Resource Library

The More You Know

Resource from Insights Newsletter
Resource Library

The More You Know

by Meredith McNabb

One of the findings from the National Study of Congregations’ Economic Practices (NSCEP) that has especially captured the attention of congregational leaders is the relatively small percentage of clergy who have access to—and who actually look at—individual giving records within their congregations.

The NSCEP found that only 55% of US congregations report that their head clergyperson has access to the giving records. Of those congregations, only 58% of the clergy who have access actually look at those records. Roughly speaking, just one in three head clergy leaders can and do have data about their congregation members’ giving records! However, the congregations in which head clergy do look at giving records were more likely to have had an increase in giving over the past three years (58% of these congregations had an increase in giving, compared to 48% of congregations overall—and 42% of these congregations reported a significant increase in contributions over the past three years: 10% or more).

Correlation does not equal causation, and opening up giving records to the lead clergyperson tomorrow is very unlikely to be the cure for a budget deficit before the end of the year—but the connection between “knowing” and a greater likelihood of stronger financial giving does raise important questions. Why are both congregations and clergy reluctant to allow giving records to be part of what clergy know about their congregational members?

The most common reasons that clergy gave for not looking at the records, even when they had access, were concerns about a temptation to treat individuals differently based on giving levels, or to have giving levels influence decisions within the congregation. Anecdotally, congregational assertions that financial giving is so private as to be exclusively “between the giver and God” (although presumably the IRS is often also permitted in that inner circle for tax deduction purposes), and fundamental issues of trust in the clergy leader (whether specific to the individual or toward clergy in general) seem to be some of the primary reasons why access to the records often isn’t granted in the first place.

As many have noted, giving records are just one part of the constellation of personal information that clergy leaders are expected to handle with professional discretion and spiritual care. From such mundane matters of faith as how often an individual attends worship, to such sensitive matters as substance abuse, family struggles, and even moral failures, clergy know a great deal about the people in their care. While there are occasional clergy who themselves fail to carry that sensitive knowledge with the discretion and spiritual maturity required of faith leaders, those are the exceptions—and such concerns should be addressed far more directly than with secrecy around giving records. With only money being singled out in many congregations for such secret, hands-off treatment on the part of either congregation or clergy, the logical explanation is the cultural taboo around money.

“Money is different”, we hear people say. A seminary professor of mine memorably observed that while sermons about racial reconciliation, environmental stewardship, and peace might draw strong responses from parishioners, it was sermons about economic practices that were likeliest to get a preacher run out of town.

Psychologist Dr. Richard Trachtman notes the strength of the money taboo in the United States:

We Americans may complain about taxes, discuss the prospects of Social Security, and brag about the great bargains we found or the killings we made in the stock market, but we seldom discuss our incomes, our indebtedness, or, more generally, how we feel and think about money and how we relate to others because of it. … This taboo keeps people from finding money’s proper place in their lives. It keeps them from balancing their financial needs with other needs, such as love, family, self-expression, self-esteem, meaningful work, and physical or emotional health. If people can recognize and overcome their irrational or destructive money-related beliefs and behaviors, money can become a valuable, life-enhancing force for them—a tool with which they can shape their lives, rather than a cage in which they are confined.

Congregational expectations and clergy members’ own reconciliation with the money taboo will have an impact on how any conversation about access to the giving records develops. As Chick Lane and Grace Duddy Pomroy observe, “Societal taboos about money are probably not something pastors and congregational leaders can undo…”, but we can be patient with an out-of-proportion reaction to money-talk that’s more about the taboo than about the leader.But as spiritual and organizational leaders, clergy would do well to explore their congregations’ or their own reticence to think or talk about money. Transparency, spiritual grounding, courage, and patience on the part of leaders around breaking down the power of the money taboo can change the whole culture of the congregation. Even a small degree of freedom from the money taboo can significantly increase the good that money can do, in both individual and organizational life.

Expanded Perspective

by Anne Brock

DATE: October 22, 2019
TOPIC: Organizational Leadership
TYPE: Article
SOURCE: Insights Newsletter
KEYWORDS: Accountability
AUTHOR: Anne Snyder, Meredith McNabb