Should the Minister Know the Amount People Give?

Should ministers know how much their parishioners contribute financially? It’s a question that can cause anxiety on both sides. InterConnections recently invited ministers to discuss this topic. Most who responded favored the minister knowing, saying the knowledge helped them know about changes in members’ lives—whether in economic status or in feelings about the congregation. On the other side, one feared that knowing would cause him to treat people differently.

The majority view was that informing the minister about pledges was a matter of trust—or lack of it. As one minister put it, “If they can’t trust me to know this, how can they trust me with the care of their souls?”

Congregants who believe that a minister who knows pledge amounts would treat people differently “do not possess the trust necessary to make a church strong in the free church tradition,” says the Rev. Dr. Brent Smith of All Souls Community Church of West Michigan, Grand Rapids, MI (101 members). “The minister who isn’t involved in basic ways with the financial health of the church is neglectful of the institution he or she has been called to serve.”

At the Unitarian Society of Santa Barbara, CA (500 members), the Rev. Dr. Ken Collier also sees the issue as one of trust: “If the congregation trusts its minister, why would they care? And if they do not trust the minister, wouldn’t the minister have far more important things to worry about than who pledges what?” Collier is one of four people at his congregation (director of religious education, administrator, president) who collectively sign thank-you letters to all pledgers. “Of course we look at the amount,” Collier says, “But who can remember 350-plus pledge amounts?”

The Rev. Christine Robinson, at the First Unitarian Church of Albuquerque, NM (661), believes smaller congregations struggle more with this issue. “In larger congregations, no one pledge means the establishing of a new program or the minister’s having a decent standard of living, so there is less anxiety about any one pledge amount.” Robinson says that when she needs to know how people are pledging, she quietly asks for and gets a general idea of contributions.

The Rev. Walter Wieder, who knows the pledges of members of the Unitarian Universalist (UU) Church, Surprise, AZ (225), has a response for those who fear the minister would treat people better if they pledged more. “I can only reply, ‘Increase your pledge, and we’ll see.’”

The Rev. Alex Holt, part-time minister at Woodinville UU Church in Woodinville, WA (144), chooses to not know pledge amounts. “I don’t want to inadvertently treat a high pledger differently,” he says. “There are plenty of other ways to find out if a pledger is having difficulties.”

The Rev. Ralph Mero, Director of the Unitarian Universalist Association’s (UUA’s) Office of Church Staff Finances, encourages the sharing of pledge information. “There is no doubt in my mind that a greater percentage of UU ministers know the amounts of individual pledges today than 20 years ago. Congregations are making real progress in financial openness, and much of the old Protestant culture of secrecy around money and church is fading away as congregations face up to their fiscal realities.”

Mero adds, “As Martin Luther King Sr. is quoted as saying, ‘Anonymous giving leads to anonymous non-giving.’ King saved the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta from foreclosure in the 1930s by insisting that all pledges and donations be written down in a large book prominently displayed in the sanctuary.”

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About the Author

  • Donald E. Skinner was the founding editor of the InterConnections newsletter for congregational leaders and a senior editor of UU World from 1998 until his retirement in 2014. He is a member of the Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church in Lenexa, Kansas.

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