As a young pastor, one of my mentors was adamant about the value of never knowing what people give. He often stated that he had no clue about individual giving patterns and no idea what people give. For him, it was a matter of principle. Treat people with the grace and truth required to be a faithful shepherd, and never let money cause you to play favorites. I did (and still do) feel great respect to pastors who distance themselves from such financial data in order to remain objective and consistent in their caregiving.
But my feelings about this matter changed considerably when I became a church planter and lead pastor. I understand how a leader might be tempted to treat people differently based upon their giving, but I also believe that such knowledge can be good and helpful.
In making the case to know what people give, allow me to share the following ten reasons:
#1 – First-hand knowledge helps us in every other area of discipleship.
It would sound silly to say, “I don’t want to know how much that person serves because I might favor them.” We want to celebrate and thank people for serving! Whether we track first and second time attenders, volunteers moving along the various stages of leadership, or givers making their progression of generosity, we can use our awareness of where people are in order to honor, thank, and further develop them. Their needs are different at each point, and we can communicate with them in a helpful and relevant manner if we know where they are.
#2 – Evaluating high-level leaders.
When I’m looking for a high-level leader for an important position on staff or our elder board, I get a sense of their maturity and character from their giving patterns. If they give $20 on a periodic basis while living an upper class lifestyle, they have not yet matured to the point of being intentional in their giving, which is helpful to know as I look for someone to serve as a model for others. As we evaluate other options for leaders, this is just one of the relevant factors to consider.
#3 – Cherishing the widow’s mite.
A recently-widowed woman in our congregation just restarted her household’s automatic giving plan. The gift was considerably smaller than their previous gift, but the amount wasn’t the point. She was using whatever means she had to carry forth her husband’s value of intentional generosity. When I discovered her gift, I found it incredibly touching. It made me want to reach out in order to thank her and honor this meaningful gesture, but also to make sure that she is in a healthy financial position for such giving, and to offer any needed support (which is obviously not conditional upon giving).
#4 – What biblical warnings actually say.
Carrying the Old Testament’s spirit of justice and dignity towards the poor (Leviticus 19:15), the early church cautioned against favoring the wealthy (I Cor 11:22; James 2:1-4), but never against being aware of what people give. In fact, the only circumstance where we see a rich and poor person giving specifically refers to the amounts they give (Lk 21:1-4), as if there is some value in knowing.
#5 – We usually make assumptions.
If there is a risk of favoring the rich in the church—and there is—such behavior may happen whether or not we know what people actually give. When a well-dressed family pulls into the church lot with a decked-out $120,000 Cadillac Escalade, we automatically make assumptions about their status and giving capacity. We may assume that they are extravagant givers, or show them more care and attention than the single mom that drives in with a rusted-out 1980 Dodge Dart. But looks can be deceiving, as some wealthy people either fail to prioritize generosity or find themselves crippled by debt. And some people who appear poor are our most generous givers in terms of their level of commitment and sacrifice. If we can avoid temptations to show favoritism, knowing what people are actually giving helps us discern how to disciple and meet their needs.
#6 – Seek accountability in this area.
Pastors wisely build systems for feedback and accountability in moral areas, seeking feedback from trusted people who hold them accountable. Why not do this in regards to giving? Ask your church and staff to tell you if you ever appear to show favoritism toward wealthy people or neglect those with less resources. State the value of showing all people the dignity afforded in the gospel and welcome input as to how you are doing as a leader and as a church.
#7 – Knowing who and how to thank.
I personally thank all new givers and all new automatic givers, regardless of the amount. But if someone gives $30,000, they should expect that we not treat that donation like a five dollar bill thrown into the offering box. I want them to understand how much we appreciate the gift and what we can do with it. Such givers experience that kind of personal response when they give elsewhere to non-profits, and we open up for future extravagant giving when we acknowledge those who do so in the present. Far from offering special privileges or control in church decisions, such conversations may actually involve challenging the individual. I know a pastor who intentionally dines with wealthy people who visit his church in order to inform them that, if they choose to become a part of his congregation, he would be asking them for a significant financial contribution. In so doing, he replaces favoritism with the invitation to be discipled in their finances.
#8 – Just be intentional.
We’re more likely to favor people who give more or neglect people who give less when we’re impulsive rather than intentional. Do you have an intentional plan to honor all givers as they grow in generosity? Just as we aim to support new members, new believers, and new volunteers with precision and specificity (and throughout the successive stages that follow), we should create a framework for supporting and nurturing people according to where they are on the giving spectrum (pre-giver, first-time, periodic, automatic, percentage, tither, extravagant). This allows your team to simply “work the system” for meeting givers where they are and discipling them, rather than merely responding to large gifts.
#9 – Discern your context.
It isn’t helpful to step into an established church and immediately demand to know what everyone is giving. A previous pastor may have micromanaged, neglected, or mishandled finances, and there may be a long story behind the present systems for how they handle giving information. Simply aim to start conversation about how you can best pastor and lead your people while funding your mission. On the other hand, in a church plant setting, where planters build everything from scratch (including their finances), there is likely a need to understand where revenue is coming from as you build and relate to your team of financial supporters.
#10 – Targeted communication.
When my church wanted to gather our most dedicated donors together to say thank you, we had trouble deciding who to invite. New and periodic givers may feel uncomfortable coming to our home for a meal, while longer term givers (who tend to give more but not always) appreciated the invitation. So we target people who have been regular givers for an extended period. Further, during Covid, we communicated differently with the top 20% of our givers because they fund about 80% of our budget. They had different concerns and questions than those who give less consistently, and we wanted to help them remain steadfast in their giving so that we could sustain our mission. This proved to be crucial, as these individuals were thankful to hear about our needs, updates, and challenges, and most eagerly maintained their giving commitments.
All this being said, I want to affirm that there are certainly risks associated with knowing this information, because pastors are human and can begin to improperly filter their leadership through the lens of this giving information. A pastor who knows what everyone gives must accept a certain level of suspicion from those who are aware of his access to donor information, and his/her treatment of parishioners will likely be subject to elevated scrutiny.
Leaders like my personal mentor seek to avoid these liabilities in their leadership, and I sincerely respect their commitment to biblical character. However, I have found that this sensitive information can be helpful in both discipleship and leadership if used wisely and carefully.