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Thursday, June 28, 2007

Ask the Matriarch — Whose Discretion Is It, Anyway?

This week, we have a pretty specific question, but it bears exploring because, well, what's the use of a pastor's discretionary fund if the pastor can't use the funds at her discretion?

What makes it particularly thorny is that the suggestions she gets are not frivolous. She just had a slightly different vision for how the discretionary fund should work. Here, I'll let her explain and then open the mike to, first, Jan and Abi, and then the rest of you can chime in on the comments if you want:

The leadership board of my church has set apart a small fund ($200) for me, the pastor, to use when folks come to me with a monetary need. There has never been actual cash provided, just an understanding that if such a need arose, I could disburse some money and get reimbursed through the general fund. I'm okay with that system-- I really don't need that kind of cash lying around the church, and that way of doing things suits how business gets done around here.

Recently, though, some influential members have been "suggesting" ways for me to spend that fund. We have a couple in our church who are out of work, and are over the age of 55, but not old enough to get any kind of benefits. This couple is part of the gang who goes out to brunch after church. (My spouse and I join this brunch group a couple of times a month.) A few of the members of the gang have been dropping hints that I should start picking up the tab for the couple, and get reimbursed through the "pastor's discretionary fund". (Ironic name, don't you think?)

The same folks are hinting very strongly that I should also use the fund to arrange for occasional babysitters for another family in our church with three small children, two of whom have special needs. The parents of these children seldom get time alone, and often look like they've just been run over by a truck, emotionally.

The response I want to give to these Helpy-Helperton members is perhaps not very pastoral: "Gee, why don't we start doing potluck brunch at church? Then everybody could come, regardless of income! Even people with kids!" Gasp! (Somehow I ended up in the only protestant church in the Midwest that is allergic to potlucks!)

And to the second situation: "Shall I give the _____s your phone numbers and let them know you'll take turns watching the kids two Saturday nights a month for them?"

It seems that often the solution to problems around here is money, which many people here have lots of. How can I effectively reinforce the theology that we can take care of each other in ways that build stronger bonds than simply throwing money at a problem?

And am I being silly and proprietary about this money? I pictured using it for a family who couldn't make the gas bill or something like that, or to help someone with groceries. I know that the needs that are being expressed are legitimate, and come from genuine concern, but they are not coming from the potential recipients, so therein lies the danger of embarrassing someone by pointing out a need they might not be ready to acknowledge to others.

Help, Matriarchs!
Potluckless Pastor

First, from Jan:
You are on the right track, IMHO, in wanting to train members to care for this couple. It sounds like they want you to use the discretionary fund for "fairy godmother" functions rather than helping someone who has no one else to help him/her. Clearly these members (the jobless middle-agers and the couple who need a night out) are surrounded by people who love them. This is what a missional church does: reach out to those in their own community who need assistance rather than depend upon someone else to write a check on their behalf, etc.

This could be an awesome opportunity for your congregation. For example, we had a member with two children under 4 whose husband was in Iraq, and every Tuesday night, a different family brought her dinner and/or babysat for her so she could go grocery shopping, etc. It bound her to these church friends forever.

If they take turns treating their friends, it could be amazing. I can imagine the couple in need and the young mom don't want to be considered "charity cases," but this is not what's happening. This is simply what God's people do for each other. It's called grace. (UNLESS you indeed serve people who can't do this without holding each other hostage.)

Sounds like you need to establish the true purpose of this $200 fund. If it's truly discretionary for the pastor, then the pastor gets to decide how to use it. If they have a purpose in mind and you simply get to decide when to use it, then that needs to be established.

Abi says:
If you are going to start helping these families out of the discretionary fund, you are going to need a whole lot more than what you have right now. Even to help people with utility bills now days is costly.

Your two ideas aren't all that bad; maybe you could present it differently. I hate hints, myself; you are expected to make some assumptions by the hints. See if you can get them to clarify your hints first to see if that's really what they are suggesting. I am not sure the members are aware of how little money you have in your fund to utilize. I don't know what denomination you are in, but they are asking you to override the board for how they designated this fund to be used.

