Five Types of Unhealthy Giving to a Church

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. 

Posted on February 24, 2020

With nearly 40 years of ministry experience, Thom Rainer has spent a lifetime committed to the growth and health of local churches across North America.
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  • Of course, the church could have declined the stained-glass window gift. I understand why the churches felt they should accept some of the others . . .but not sure of the rationale here. Presumably the donor is going to get irritated there are no stained-glass windows, which might offend the donor more than declining the gift. Is the church playing the long game, waiting for the donor to die to approach the heirs about liberating the money from its restrictions?

  • Many Thanks for strong Materials. I am Bishop Ezekiel From Tanzania East Africa.

  • Alden Studebaker says on

    How many Gulbransen spinet organs can a church possibly need?

  • craig snow says on

    People give to the Lord out of a variety of motivations. Assuming it is basically out of love and obedience to the Lord, after that, it is according to passion and conviction. Each person will give as they feel led. To judge a person’s motives can take you down a slippery slope.
    When a person gives to the Lord through an organization they are entrusting the leadership of that organization to use the funds responsibly and in accordance with its mission. There are a variety of ways money can be spent and still remain true to the mission. To require all giving be put in a general fund is simply deferring to the leaderships priorities. When a person is compelled to do that it is possible that the passion he feels for a particular part of the mission could go unrealized. That could serve as a demotivator. With that said, people should have the freedom to voice their passions as to how the mission is to be accomplished without holding the leadership hostage. Conversely, leadership needs to listen and be sensitive to the passions of the people. In any event the key is to maintain positive regard for each other.

  • Two congregations in which I have served approved a policy stating all gifts, including designated gifts, could be used for budget items if needed and no person or persons could give to an item/area not already approved by the congregation. We also asked contributors who wanted to give outside of the approved areas if they would like their gift back or have it placed in the general fund. Since it was an official policy, there were no compromises. We made the policy very clear and it worked very nicely.

  • How about guilt gifts? People who don’t give as “cheerful givers” but give begrudgingly. Those gifts can lead to spirit problems in a church.

  • I’ve served as treasurer for several nonprofits and as a church member I follow our church’s budget process. One difficulty in any nonprofit budget process is that too few of the people with an active interest in spending funds are spreadsheet-literate and budget-literate enough to read a very simple P&L statement much less the more complicated budget statements typically presented by even smaller churches. People get offended in budget meetings when you won’t do things that aren’t affordable or not legal for a non-profit. I know if you offer a session to really explain the budget only a few people will come and they aren’t the ones that need to come. But it’s very frustrating to wind up in the same situations over and over as treasurer or finance chair driven by people who want their way but don’t want to be bothered actually understanding any of the underlying math that went into the budget decisions

  • To help protect the church from at least a couple of these unhealthy giving patterns a church can/should have policies about the what they will/will not accept as gifts. All these unhealthy patters fly in the face of “Giving to the Lord.”
    Exodus 35 – Moses instructed his people to “Give to the Lord,” even though what they were bringing was for the building of the Tabernacle.
    I Chronicles 29:9 – Avid and his leaders brought their contributions “To the Lord,” even though their generous gifts would be used for the building of the Temple.

    Even in our regular giving, are we bringing it in the spirit of “. . . to the Lord?” or are we giving it to the budget, the * * * * fund, or even to the pastor?

  • This is an area I have encountered and often wondered about how to move away from this type of behaviour. I wonder what you think about the approach of creating a unified budget each year so that all giving goes to a general fund and the disbursement of the funds is set out at a budget meeting. So everyone has a say to where the money goes before they donate in working to vote on a budget, but once that is decided, all money goes into the general operating so that some of these unhealthy giving practices are upfront told that they won’t be happening. I know there are challenges to this model as well, but I wonder your thoughts.

  • Deacon Johnny B. Adams says on

    Would love more about where some of God people stand when it to money.

    • Deacon Johnny, I am a member of the Body of Christ, have been for 60+ years. For most all of my adult life I’ve tithed to one church or another. The last year I did my income tax I learned I could no longer go long form, even though I still have a first and 2nd mortgage and I still tithe. I decided it was time to cut back on several offerings over and above the tithes and devote more money to pay off debt. So far I have trouble cutting back, I just want to donate to various ministries.
      Btw, since I don’t always make it to church services I set up internet banking to automatically send my church my tithe weekly whether I’m there or not. One time when the church requested donations for a new sound board, we gave directly for that purpose but otherwise we let leadership decide where the money will be used.

  • Stephen Budd says on

    Experienced all 5 of these over the years in pastoral ministry. Many times true motives and intentions come out of a congregations hedge fund and not its heart for Jesus or the lost.

  • These type of events occur when church budgeting is insufficient and when the leadership does not listen to the ordinary members. I have yet to understand why the mere mortals have no input into any aspect of the church. In any non-profit, you will have areas that have to raise their own funds, and there will be angry people who want the money themselves. Sometimes the group with independent funds will have to give the parent organization a % of them in order to get to keep the rest. Otherwise, there will a full-blown effort to take all the funds.

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