would be obvious.
At that point, the bookkeeper said, "Well then you need to talk to your existing leadership, because several are not tithing right now". I was taken back.
I did not ask for names but at the next meeting, I told the existing leadership what the bookkeeper had told me. I said, this needs to be resolved.
Within a few weeks a couple member of the leadership quietly resigned their positions.
Had there not been any accountability, I would never have known and consequently would have been allowing people to be making financial decisions in the life of the church who were not being biblical responsible in their own homes.
How can we expect God to bless when we have that going on?

I used to write very generous checks to a certain church - my tithe plus a very large amount for a missionary that I supported. One day, a woman whose husband was a deacon in charge of counting the offering money, came rushing up to me between services and cluelessly blurted out at the top of her voice in a crowded foyer, "I know how much you give, and you give more than anybody!" Her behavior was horribly humiliating. I never gave another trackable dime to that church, just dropped money in the offering plate. So just because someone is not writing a check that can be tracked does not mean the person is not giving. I have been giving anonymously for years. And sometimes people in leadership positions cannot maintain confidentiality about people who give generously.

Goodness! Very passionate feelings on both sides of the issue and a strong case can be made for either side. I believe it is imperative that people in leadership (including ministry leaders) in the local church should be examples of what is required of the general membership and so pastors should retain "the right" to know about the giving habits of current or prospective leaders. Whether he exercises that right on a "need to know" basis is up to him. It is, however, hypocritical for someone to be in a position of making decisions regarding the local church's finances if he or she is not a contributor.

As for the pastor's letter, I do not believe he sent it though fankly, the bully to whom he was responding would have brought it on himself with his uppity and obnoxious behaviour. WWJD? The NT shows different sides of Him so we cannot say for sure. However, something tells me He would have said something to the man that "exposed" the hypocrisy in his heart.

Someone suggest that pastor was "snooping" by getting the man's donation records. I strongly disagree. As a matter of fact, it was the man who brought up the subject of his giving. While $550 may or may not be the true amount of his contributions, the fact is he tried to use his giving as a rod. Under the circumstances, the pastor had every right to check into the issue this man had raised.

So outside of situations similar to the one in question, and but for instances where leadership and ministry appointments are being made, a pastor shouldn't seek out membership giving information.

i like it. the pastor should have the facts when dealing with members. really, this "member" should've been fired as a member. it's time to get tough with members that are not supporting the church as their support pretty much indicates where their heart is or lack of it. the response was snarky, but with the removal of the couldn't find it verbiage and sticking with just returning their contributions would've been a good response. people need to understand accountability is both ways. so i'm all for responding to the person with all the facts. that way the pastor has a better understanding of the situation when crafting a response so long as people know how to analyze the information, which i often find people do not have that gift of analysis and which can be seen by the responses to this article. we must keep in mind thought he pastor asked for attendance records, financial records, and small group records. people may give but not necessarily all to the church they belong to, but the pastor was crafting a response based on the person's involvement in that church and regardless of the charity of the person elsewhere, how much effort shall one give to a person who hardly attends, hasn't given that year, and is not involved in the life of the church? for this instance where the subject involved unions, i am for the pastor in this instance as the person is hardly much of a member so responding to that person's union letter is all the pastor needed to waste his time on before getting back to what the active membership body was paying him for - to be a pastor to the involved body.

Really when someone doesn't know afterward its up to other visitors that they will
help, so here it takes place.

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