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Thursday, August 16, 2012

Ask the Matriarch - Gift Giving Edition

Most of us have learned how to give and receive gifts from our families of origin.  But how might the rules change when we serve as leaders among our families of faith?

Dear Matriarch(s),

You had a wonderful answer months ago to my question about whiny parishioners - thank you! I've now come across another dilemma that perhaps you could help me with...

My question is this: what is appropriate when it comes to accepting and giving gifts as a pastor? My husband and I are expecting our first baby in September, and we've been given a very kind abundance of baby gifts. Some were gift cards from an all-church baby shower, others are more personal (handmade quilts, toys, infant clothing, etc.). In addition, several of the women in the church remember my birthday and my husband's each year and send us gift cards, books, or other gifts. I always send thank-you notes, but I'm wondering: is that enough?

I was raised to always reciprocate when given gifts (i.e., if someone remembered my birthday, I'd be sure to remember theirs), but I don't think this is appropriate in this case. Last night I went out to dinner to celebrate two of my congregant's birthdays (another congregant organized this - I was invited along). I gave them each a handwritten card, but felt badly about it - each of them gave me something much nicer than just a card for my birthday. Yet I don't think it's appropriate for me as a pastor to give out birthday gifts to certain parishioners and not others. I know that my parishioners are not (and should not be) my "friends" in the normal sense, and I am good about keeping those boundaries, yet I fear I am hurting feelings by not reciprocating ("Thanks for the $50 gift card to for my birthday! Here's a birthday card for you that says you're great!").

I am regularly invited to bridal and baby showers and children's birthday parties, too. I usually bring the same type of gift to all (a book on marriage to the bridal shower, a children's Bible to the baby shower, and something $10 or under to the children's birthday parties), but I can't always attend. Should I make sure to always send a gift, so I don't appear to be favoring some of our church's children/brides over others?

How do I navigate the gift-giving maze? It's getting to the point where I feel uncomfortable receiving anything because I'm not sure how to properly respond, and invites to showers and such just make me nervous... Your wisdom is requested!

From Terri, blogging at Seeking Authentic Voice:

Gift giving is a wonderful conundrum to have. That they love you enough to be so generous is delightful. In terms of how to respond: I have a charity that I use, Episcopal Relief and Development OR Heifer International, and every gift I give is a donation to one of these, in about the same amount of money,  in honor of the person being celebrated. I either print off a card from the site and write a personal note about the gift, or I write the note in a more fancy card. I never give a gift for a wedding in which I have been the officiant, even if I attend the reception, because in my capacity as officiant I am not really a guest.

However, I like that you have a standard gift for the "occasion." Giving the same gift to everyone who invites you to a baby shower, or bridal shower is something you could do to honor the occasion and reduce the possibility of people feeling left out or less important. 

Unlike "once in a lifetime" events like bridal and baby showers, birthday's are different because they come around every year. Thus, even if a member of the congregation gives me a gift for my birthday I never give members of the congregation birthday gifts, a card is really enough. A thank you note acknowledging the gift is appropriate. 

I also tend to give once a year (Christmas, end of the program year?) gifts to the choir, staff, and leaders of the parish - a small token of my appreciation - such as a $5 or $10 Starbucks gift card - just a token of appreciation for which I say something like, Thank you so much for your ministry! In appreciation, have a cup of coffee on me!"

From Jennifer, blogging at An Orientation of Heart:

I think your responses to the dilemma of gift-giving are perfect. I sincerely doubt that any of the members of the congregation are expecting you to reciprocate in kind. Your thoughtful thank you notes and simple gifts for occasions to which you are invited are just right. These folks clearly love and care for you. Allow them to show it in the ways they can, and do the same in the ways in which you can, as their pastor.
Go in peace.

From Muthah+

Dear Newbie,
Yes, gifts are difficult.  My rule of thumb is be humble and accept all that are given.  The gifts are to you because you are their pastor.  They do not expect reciprocation.  A thank you note is important.  There are always 'gifts' that are given that will find themselves in the NEXT congregation's rummage sale, too. But always be thankful. 

The ancient thinking was that you 'earned points' when you were nice to your pastor. TBTG that 'theology' is beginning to pass. But the gifts are also a reciprocation by those who been aided by your ministry.  In a sense you have already gifted them with your presence, your preaching your spiritual direction and your compassion.  They have found a way to 'reciprocate' personally.  I sort of appreciate this kind of thinking because it much more organic to community life than the "job" mentality that so often clouds our theology of giving.  The 'tit for tat' mode of gift-giving is not the healthiest or the most mature form of offering.  It was probably a good rule of thumb growing up but it pales in the light of healthy community.  There will always be those who cannot offer gifts, just their love.  And that is what we sign for them.

Financial gifts are more problematic because of taxes and just the feeling of being 'bought' by a wealthy member.  Financial gifts always went into the discretionary fund to pay for lunches with parishioners or alms to those in need or gas to a program that isn't covered.  Often someone will give you a check and say--'buy something for yourself', or "use it on your vacation."  I have just found a new home and Sunday someone slipped me a check that said on the memo line "Happy Move."  Those are personal gifts.  The best way to accept them is with a thank you and a prayer.

For many of us old timers, the pastor's salary was so low that such gifts 'in kind' were especially welcomed.  I lived on zucchini and tomatoes one summer (we had a bumper crop).  And I always had fresh eggs and homemade soap from another farmer.  These gifts are a sign of your importance to them and their gratitude.  Be thankful and most of all be humble in accepting them.  They are the gifts of their heart.  You are their PARSON--the old English word for 'person' who represents them before God.  I am not talking about someone who stands in front of God--but stands with them before the court of the Holy One.   

I am so glad that the people of your congregation hold you in such high esteem.  It is a sign of your good work.

And from Martha, blogging at Reflectionary:

Having served smaller churches, a baby shower is a once-in-ten-years experience for me, and I haven't been in any church where there was a major expectation of attending showers or birthday parties. The only children's party I've been invited to was one where no presents were received other than donations of food for our church pet food pantry. (A really nice family!)

So I'll move on to the question of receiving gifts and let others respond about giving. I think it's hard for people who are in caring/giving professions to receive the appreciation of others. And certainly there are some presents that are uncomfortably expensive or perhaps edged with a desire to influence you. But in your case, as long as the magnitude of the gifts is in bounds, I say let them give you presents. It's your job to care for them in ways that are hard to measure; the material gifts they give you for your baby or at holidays are a way of giving back. It's not the same, certainly, as the hospital visits or the long talks or the prayers prayed when they can't see you doing it. You are one person, and they are many (and very social, apparently). They can't possibly expect you to reciprocate every gift. Their gifts to you are a way of saying, "I know how deeply you care for our church; thank you." Receive them with grace and thanks in the form of a hand-written note. 


Thanks to all of our matriarchs for their perspectives and suggestions.  Do you have something to bring to the conversation.  Join in by posting a comment below!

May you live this day in God’s amazing grace+


  1. I agree with your conclusions and looking forward to your coming updates. Thanks for sharing
    Childrens Presents

  2. Writing as a parishoner - I think that you sound spot on ! Accept these gifts as tokens of appreciation and affection. A handwritten thank you is probably not exactly expected but will always be appreciated - in particular by younger people who aren't used to receiving them.


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