I am always leery about accepting gifts that are beyond a certain limit—for instance, I'll take any and all cookies and cakes that come my way, but I really would have a problem with a present that cost a lot of money. After all, it's really the thought that counts.
I did get a check at Christmas from the entire church that was the equivalent of a regular paycheck, but I feel that's OK because it came from the church body and not one individual.
I suppose what I'm really concerned are gifts with "strings attached"—a present given that later would come back and haunt me.
So what's a good rule of thumb?
— Can't Take It
If you’ve watched the British faith-comedy The Vicar of Dibley, you might have seen our dear kindred spirit the Rev. Geraldine Granger react ecstatically to the notion of David Horton giving her whatever she wanted for Christmas, as long as it was an illustrated leather-bound Bible—in his mind, the only thing that was appropriate for Gerry to want (though she already had 22 identical Bibles).
The matriarchs agree that a large or extravagant gift from an individual, no matter how well intended it is, should be gracefully declined. (See last month’s “Ask the Matriarch: Boundary Waters” for a refresher on what to do when you discern potential “strings attached.”)
But what are the guidelines for accepting gifts, especially with holidays approaching? Well, for one—there’s a difference between gifts from individuals and gifts from a group. Retirement, Christmas, birthdays, etc., tend to bring out the gift-givers in all of us. “When the gift comes from the whole congregation or a group within the congregation (such as when the elders go in together for a little something), there’s not a problem,” says Jan, noting that such gifts can span the spectrum. “I know one pastor who received a whopping $100,000 when he retired from his longtime congregation. And then we have Barbara Brown Taylor who famously shared that when she left her last parish position—after being named ‘One of the 12 Best Preachers in the English-speaking World’—she was given a ceramic pumpkin.”
Another occasion where it can be appropriate to accept a gift is when it’s a small thank-you for officiating at a wedding or funeral—checks or gift cards.
Abi notes that she was taught in seminary, as well as in her experience as a chaplain and pastoral counselor, not to accept gifts at all, but she agrees that the “from a group on special occasions” guideline passes muster. If gifts make you uncomfortable or present an ethical dilemma, you can encourage the people offering them to “give gifts to the church or a mission work in your name if they absolutely insist or feel they must,” Abi says.
“Gifts come from friends and family, so be sure you are building a network of friends, and staying in touch with family,” Abi continues. “We are not entitled just because we have the title Reverend or Pastor connected to our name.”
So to sum up, don’t ever expect gifts, thank people for appropriate gifts, and encourage those who would be more generous to direct that generosity where it is needed most.
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