Five Types of Unhealthy Giving to a Church

February 24, 2020

By Thom S. Rainer

“I’m just happy when our church gets any type of gifts.”

The comment came from a pastor whose church struggled regularly to meet budget. I get it. Any financial gift can seem better than no gifts. 

But I have worked with dozens of churches where some types of financial or other gifts can actually hurt a church. Here are five of the most common examples, recognizing that some of them can overlap. 

  1. Hostage gifts. Typically, these gifts come from members who are some of the biggest givers in the church. They remind the pastor and other leaders that the church would be hurt significantly if they stop giving. They use their giving as leverage to get their way with at least an implied threat of holding back funds if they don’t. 
  2. Spring cleaning gifts. The donor decides to bring something from home he or she no longer wants. They take a tax break and leave the item at the church. The problem is that some of these gifts are useless to the church. I consulted with one church that had five donated and never-used upright pianos. The pastor did not want to get rid of them lest he offends the donors. 
  3. Preference gifts. These financial gifts are designated and conditional. They are not contributed to a typical designated fund, such as a building fund. Instead, they are given with clear stipulations for the use of the funds, even though the church really can’t benefit from them. One example was a six-figure gift specifically for stained-glass windows in a worship center that had no place to accommodate them.  
  4. Workaround gifts. In one church I consulted, the student minister was not happy with the amount of funds for his ministry in the annual budget. He thus went to five families and asked them to divert their regular tithes and offerings to the student ministry. 
  5. Gifts with strings. Though similar to hostage gifts, this attitude can be found in groups of people rather than one wealthy donor. A common example is an older group in the church refusing to vote for a budget that is contrary to their preferences. They remind all who will listen that “we pay the bills.”

Of course, the seemingly simple response is to refuse to accept such gifts or to yield to unreasonable demands. But, for many of you who have encountered these situations, you know it’s not always as simple as it seems. 

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22 Comments

  • DJaris Canty Wallace says on

    My late husband and I were coordinators of a ministry that I developed for our church and not to drain the church for financial support our family and friends would make contributions to the ministry so the minister could provide spiritual support for church members and the community.

    However I have witnessed a family sue a church over “misappropriation” of designated funds in a will for a parking lot when the donor died right after the church had repacked the parking lot and the funds were used for another building and grounds project.

    Do you think that there should be education done or materials that explain gifts and planned giving and their impact on the church and giver?

    • The hard work of accepting a gift comes beforehand. The person who agreed to the gift needs to have had a frank discussion with the donor/family. Unless the church did get authorization from the family, to not use a designated gift for the intended use is misappropriation.

      Arguments should be made to either change/amend the language of the bequest to generalities or a specific then generalities: buildings and grounds; or (1) rehabilitation of the parking area or (2) any other necessary project related to buildings and grounds.

      Many mainline seminaries have classes that discuss church finances. When I attended (2007-2010) one class was devoted to giving and designated gifts. The thought process, as it stands in many denominations, is to limit designations as much as possible or, when the discussion comes for a designation – to direct a designation (our church had a member pass away and his family asked what we needed – we told them and his estate paid for what we needed) to something that is needed. But, communication is the key and the ability to stand the heat of push back from potential donors.

  • Steve Davis says on

    Dr. Rainer,

    I too have experienced all 5. Would you happen to have a good donation policy laying around? I was thinking- all donations must be in US Currency to be used as the church sees fit, not as you see fit.

  • There is another gift category – “The Toxic Gift”. This is when someone donates a prime piece of real estate or building and churches are all to eager to accept. Then, when they go to build or go into the building for ministry, it is found to be sitting on a toxic waste site (leaking fuel tanks from the old gas station that once was on that site) that will cost hundreds of thousands if not millions to clean according to federal guidelines and laws. Every congregation needs a Gift Acceptance Policy that protects them from such unwanted gifts. A good sample of such a policy can be found at The Mid-Atlantic Foundation of the UMC website. (https://midatlanticfoundation.org)

  • Pastor Chuck says on

    I know over the years our church has always met it’s budget because our tithe count went for the work of the church, those things that the church needed to operate. If there was a special project like missions or building fund or Christian school, those things were given separately over and above the tithe.
    And God always provided what was needed for the ministry whether we had enough money in the budget or not because we trust in God for it that he would move the heart of those in the congregation if God wanted that ministry.
    We also found, that if the congregation provides the finances for their own building through personal donations and building funds over and above the tithe, and not mortgaging through a financial institution God blesses even more. A grow as you go ministry.

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