What’s a gift?

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I read this article about Clinton’s campaign launching a special Internet program so that they can receive donations for specific things. I have to admit, this has some appeal.

I was recently invited to give money to a campaign, with the promise that if I gave a lot of money, I’d be able to go to a cocktail party with the candidate. I almost gave—until I realized that my piddly donation was just going to buy a bottle of wine for someone else’s party. Of course, that’s how democracy works these days, but when the thought occurred to me, I noticed that my daughter needed new shoes and I put my checkbook away.

So, I imagine the software will be useful. If I knew that my money was going to X instead of Y, I would have been more willing to sign the check.

I’m afraid what this sort of software might do to our churches. I mean, my sort of thinking seeps into our congregations. We want some control over our “gifts.” We want brass plates and acknowledgments. We want to underwrite our pet projects.

And I, as a pastor, have been known to ask certain members for gifts to particular causes, projects, or needs around the church. If I know that something doesn’t fit in the annual bare-bones budget, I’ve gone around it. And, believe me, it’s much easier to present an idea to the board when there’s the caveat, “I already know someone who’s willing to pay for this.” It almost always gets passed. I’ve even bankrolled certain things myself.

But is this the best way to go about things? What about the collective wisdom of the congregation, who approves the budget? What about the nightmare of trying to make sure that a particular gift goes to a particular cause? What about the idea of giving with no strings attached? And, in these side deals, are we giving too much power to the donor, instead of allowing it to rest in our governing boards?

More worrisome, I wonder if we are creating a culture where a gift isn’t quite a gift. Perhaps I’ve been too jaded by Derrida, but if we are giving to a cause, or a community, or (I hesitate to write it, for some reason…) to God, then should we not cut the strings, and relinquish our control over it?

As a fundraiser (which, uncomfortably, many religious leaders are at some level), I can see both sides. It is so much easier to ask people to give to something tangible. They realize the outcome of even a small amount of money. But, giving to a spiritual community, if you don’t have any say over where it might go, that’s true sacrifice.

So what do you think about designated gifts? Do you accept them? Do you encourage them? Do you discourage them? I’d love to know.

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15 thoughts on “What’s a gift?

  1. We have begun to earmark our checks to church “Utilities.” It’s kind of a running joke that people want to pay for programs and earmark money as such, so Anny and I will pick up some slack for electricity.

    I’m not a huge fan of asking for gifts designated for one purpose, but I understand that it’s more important to others. If someone tags their money for the youth program, that means that other donations will cover the things that surround the program but not directly so.

    I have been in the situation, though, of needing something for my youth program and buying it outright to avoid dealing with the budget. While at my last church I probably spent 75% of my “salary” back on the youth program. (It was very much a part-time gig, so I wasn’t expecting to be paid anyway.)

  2. Our church has dozens of designated funds. When someone dies, a memorial fund can be set up in their name for whatever the family wants it to go to. It’s ridiculous how much money is tied up in memorial funds and designated accounts. Even if someone makes a memorial donation that is not designated to a specific ministry or cause, our bylaws say that it has to sit in an account for at least a year because the donor has that long to come back and designate the money to where they want it. Isn’t that crazy???

  3. Ugh. What a nightmare… One pastor that I know had a congregation which began a building fund, then there was a major economic shake-up in the community, and the new sanctuary was never built.

    So, the church was dwindling and dwindling… and there was this 500k in the bank that could have been used for revitalizing. But they couldn’t touch it. It was all designated for a building…

  4. We’re actually building a building (it’s almost finished). Because of the way the economy is right now, the costs keep going up and up. While the campaign gifts have been steady, the budget is over $4000.00 behind. Meanwhile, there’s over $20,000 tied up in memorial funds that can’t really be touched. ‘Doh!

  5. As a former elected office holder (3 terms in the Oregon House of Representatives) I am hugely grateful and humbled for all the people who donated to my three campaigns. I’d go door to door and people would not only say “Yes, I’ll vote for you” but then, in the same breath they’d go on to say “Do you need money?” And it was real money that they were giving up for the campaign.

    I’m not a big fan of rich candidates financing their own campaigns. The process of raising funds for election is, when done well, an ego check and an external confirmation of call. Raising funds meant I didn’t get to the State Capital on my own but am very much the focal point of a community seeking better things for their state.

    If the campaign fundraisers are at all professional – and this is a bare minimum competency- the wine at all fundraisers would be donated along with the food and the room and so on or at least underwritten by donors before the event is held. The check you would write rightfully should end up in the operating budget of the cause.

    But its clear that this culture is moving away from donating with trust and toward designated giving. Just visit the PC(USA) disaster assistance website to see all the accounts set up and competing with each other.

  6. I think the desire to designate specifically where our money goes is a lack of trust in God really. It seems like politicing to me. This is nothing I can take credit for (rather it’s just the way God made me) but I don’t politic. So this concept hasn’t really even entered my mind before. When I donate money to my church or anything else for that matter, I don’t put anything on that “for” line unless the person asking for it needs me to as is sometimes the case when you donate to a missions trip for an individual. If I give someone something, how they use it is their business and they are accountable to God. I am called to be a good steward but that does not equate to a “gift shark” if I may coin a term. If you don’t trust an organization enough to use the money as it should be, then maybe you shouldn’t give them money. This kinda thing kinda makes me think of swallowing a camel to strain out a gnat.

  7. Why do we always need a building? I swear if I ever win the lottery I am going to donate the entire amount to the HQ and designate it for tattoos and bean and cheese burritos.

  8. would those bean and cheese burritos be equally spread amongst all Presby’s? How about the tattoos? I would give anything to see a skull on Clifton Kirkpatrick.

    I think that I fall in the middle on this issue. Sometimes designated funds are too restrictive, but sometimes they become necessary to maintain something that has been important to the life of a congregation.

  9. The tasty bean & cheese burritos would be distributed via lottery and/or in connection with the per diem received from churches.

    I think Cliff is truly a punker inside…he probably has the skull tattoo on his belly. Clifton “Skull Belly” Kirkpatrick

  10. I want a burrito and (another) tattoo. WIN THE MONEY RYAN!!

    WAIT. I’m in a denominational office and would no doubt be tasked with distribution of said goodness. I would have to designe ANOTHER new application form, spelling out in detail every line. (yes, you DO have to fill out your name. How else will we know who you are?)

    Compromise: win enough to get Cliff’s tatoo and call it a day!

  11. We shall add the top hat and snake on Skull Belly’s tattoo. Maybe a a cane instead of a snake folks already claim Skull Belly is the devil. He may even get a chain of GD teddy bears around his arm.

    Rob, If I win I will have no paper work for the tasty bean & cheese burritos!!! Plus I will take all employees at the mother ship out to dinner.

    A selfish action would be to rid myself of the student loans and set up a scholarship to Austin Seminary for non-traditional students that want to “mess stuff up” called the “tasty bean & cheese burritos and Skull Belly with top hat and snake tattoo” scholarship or TB&C-SkBTH&S tat.

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