Ethics: Should Pastors Accept Gifts from Members?

What would you do Wednesday!

This weeks question deals with the subject of pastors accepting gifts from church members. Depending on the gift, some may see accepting certain gifts as inappropriate. For example, in 2009, a story broke where there were allegations of inappropriate monetary gifts to a pastor. Tom Rich started a blog over concerns that his now former pastor was taking inappropriate gifts and misusing the church’s money.

One online ministry offers a Pastors’ Code of Ethics which states in part that pastors:

shall not seek financial gain for themselves or their families from a pastoral relationship beyond recognised fees, stipends and entitlements. They shall use discretion concerning the acceptance or return of gifts by considering the intent and affordability of the gift and whether there is a risk of being compromised or losing objectivity. Where pastors accept a gift to satisfy cultural traditions they should then look at the appropriate use of the gift to benefit the community of faith.

This code of ethics offers a balanced approach to the issue at hand. But how does one know where to draw the line? The above examples where hundreds of thousands of dollars were involved is probably not typical, but where do smaller gifts fit in this paradigm? Gifts such as a week or weekend usage of a second home fall? How about free rounds of golf on at a private course? The use of a boat or a car? Dinner at expensive restaurants? Paying medical bills? The list could go on.

It can be very easy to see how a pastor who does not want to know how much money each member gives to get a good idea of who the big givers are through these types of gift giving. However, this doesn’t mean the giving and accepting is wrong. In the American democratic system where politicians are often accused of selling out for votes and special interests some might think the same happens within the political sphere of local churches. Some fear the pastor may make ministry decisions favoring those who give expensive or extraordinary gifts. Whether such accusations hold water or not may not matter for some who think that gift giving just does not look right. This line of thinking may cause some to draw a hard line and take the position that pastors should not accept any gifts from church members that seem extraordinary.

And then there’s Scripture which seems to say that gifts given to pastors are blessings and that those who are shepherded by them are free to share their material blessings.

Romans 15:27 – For they were pleased to do it, and indeed they owe it to them. For if the Gentiles have come to share in their spiritual blessings, they ought also to be of service to them in material blessings. (ESV)

1 Corinthians 9:11 – If we have sown spiritual things among you, is it too much if we reap material things from you? (ESV)

Galatians 6:6 – One who is taught the word must share all good things with the one who teaches. (ESV)

What do you say? How should such gift giving and receiving between pastors and members be handled in the church?

tagged as , in Culture,morality

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Thomas Twitchell November 17, 2010 at 11:38 am

I think you said it right, members are free to give, and shepherds are free to recieve. On the other hand a shepherd is iMarked by his discretion, wisdom, and an accute awareaness that he must be approved of both within and without. It would seem prudent then that any gifts recieved should be turned back to the church.

I think we can look as far back as Jesus own ministry. He had Judas. It was Judas who then provided for the Lord’s needs while Jesus remained outside the financial management of the band of brothers.

As above, a shepherd must avoid all appearances of evil. By remanding all gifts to the church, accountability becomes a third party check. If we look at the ethics in Government, we see exactly that. Law makers are forbidden from receiving such gifts. Many even put personal holdings in trust before taking office for the very reason that they do not want their governing to be viewed as prejudiced by their business interests. Some even sell conflicting interests, like Bush’s sell of his pro team, because as president, he could bring pressure upon the baseball commission by his very office if not by any direct involvement. If the world recognizes such Scriptural prudence, it would seem the church might want to, also.

Any church, then, might want to recognize this wisdom and codify it as is witnessed to in the post. A caution here. Integrity in office where freedom is given in Scripture, cannot be assured by law. And, it really undermines the credibility of the shepherd to think that the only way to keep him honest is to legislate it.

2 mike November 17, 2010 at 8:00 pm

at both churches i pastored, i always felt blessed by gifts from church members. of course i didn’t receive any huge gifts or anything, but it meant a lot that church members wanted to bless my family with a high end bag of coffee that they knew i couldn’t afford or dinner at a local restaurant that they knew we couldn’t do on our own. i was ESPECIALLY blessed by certain ladies who did things for my wife like take her out for a manicure or for a lunch date or something. for me personally, it was actually good for my humility because God was using fellow members to do things for my family that i couldn’t do for them at the time. this is a great topic for discussion. honestly, though, i’ve never received “big” gifts so i can’t really say anything about that from personal experience. it seems there would probably be some circumstances were there should be a line drawn somewhere.

3 Will Adair November 17, 2010 at 10:42 pm

Principle 1. Do not muzzle a ox while it is treading out its grain.
Principle 2. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves.
Principle 3. Do not worry about what you will eat or drink. Do not worry about what you will wear. For this is what the Gentiles (unbelievers) worry about.
Principle 4. It is true that some preach Christ out of envy and rivalry, but others out of goodwill. The latter do so out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. The former preach Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely, supposing that they can stir up trouble for me while I am in chains.
Principle 5. But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice.

