March 2018
Church Finances for Uncertain Times

Pledging: Why Clergy Must Know Who Pledges, and How Much

On Saturday night, the local choral society holds its winter concert in your church. The printed program thanks those who donated in support of the concert and lists their names under each level of contribution — Angels, Benefactors, Friends, etc. No one thinks anything of it. The next morning, however, the names of the members of your parish who’ve made pledges to the 2018 stewardship campaign — some of whom also contributed to the choral society — and the amounts they’ve pledged are shrouded in a thick veil of secrecy.

An earlier Vestry Papers article addressed the question of whether clergy should know who among their parishioners have made pledge commitments. That article acknowledged the challenges and nuances, but still encouraged clergy to understand this as a matter of pastoral duty and leadership and vestries to see their responsibility to foster a culture of trust and generosity. At the Episcopal Church Foundation (ECF), we believe that it’s not only appropriate, it’s vital for clergy to know the details of their congregation members’ giving.

Erin Weber-Johnson, Senior Program Director of Strategic Resources and Client Services notes, “At ECF and at Project Resource we emphasize that fundraising is a ministry. It is not a means to an end, but a radical act of reconciliation, a process that can both draw the giver closer to God and repair an unjust world. Unlocking our hearts to God, begins with a direct invitation, reflection on our own relationship with money and the priorities in our lives that impact our giving. Clergy play a vital role in this work.”

Why remove the veil of secrecy?

Changes in employment, illness, important life events — all are reflected in a person`s giving. To choose not to know what a parishioner gives, or if they give, is to choose not to have information that can inform and strengthen pastoral care.

“Pastors need to know about the giving behavior of the members of the congregation in order to be effective leaders,” says Melissa Spas, the Managing Director of Education and Engagement at the Lake Institute on Faith & Giving at IUPUI’s Lilly Family School of Philanthropy. “In any other nonprofit organization, we would not accept the refusal of a senior leader to take responsibility for the financial well-being of the organization they lead, and yet we willingly perpetuate the idea that clergy should not know. This does a disservice to both pastors and their congregations, because it reinforces a taboo that prevents leaders and organizations from thriving.”

“Pastors hold in confidence much more sensitive personal information about the lives of their parishioners, and yet when it comes to money-talk, we seem to have lost that perspective,” Spas observes. “When we have a new conversation about the place of money in our personal lives and in our faith communities, suddenly it no longer has power over us, but instead becomes another opportunity to align ourselves with a mission and purpose that is deeply meaningful. Fundraising becomes the occasion for faith formation, and stewardship is an activity of discipleship, rather than something separate from the ministry and vocation of the church.”

ECF Consultant and priest, Jerry Keucher suggests that there’s a false dichotomy created between confidentiality and secrecy. “No one can lead any organization effectively without knowing who supports the institution and at what level. I will grant that donor records are confidential information, but they are not, and cannot be, secret. Confidentiality is simply limiting sensitive information to those who need to know — and the rector is one of those people.”

Sometimes, the dominant culture or context of your congregation affects members’ comfort with clergy knowing pledges. Sandra Montes, Spanish language resource consultant at ECF, says, “I don’t think money is such a taboo in Latino churches, especially since we so often don’t have a lot of it, and must talk about it!” In her experience, “Latino churches usually only have one or two staff members, making it almost impossible for the clergy not to know how much people pledge.”

Janet Lombardo, an ECF consultant and priest who has worked extensively with congregations, agrees that fear that the rector “might not be there for me pastorally” if they know what people pledge is a common response on this issue. But “the true reasons are likely much more complex,” she says. “People might be embarrassed about their pledge, recognizing that it falls short of their ability. They might not be fully vested in the work of the congregation, or feel that pledging is unnecessary. When our pledge is secret, we might not have to think more deeply about who we are, and who God is calling us to be.”

Lombardo suggests that transparency about pledge numbers can take the form of sharing ranges with the congregation: e.g., how many pledges are in the $1-500 range, $501-1000, $1001-5000, $5000 and over, etc. She also suggests publicizing the average pledge across the diocese and the average pledge across the Episcopal Church as a whole. [For detailed information on giving trends, see “Episcopal Church Domestic Fast Facts Trends 2016” report. And you can find average pledge by diocese and province for 2011-2016 here.] “The more you can demystify the pledge numbers, the better,” she says.

Tackling the challenges around money and leadership

Aimee Laramore, a philanthropic strategist based at Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis, has “witnessed first-hand the lingering consequences of secrecy” about giving and money. “From campaigns that never reach their financial goals, to increasingly high debt-to-income ratios that are not sustainable,” secrecy has significant costs, she says. In her recent article, “Shhhh. Should the Pastor Know?”, she suggests a number of “small steps” that can “make a world of difference” in confronting the challenges in your faith community around money and leadership.

  1. Thank donors personally. A financial statement is not an expression of gratitude. This small step is a very large step for most. Group all financial givers into broad categories so that notes are personal, relevant and specific.
  2. Facilitate a leadership book study or devotional on the topic of financial management. Open the conversation on money and giving by exploring philanthropic heroes and then reflect on how we learn to give.
  3. Highlight the testimonies of donors and those who have been blessed to be able to give. Invite people within your community to share how giving has changed their life.
  4. Analyze the data. Even before there is an examination of individual giving data, there are trends, demographic information, constituency analysis and giving method markers that can be extremely informative.
  5. Tackle the questions of WHAT and WHY. Why should the pastor know? What benefits exist when financial transparency is a value? Are there reasons that leadership team members believe that the pastor should not know? What is the basis for these beliefs? Are our personal preferences around giving data impacted by our personal giving history and our personal experiences with money? What has happened to foster or compromise trust and integrity around stewardship issues?

Christopher Girata, rector of St. Michael’s and All Angels in Dallas, Texas, is one priest who has always known how much the members in his parishes pledge, and he’s been open about having that information. “As Christian leaders, we hope to inspire and guide the formation of each person under our care,” he says. “Most clergy would agree that knowing how a parishioner spends their time is important to knowing where their heart is, but I believe knowing where parishioners spend their money is just as important. Jesus preaches about money matters because money matters far more than it should. If we are truly concerned with shepherding those under our care, knowing where they put their treasure is vital. As clergy, we cannot begin to inspire our parishioners toward the way of Christ if part of their life, arguably as important as anything else, is hidden from us. Only when we know where someone’s treasure is, can we begin to lead them closer to Christ.”

Editor’s note: Pledging and transparency is among the topics discussed at Project Resource 2.0 conferences. For more information about the 2018 Project Resource conference (April 10-12 at Camp Allen in Navasota, Texas), visit the Project Resource website. Please contact Erin Weber-Johnson if you have any questions about clergy pledging or Project Resource.

Susan Erdey is a non-profit management professional with over 20 years of service to Episcopal Church-related organizations, including dioceses, schools and seminaries, and parishes. Susie has previously served as Program Director for Strategic Resources and Client Services at ECF. She supported the broader responsibilities of this program area, especially in the areas of relationship management, customer service, outreach, and coordination with the other program teams.


This article is part of the March 2018 Vestry Papers issue on Church Finances for Uncertain Times