Transparency, trust highlighted in Stewardship Kaleidoscope presentation

October 8, 2020 by Nancy Crowe

Inviting and supporting church members to give requires pastors to ask hard questions and think creatively, said the Rev. Bruce Reyes-Chow.

However, it’s vital to also be transparent about church finances, said Reyes-Chow, former moderator of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and author of four books.

His was the third and final Stewardship Kaleidoscope 2020 presentation. The annual conference, a partnership between the PC(USA) and Evangelical Lutheran Church (ELCA), was held virtually this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Reyes-Chow shared demographic and financial particulars about First Presbyterian Church of Palo Alto, California, where he is senior pastor.

He also offered fellow pastors ideas for moving their congregations (and themselves) forward.

Understand your relationship with money

Reyes-Chow recalled growing up in a family whose giving to others bordered on irresponsibility. As an adult, he had to learn about the delicate balance between generosity and appropriate care for self and family, he said.

Pastors must examine and understand their beliefs about money before trying to help their congregations do so. Otherwise, “we will add layers of our own stuff on our congregations,” he said.

Your church and its context

Rev. Bruce Reyes-Chow

Know your congregation’s relationship with money, Reyes-Chow said. For example: What are its worship rituals and administrative practices with offerings? Who is doing the asking for money? Are there past traumas around church finances? How is technology used? Does the pastor know how much each member pledges?

In his 225-member congregation, the median pledge is $2,500, though he does not know individual pledge amounts. Members have been burned in the past by “grand plans,” Reyes-Chow said, and a history of secrecy has left mistrust.

“The more trust you can build, the better you can move forward,” he said.

To that end, pastors should carefully track their spending — and not get lazy about doing so, he said. It’s better to err on the side of more transparency rather than less, he added.

With transparency and trust in place, there is plenty of room for creativity.

“God frees us up to do a lot of different things” around stewardship, Reyes-Chow said. He shared a diagram of his congregation’s multiple stations — for communion, treasure (giving), blessing, time and prayer — around the sanctuary. It’s important to ground actions theologically: What is God’s plan? What does it mean to give?

Meaningful rituals around giving are challenging during virtual worship, he acknowledged, but simple things like candles and photos can be integrated. It’s another chance to think about creative ways to give money, he said.

Virtual worship has also allowed his congregation to bring in speakers from other organizations worthy of support, such as those helping people affected by wildfires. These opportunities probably couldn’t happen in person even without a pandemic, Reyes-Chow said.

They also empower members to see their congregation as part of a wider community of giving.

“We are not so arrogant as to think we can do everything,” Reyes-Chow said.

Move from where you were to where you want to go 

Gauge where you and your congregation are in the midst of potential change, Reyes-Chow advised. For example, if something must be given up, what’s coming and why is it better?

He again emphasized the importance of transparency and knowing the difference between discretion and hiding.

Reyes-Chow encouraged pastors to listen to members, and their own intuition, regarding unhealthy financial practices. For example, if you hear of or sense a problem regarding administrative handling of offerings, deal with it.

“Not with a bulldozer,” he said with a smile. “Maybe just with a chisel.”

Nancy Crowe is a writer, editor, and animal wellness practitioner based in Fort Wayne, Indiana. She is a graduate of Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. Send comments on this article to Robyn Davis Sekula, Vice President of Communications and Marketing, at robyn.sekula@presbyterianfoundation.org.