4 Jeff March 7, 2011 at 2:58 pm

Being in the military for the last 20 years and of a higher rank, I have had to be careful to not have it look inappropriate if another Soldier gave me a gift. There are always goodbye gifts when you leave one command to go to another and the occasional Chrsitmas or birthday gift, I guess if it is small and does not look like they are expecting special treatment it should be ok. If the same person keeps giving gifts that could become an issue, but an occasional small gift seems fine to me.

5 Bart Barber March 7, 2011 at 7:30 pm

I’ve always considered EVERYTHING that I receive from the church to be a gift. I’ve never been comfortable viewing ministry as a quid-pro-quo arrangement. I have already been bought with a price—entirely. My service as a pastor is not metered. I should never (as a full-time pastor) think, “Well, I would do a better job at this if they would pay me more money.” Rather, I should serve as a pastor freely and without pecuniary restrictions. The church should be generous in taking care of me and my family. I’ll answer to God for my generosity in giving service. They’ll answer to God for their generosity in taking care of me.

And no, I’ve never been given anything extravagant. The most extravagant gift I’ve received from individuals is probably a painting that I got several years ago. After that, a gift card to The Cheesecake Factory.

6 Mark March 7, 2011 at 8:47 pm

Thanks, Bart. I like your perspective.

7 debbie March 5, 2015 at 1:25 pm

hello I have a question… there is a woman who always sits near our pastors but one pastor she talks to more than others. I guess because he is nice and talks to anyone but his wife doesn’t like it when women talk to her husband without her being there and she is right about that. but this woman does that when his wife is not around. she even puts her hand on his hand which I think is inapprioiate when he was praying for her. like our women pastors have told us if we need to talk to someone for women talk to the women pastors and men talk to the men pastors. she has even cried to our pastors but he knows not to hug her because of his wife I know he will never do anything to make his wife angry. but yesterday she gave pastor a gift in a bag and I am wondering is that ok? thank you

8 unanimous October 22, 2015 at 9:36 am

Our previous pastor grew close, through ministering to him, to a wealthy member of our congregation who eventually died of cancer. In his will, this man designated a large land gift to the church. The wife of the man who died of cancer expressed to the church board that the intention of the gift was in part to bless the pastor monetarily to help with his retirement as the pastor had not been careful to lay aside money for the future. It was further expressed that it was to be a large portion of the gift, a specific percentage in fact (around $200,000). Again, the will said nothing of this verbally. As a member of the board at the time, this put us in a very difficult position, knowing that a gift to an individual is not tax deductible to the giver. There were varying views as to how to handle this and honor the wishes of the donar according to his wife’s communications with us. We sought legal council and found a way to compensate the pastor over time with the profits from this land. We also discovered that we could continue to pay the pastor for 5 years after he was no longer our pastor, to help fulfil this obligation should this situation arise. The pastor left our church within a few years of this whole incident taking place, and it has been about 5 years since this all happened. All proceeds from the land have gone to the pastor thus far and over half of the designated amount has been put into a retirement account for the pastor. It was good to have the whole delimna over with. But we just found out the irrigation well on the land needs to be replaced, a very large expense that the church will have to loan money to repair. This will make honoroing the full committment to the pastor impossible, though there were provisions in the agreement to deal with this type of possibility. We will now have to open the whole issue up again with the congregation to decide how to move forward.

I have been wrestling with this whole thing in my mind all over again as a result of the broken well. I am not opposed at all to the pastor being gifted this money, however in retrospect I realize that we as a church board may have been wiser to address the fact that the portion of the donation earmarked to the pastor should not have been handled as tax deductible to the estate. I also feel that because of the way everything was handled, it damaged the relationship between the shepherd and his flock to the point that the pastor was no longer comfortable in his position. Whenever he is back in the area now there is very little if any contact with any of the church members though he was our pastor for over 15 years and all his children grew up here; graduating with my very own children and having very close relationships through the years as this is a very small rural town. I am sure the pastor struggled with this whole thing as well, though I never had any discussion with him about it outside of board meetings.

I am writing all this knowing there is no going back, and I am wondering how it could have been better handled. I regret the light that has been cast over the years of ministry our pastor and his family had here. I worked alongside him and his wife in youth ministry the entire time they pastored here. Maybe this happens when a pastor leaves a church to go to a new calling no matter what and this large financial gift has no bearing on anything. But I’ve found myself searching for some type of guidelines on pastoral gifts and financial ethics for churches and pastors and have not found much specific help.

My conclusion thus far has been that it would have been such a relief if the pastor had refused the gift. We would have been free to gift him an amount without this obligation we were told was intended. Or if the family had only put specific guidelines as to this intention in the written will, that also would have steered us from having to make such difficult decisions in light of a church’s financial accountibility. If there had been some large debt due to the pastor’s medical bills or something of that nature, that also would have simplified things. Instead, we made some decisions that I now look back on and question. Did we do the right thing? No matter how we would have handled it, we knew it would lead to a very uncomfortable relationship between the congregation and the pastor, which it did. The church has graciously tried to follow the family’s wishes as relayed to us, but have we handled it approprietly? I don’t know. I don’t even know why I feel the need to share all of this in this blog. Maybe it will help steer a church faced with a similar delimna in the right direction in the future. I trust God will use my sharing here to his glory.


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