I would find myself saying, "that's not what this is set up for at this time. But you know this is great that God has given us/you this opportunity for ministry? How will you answer it? What might God be asking you to do? Asking the church to do?"

And if they don't know, send them home to pray over it and think about it, and when they know to come back and tell you or the board or the Chair of the Board. Now, if they come back and say something about it has to do with money, get them to help you set up people to babysit or pay for a babysitter, helping this couple to find a job of sorts, paying for a resume service. If nothing else, encourage them to set up a new fund for this new ministry.

We have a fund at our church to help members in times of crises. We have even held a fundraiser to raise money for a family with really high medical bills and husband out of work.

One last thing: The fund at the church is at my discretion. But I do check things out before I use it.


  1. Yes. I agree with what has been said already. It really helps if there are clear guidelines for the expectations and purpose of the discretionary money.

    My first church had discretionary accounts for each of the clergy with clear guidelines for using the funds. However the usage was quite broad, everything from helping someone to buying books for ministry to taking parishioners out for lunch. We had a code for each catagory and had to give an accounting of the money spent (not on whom, but by catagory) each month. It was good to be accountable

    The one I have now gets used really as a business allowance, via the model I learned in my other church, with which I do all kinds of things from taking folks (usually new members) out for coffee to buying books to paying for a church event. Then we have what we call a pea-pod fund, this is strictly for helping people with food. We do not give out cash donations to anyone. We do give out gift cards to local grocery stores. I have given these, most often to total strangers, and occasionally a parishioner, as needed. The parish has been informed of the nature of these two accounts and how they are used so they can give, as they wish, to which ever account if they wish.

    In my tradition (Episcopal) I do not charge for weddings, funerals, or baptisms. If someone wants to give me a gift for the time I've spent preparing them I have it made out to my discretionary account, ergo why it ends up being more like a business allowance. People who really want their money used to help folks with food give to the Pea Pod fund.

    So. Regarding this question I could use the discretionary money to buy everyone breakfast and then say, "Someone else can pick up the tab next time." (I also have a credit card for the account, which makes this easy and discrete). And I like to model the behavior I wish to teach and encourage.

    Regarding the family, yes. I would encourage members of the church to help them out as stated. Such efforts are really great ministry and reflect what we ought to be about as community. Some of the folks in my parish have been recipients of that exact thing, it really changes lives to care this way.

  2. I think this question speaks to a broader issue in many middle-upper class churches, namely that we are often willing to spend $$$ to get ourselves out of the real commitment or hardship of community. I say that primarily reflecting on a past participation in council negotiations to hire a youth pastor. The rational given was that there wasn't a lay person willing to step up to the task. So, instead of confronting the unwillingness of the congregation to support their spoken commitment to the youth of the church, we hire the problem away. And I wonder what further difficulty this may place in the lap of an unsuspecting youth pastor.
    Not to change the subject but to support the answers already provided to the question, particularly that you DO encourage lay folks to step it up.

  3. Discretionary funds are being scrutinized by the IRS - if you have total control and it is not overseen and audited by others - it can be taxed as income to you. I would suggest that the church have the fund and a group set guidelines (looking at the IRS rules first). You may then write checks but will not be in danger of the taxman.

  4. excellent post- filled with wisdom as usual.
    It is hard sometimesto encourage the church to act like the church- this means caring for one another- rather than seeing church as somewhere you go, and as a seperate body entirely!

  5. We have a checking account for our discretionary fund that either of the pastoral staff can sign. We categorize with broad strokes what exactly the expenditure was (Nurture for within the congregation, Local mission, State Mission or Global Mission) with the understanding that most of the money is used for Local Mission and for emergencies ONLY. We also keep strict records of who has received aid and iterate our policy of only helping with money once a year and food boxes or cards once a month.

    We have a running account with a local "hotel" (read "flophouse") to place homeless people up for the night. All of this comes from the Discretionary fund and is mission in addition to that which the Mission Committee does.

