When Is It OK to Say No?
By Ken Sloane
When I was a local church pastor in New Jersey, my district superintendent happened to mention that a church in her district had “the best collection of bad church art” she had ever seen. It got me curious, and when I had a meeting at that church, I realized she was absolutely correct. Numerous “paint-by-number” renditions of The Last Supper and the head of Jesus (blonde hair and blue eyes, of course) in a latch hook rug, among others. I had hoped I might get to see the infamous portrait of Jesus and Elvis side by side on black velvet, but I didn’t find it.
Most churches I know are constantly hoping for the unexpected gift that comes out of the blue, and few would ever think of saying, “No, thank you.” Many of these same churches would open up and tell you that, over the years, there have been some gifts that have caused problems. Sometimes it is a noncash gift they don’t really need, and occasionally it is a cash gift that is designated in such a specific way that it’s hard for the church to use. Is there a time when it is okay to say “no” to a gift?
The answer is a clear “yes” because every gift that is offered is not necessarily the right gift to support your church’s mission and ministry; often accepting the wrong gift can waste energy and resources, and sometimes it could do more good given somewhere else.
For this very reason, we encourage every church to establish a “Gifts Acceptance Policy.” You can read more about this in the Cokesbury “Local Church Guidelines” booklet titled Finance: Handling God’s Money in the Church (p. 27).
“As a best practice, financially vital congregations establish and follow a gift acceptance policy. The financial leaders in these congregations are well aware of the risk connected with the acceptance of some non-cash gifts. Some gifts, they know, may be more costly to administer than the value of the gift. To protect against this risk, these committees on finance work with their church council and board of trustees to establish policies and procedures related to acceptance of gifts…”
There are many amusing stories related to church gifts that I have collected over the years – amusing unless the stories happened to be about your church. There is the New England church that had a member leave the church because the leadership made the difficult decision to replace their high-maintenance pipe organ with an electronic organ. Forty years later, the man who left died and left the church $168,000 dollars in his will — with the stipulation that the money had to be used for the purchase and installation of a pipe organ. The church had such a hard time saying no to the gift, so church leaders agreed to accept the money and install a pipe organ. But the project wound up costing the church almost $25,000 more than the bequest.
The Book of Discipline gives the board of trustees the responsibility for property and bequests and for investing gifts held in trust, unless the charge conference gives that authority to an endowment committee. In cooperation with the trustees and church council, the committee on finance should encourage the development of a gift acceptance policy.
“The policy identifies who has the authority to accept a gift on behalf of the church. One important component of such a policy should be to provide the church with a process for removing a restriction placed on a gift by a donor, in the unlikely event that such an action becomes necessary. The policy should also address how any excess contributions to a capital funds campaign might be redirected by the charge conference” (Guidelines–Finance: Handling God’s Money in the Church, 28).
There are some important considerations when you discuss the idea of saying no to a gift. Use what I call “The String Test.” Are there strings attached to the gift that will present problems for the church or that may be questionable legally or morally?
- Remember, a gift must meet the legal definition of a charitable gift for it to be acknowledged as such by the church – it cannot have restrictions on it that it would benefit a certain individual or the donor.
- To be acknowledged for the full value, a donor must not receive anything tangible in return.
- In the case of noncash gifts, the responsibility for determining the value of those gifts in most cases rests with the donor, who may seek to use the gifts as a charitable deduction on income taxes. The church should not acknowledge the value of a noncash gift unless a qualified appraisal has been made.
- Remember that real estate that the church receives as a donation may be subject to local property taxes unless it is used for church purposes. The property will need to have insurance coverage to protect the church from liability; it will need to be maintained in keeping with local ordinances, and it may need to maintain minimal utilities. Clean title to the property needs to be investigated and secured. In the long run, these costs may offset the attractiveness of certain gifts.
The United Methodist Foundation that serves your annual conference is a good source for help in managing gifts, liquidating noncash gifts, and developing a gift acceptance policy. You can also find a sample policy here, as well as other helpful resources on our stewardship pages.
Ken Sloane is the Director of Stewardship & Generosity for Discipleship Ministries of The United Methodist Church.