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Transparency: How much, how little, and to whom?

In my first few weeks at Luther, they were many people I was eager to meet. Near the top of the list was Ren? Mehlberg, a student worker and teaching assistant with the Center. So, I was thrilled when Ren? took up the invitation to write a newsletter reflection on her experience with the course Money and Mission of the
by Center for Stewardship Leaders | August 4, 2015

In my first few weeks at Luther, they were many people I was eager to meet. Near the top of the list was Ren? Mehlberg, a student worker and teaching assistant with the Center. So, I was thrilled when Ren? took up the invitation to write a newsletter reflection on her experience with the course Money and Mission of the Church. In this piece she takes on the hot-button question of pastoral knowledge and financial giving. I’ll be teaching the course again this fall and look forward to engaging this question, and others, with a new crop of Luther students. Thankfully, Ren? will still be around to share her wisdom.

Yours truly,

Adam J. Copeland, Director
Center for Stewardship Leaders
Luther Seminary


Transparency: How much, how little, and to whom?

Rene Mehlberg

There’s an old saying, “There are two things you never let people see how you make: laws and sausages.” This saying flies in the face of the current trend in organizations, government, and the Presidential campaign: transparency. How open is leadership to letting employees, members, and the public know what goes on?

This past spring I served as teaching assistant for Luther Seminary’s course Money and Mission of the Church. Having been active in the life of the church before attending Luther, including serving on church council (one year as president), this course was an eye-opening experience as I prepare for ordained ministry. The readings were rich and challenged the class to learn about the realities of the current state of giving, think about putting mission first and that money will follow, consider how the church has and continues to change from our parents’ generation, and what financial information regarding individual giving that clergy are privy to.

It’s this last topic that resonated particularly deeply with me. I had never given much thought to if, or what, giving information clergy had. There are definite opinions on both sides: clergy should know nothing so they aren’t influenced (or bought) by those who give more as giving has very little to do with one’s faith life vs. clergy should know everything as giving has a very direct tie into one’s faith life and a change in giving could be the first sign of some bigger issue.

This got me thinking: as a future pastor, what information would I like access to? How transparent do I believe the congregation should be with clergy? When I was church council president, I never even thought about these questions. Now, they strike me as quite important.

Having a great relationship with my pastors (a clergy couple), I felt comfortable discussing this topic with them. The church they now serve is their second call, though their first call together. Each had similar experiences in their first call: limited to no information about the members financial giving.

I then asked them about our congregation. Practice has been for the pastors to know nothing. They don’t know who pledges what; who gives what; or if giving increases, decreases, or stops. However, the most recent financial secretary has started sharing limited information such as when giving levels change or when there has been a stop in giving for consecutive months.

Each expressed a desire for the council and lay church leadership to be more transparent with this information to them. They echoed many of the course readings: a change in giving may be the first sign of bigger issues when pastoral care is needed.

We also talked about the idea that pastors who know how much members give might be influenced by such information. It strikes me, however, that with the amount of training and preparation pastors have, and the professionalism and confidentiality needed in so many other aspects of ministry, if a pastor is influenced by money, there are other issues present.

I heard both pastors share from a place of care and compassion. They each realize that the American money culture is one of privacy, carrying with it many emotions. I heard them say over and over that having this extra bit of information could go a long way in building relationships individually, connecting people to available resources, and bring much needed light to a topic that we can all identify with: money.

I have no doubt the conversation related to financial transparency in church will continue, especially as giving methods and giving reports evolve. There is no one answer, and certainly no easy one. And what policy churches live out today, may change in the future. Perhaps the only transparency that can be agreed upon is making it known to the congregation what the current policy and practice is. Conversation, then, may continue.

Author

René Mehlberg is a Master of Divinity student at Luther Seminary where she also edits the weekly newsletter for the Center for Stewardship Leaders. She serves as the teaching assistant for the Money and the Mission of the Church class.

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