End-of-year giving: good choices and a particular option

I stand for fiscal responsibility in non-profit organizations. Money entrusted for the common good should be used wisely and efficiently. Donors should — and increasingly do — seek out organizations with desirable missions and with the capacity to work efficiently.

I’ve been critical of churches that function like clubs as betraying this calculus; why, for instance, should a snug and private concern be tax-benefited? Church leaders have a responsibility to review their program against the public good they provide; in other words, through the eyes of taxpayers who support common infrastructure and other good organizations who are natural rivals for contributions. By which I mean general funds, building funds, organ funds.

That said, I have a warm place for ministerial discretionary funds. I’ve given them, given to them and received funds from them. (I graduated seminary so broke I didn’t have gas money from Texas to Georgia. Tough times.) World change won’t be funded through ministerial discretionary funds, but they do (or can do) a good job with the kind of emergencies that need a social net but for which there is often no kind of appropriate service organization. Money to pay for a prescription, travel funds to see a dying relative, transit fare for someone returning to work . . . very often that kind of thing.

As a matter of practice, I’d like to see financial controls in place, but in the end if you don’t trust a minister to be a good steward of the funds, then no amount of control will do much good to what end the funds are used.

So I’m getting my checkbook out and suggest you do too. That said, and not thinking of anyone in particular, there’s no rule you have to give to your minister.

By Scott Wells

Scott Wells, 46, is a Universalist Christian minister doing Universalist theology and church administration hacks in Washington, D.C.


  1. Thanks for advocating giving to minister’s discretionary funds. Economic times were tough, and at the last church I served (up until August), the fund was so depleted by the needs of members of the congregation, there wasn’t enough to give to people outside the congregation; nor could I give the usual amount to the homeless shelter across the street for them to pass on to people who didn’t come see us. Minister’s discretionary funds are a very worthy recipient of donations right now.

    Some level of financial controls is possible in minister’s discretionary funds, while still maintaining confidentiality of recipients. E.g., the minister can make public total amount of gifts (if relevant, separating gifts to individuals from gifts to other funds such as a nearby homeless shelter); and can also make public total income, separated into total amount of individual donations and total amount received from elsewhere (church operating budget, plate collections earmarked for the fund, etc.). I also like to ask individual donors for permission to print their names in such a public statement.

    In congregations where there are two ministers, a greater level of financial control is possible, since both ministers can review the confidential information.

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