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Thursday, October 26, 2006

Ask the Matriarch: Better to Give Than Receive

Dear Matriarchs,

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.

If you have something to say on this topic, please share it in comments!

Got a question for our esteemed team of wisdom-toting matriarchs? Send it along to us at All queries are kept confidential.


  1. Just to share some of my own thoughts...

    For weddings, funerals, etc. my personal policy is that any monetary gifts go into my "massage fund"--that is, the events that tend to create stress go towards something that relieves stress, and makes me a healthier pastor.

    Also, I'm not the best person at sending thank-you cards, but this is an area where I REALLY try to buckle down and make myself thank people in writing for dinners, kindnesses, etc.

  2. Gifts can be a tough one.

    Often a group or, an individual, is honoured with a gift to the Church's Mission & Service Fund given in their name. In doing that the letter contains the why's and wherefore's of this honouring gift. The people administering that Fund then send an acknowledgement to the person that it has been received in their honour and by whom.

    Often these types of gifts are given to a named charity after a person dies. I have seen people really happy to know that a special gift has been given to a worthy cause and they know it.

    Strings attached gifts are a "no-no". No one needs to have something following them down the road. (except maybe a cute lost puppy)

    I like the idea of "massage fund" and the reasons semfed said. Stress is a big one in ministry. We're not much help if we don't care for ourselves.

  3. My first RevGal post....glad to join you all! My family is in the middle of a flurry of receiving gifts from parishioners, from both my church and my husband's, as a result of my 4 (count'em, FOUR!) surgeries since March. While this is a little different than general goodwill gifts, and is partly the church being the church, it has generated mixed feelings in me. I will never appropriately thank everyone. I'm not even sure I'll get all the thank-you notes done, and might have to resort to a big thank-you in the newsletters. I'm trying to view it as a chance to practice receiving, as a spiritual exercise, and not just a guilt and indebtedness inducing experience. I so appreciate finding a community with which to reflect on this kind of thing!

  4. Really enjoyed that read. Look forward to staying in touch. You're linked, best wishes, The Artist

  5. OOps you're linked on `About Simple Ways' The Artist

  6. Welcome, Queen Mum!

    I really resonate with what you're saying about receiving as a spiritual discipline.

  7. Oh Queen Mum So sorry you have had four surgeries, hope you are recovering.

    I had a surgery while Pastor in Wadley didn't get gifts, but cards, flowers, and food.

    Adopted 3 times and got gifts for the baby and children.

    Bob was in the hospital in ICU and we got cards, food and flowers.

    I think it helped with the bonding, and allowed them to care and share. I guess that is a spiritual exercise. semfem, I am going to start a massage fund afer reading your comment.


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