    We have also helped church members with utilities and mortgage payments, so that they do not become homeless.

    And like some of the others, we place all fees for funerals/weddings etc in the fund.

    At other Methodist churches, life might be different, but that's the way we do it.

    I've never heard anyone suggest that we use it on babysitting or lunch -- to this congregation, many of whom live right on the edge, that would seem "fluffy." (Not to condemn the action though.)

  6. "that's not what this is set up for at this time.

    erm .. so what IS it set up for.

    I think an evening's babysitting for a couple would be a very discretionary thing to do. And if the 2 special needs kids are in need of special care (rather than the kind a parishioner or a kid from the youth group could provide) then I'd run with that - because it could make a huge difference

    I wouldn't support brunch - I think friends and others in the group can occasionally pick up the tab

    I liked what mompriest said about buying books ... could they be passed around the congregation etc ... and a book group started where they'd learn and be encouraged to help one another.

    But the real issue is how to transform a middle class church into a caring sharing community. and that's a lot harder!
    There's nothing worse that a discretionary fund which is never used IMHO ...

  7. I'm boggling that money used for helping needy could in any way be taxed as income for the pastor.

    I have a professional expenses fund that I document very carefully (95% of it goes towards books because it is only $500). I could see somebody getting confused about that, although careful vouchering takes care of that problem.

    But the pastor's discretionary fund, as it is described here--I can't see how it is taxed.

  8. My understanding of discretionary funds is that they are to be used as outreach funds to help at the rector's/pastor's discretion. The comments are going in two directions here, and I'm going to hit both of them.

    1) I totally agree with your feelings about the "hints" and the implicit desire for you to in a sense let everyone else off the hook. If money is not a problem for the brunch group, is there a way to suggest that the group takes turns picking up the tab for the couple?

    2) I think in Episcopal churches there are huge differences about how the discretionary account is funded and how it can be used. I don't use mine for professional expenses b/c it is funded through the outreach budget. But other places it is meant to be used for outreach and professional expenses. Makes things confusing.

  9. At our place, the discretionary fund is used fairly specifically for crisis/critical situations -- the itinerant individual who wandered to our church (which is miles from any major highway) from God knows where, and just wanted a meal and a ride to "civilization"; phone cards for family members with people in faraway hospitals, or for itinerant visitors; the abjectly poor family in the neighborhood who had no money for Christmas presents, whose story was heard by one of our parishoners; another struggling family in the neighborhood that experienced a sudden death and needed food for its post-funeral meal for visiting family and friends. We also tend to use our discretionary fund in an outreach way -- I'm not sure that this has ever been a stated mission of the fund, but it tends to be directed to people outside the circle of our official membership. We have several church leaders in our congregation who are empowered to make giving decisions in the pastor's absence/in emergent situations.

    We pass the hat the first Sunday of each month to replenish our fund.

  10. I'd like to respond from a different perspective especially in regards to the family with the children with special needs.

    Not knowing the extent of the needs of the children, as special needs can run the gamut from children with a diagnosis of ADHD to very medically fragile children requiring attention beyond what most people can offer. Of course parishioners can offer a helping hand, but some would be wary of children that have special needs.
    There are usually non profit organizations that allocate monies for respite care for families who have children with special needs. The one that comes to mind is Easter Seals. In our particular location, I know they allocate monies for diapers, child care, camp, etc for children who have specific needs. They also offer respite care monies. It may be a place to look for with those specific areas in mind. I know that as a special needs teacher, we have children whose families receive diapers monthly from that resource. Also, if the family meets the guidelines and the children's needs meet the criteria, they child may be eligible for SSI from the Federal government.

