Some argue that clergy may treat people differently if they know what is given, even though this concern does not come up with other intimate disclosures of information. However, even if ministers don’t know what someone gives, they are probably making subconscious assumptions anyway. Weeks suggests that “ministers can lean toward preferential treatment of people on the basis of perceived, rather than actual giving” and suggests that knowledge is better than ignorance. The Reverend Canon Charles LaFond, reflecting for the Episcopal Network for Stewardship’s newsletter, argues that good clergy will discern the appropriate weight to give to giving data in the context of pastoral care.
These authors all point to the idea that clergy and a few trustworthy lay leaders should know what their fellow Christians give, so that these leaders can do their jobs. This is because giving is a spiritual practice, like prayer. Christopher argues that Christ spoke frequently about money, particularly to the rich, because he saw how easily money could pull them away from the kingdom of God. Giving was an antidote to that pull.
At a Minimum, Know Giving Patterns
At the very least, it can be helpful for the minister and session to know the overall giving patterns in the congregation: how many people are giving at each level and when they give. For example, if only 50% of the households in the congregation are giving, this might indicate that there are opportunities for preaching and teaching about faithful giving and the joys of generosity.
Take Note of Change
Clergy and key lay leaders could also be informed when someone makes a first gift, when someone starts to give regularly and when a gift is made for a special purpose to ensure thanks are given and to help assess the potential to ask for more.
Flagging changes in giving patterns – in either direction – can help build relational connections and provide good pastoral care. A decrease could indicate a job loss, a pending divorce, illness or family distress. It could also be a sign that the person is considering leaving the congregation. An increase can be an affirmation of ministry and a reason for a special thank you.
Giving and Leadership
There are also arguments for the minister to know what individuals give when they are being considered for leadership positions. “if you are going to have a church that practices stewardship, and I should probably say discipleship, in an exemplary way, you have to begin with a pastor who is willing to be a steward and then staff and key lay leaders who are willing to be examples.” Christopher explains. It shouldn’t be the only sign of discipleship considered, but it can be one factor that helps the minister understand the candidates’ spiritual lives.
Be Open About Your Church’s Policy
There isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer, but that it is useful to have prayerful conversation and to make an intentional decision about the appropriate and inappropriate uses of giving records, the differences between secrecy and confidentiality, and who is making the decisions.
Sessions (which include the minister) should decide what the minister needs to know and develop policies that are accessible and transparent. A session should examine job descriptions of committee members to determine who knows what and to ensure that those with access to the information treat it with confidentiality and use it solely for church duties. Privacy is particularly important today – and anyone who handles donor information must understand what can and cannot be done with the information.