  11. Both churches I've served have had a discretionary fund that funnels in some way through Diaconate, completely unrelated to my professional expenses. In both cases the accounts are funded by special offerings. At Small Church, the Communion Offering went to that account. At Main Street Church, the Christmas and Easter offerings are the primary source, although that fund receives some targeted donations as well.
    At Small Church, the pastor and a deacon had signing privileges for the account. At Main Street Church, a Deacon is the signer.
    In terms of how it's used, I try not to give more than $50 at a time, having seen clearly that help for utilities is out of the question now unless you have a fund in the many thousands of dollars range that is being replenished actively. Oil and gas just cost too much. I get a lot of requests (at both churches) for assistance with rent or a security deposit. For those I might go up to $100 if the situation is difficult and documented, and if the check is going to the landlord directly.
    At Small Church there was almost no oversight of my decision making. At Main Street Church, the set-up means there is some, and I really prefer it that way. I like touching base with at least one Deacon if I'm doing more than giving $20 to someone who needs groceries or gas.
    I've never experienced anyone telling me how to use the money, and I guess I would just have to say nicely, "Well, the idea is that it's at my discretion."
    I could see giving assistance to the family with special needs children, but I agree that would come better from within the congregation, if at all possible. The brunch request (which sounded more like a demand!) seems really out of line.

  12. Thanks for all the comments. This has been especially helpful because I have just gotten an interview in a church outside of my own denomination. And it looks like this parish may call me. I appreciate the various ways that discretionary accounts are set up.

    The whole issue of the IRS is especially difficult since the rules have changed since I was ordained. And I have never been to a clergy day which outlines the new guidelines, so I am not UP on what is new. I am presently in a diocese where the bishop has used these changes to attack a priest who disagreed with him publically. This is one area that we need to be very careful in how we use and keep track of discretionary funds.

    In this new parish it is my desire not to have a discretionary fund. There is a good group of deacons and funding should come from them. As for professional funds, I have asked for a certain amount of my salary to be set aside for professional funds and open an account for that It is from that I pay costs for conferences,vestments, books, lunches, etc.

  13. I am an assoicate pastor in a fair-sized and fairly well off church. We have a pretty well-funded discretionary fund that is disbursed by the senior pastor and is primarily used to help members of the community (and sometimes church members) with utilities and emergencies and other special needs. He's recently used it to help send an exchange student on a school field trip that the host family couldn't afford, to help a local family whose home burned, and to provide emergency funds for a variety of needs for "walk-ins".
    When we got there, there was no accountability with this account, and the relevant pages had been removed from the check register. A little investigation revealed that the money had been used for a "spiritual retreat" to a golf tournament, among other things. We now have a written policy in place, adopted by the church's finance committee, that details how the funds can be used and provides for audits and other oversight (anonymity/confidentiality is preserved). The guidelines are flexible yet allow the money to be used for its intended purpose.
    We do verify need for certain things. I saw the burning house, so that was easy, but we generally also call utilities and landlords and cut checks in the name of the creditor to reduce fraud. We also try to help get other forms of assistance, financial counseling, etc.
    Unfortunately, we do see a number of "frequent flyers" in the community, and we communicate in confidence with other local groups to help weed out those who abuse the funds.
    What makes this work without the hinting is that there has to be some form of request...if a church member comes to the senior pastor on behalf of someone else, he makes some kind of contact both to offer pastoral care and to be sure what the need actually is. Most often someone comes directly to him or is referred by a church member or community agency (Social Services as well as the local interfaith outreach fund know to send folks to us).
    This is clearly not the scale of funds the original post is dealing with. But, I would encourage everyone to have some clear written guidelines that provide for oversight, just to protect yourself and make sure the intent of the fund is clear. And then the hinting should either cease, be more helpful, or be defused more easily. In our case, I think folks give more freely because they are confident that the funds are doing what they meant for them to do.

  14. As to IRS auditing of discretionary funds, our accountant explains it this way: Any funds over which the pastor has complete control are considered by the IRS to be potentially personal income. He suggested that simply having the head of your personnel committee or other trustee or elder of the church sign off on expenses eliminated the concern. My understanding with my session is that those funds would be distributed at my discretion for confidentiality reasons with the check/balance of having the personnel chair sign the vouchers. And I do know pastors who have been audited - so be careful out there:)


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