Ask Ken: "Give Us a Sign, Pastor!"

By Ken Sloane

Q: During a recent webinar, as I remember, someone asked whether a pastor can sign checks, and you suggested not to do it, but I don't recall the reason why. Since I recently received a question regarding this from a member of our church, I have looked through the BOD and the UMC guidelines on Finances, but did not find an answer.

A: Yes, having the pastor sign the checks is not prohibited in the 2016 BOD, as far as I know. However, you may remember me saying in the webinar that while I don’t recommend it, I understand that sometimes it might be helpful to have the pastor as a signatory – but only for extreme emergencies, or as a possible second signature when two signatures are required.

I discourage this for a number of reasons, which are admittedly my opinions from almost 40 years of church work.

First, it is too easy to put on staff duties that church members could and should own and acknowledge as within their ability. A local church pastor has many responsibilities that cannot be given away, but there are other persons, in any congregation, who can put their signature on a church check.

Secondly, it is much more important for a pastor to be one who assures that proper internal controls are in place and being followed, and it’s preferable that the pastor be able to assess this from outside the process, and now as one within.

Finally, as the 2016 Book of Discipline now states that the pastor has “responsibility for and access to the giving records of the church” (¶340.2c(2)c) -- technically, the income side of church finance. I think it best not to have any role in the outflow/expense side of local church finance.

In smaller membership churches, it is sometimes challenging to find people who can take on all the roles, especially in the finance area where there are other important restrictions on who can serve, such as:

  • Two people from the same household should not hold key financial leadership positions. (¶258.4)
  • Those who have financial leadership responsibilities should not be included in those who serve on the Audit Committee. (¶258.4d)
  • No immediate family member of any appointed clergy may hold a key financial leadership role – or even be a counter, (¶258.4)

For this reason, the following advice was added to the Guidelines for Finance 2017-20, published by Cokesbury.

"There are three tasks not specifically assigned to either of the two positions or to the chairperson of the committee on finance by the Discipline . Keeping these responsibilities separate is also essential in maintaining segregation of duties. These three tasks are:
  1. approval of payments for expenditures
  2. signing of checks
  3. reconciliation of bank accounts

While the treasurer and financial secretary may be authorized to do any one of these tasks, no person should be authorized to do more than one. For example, if the treasurer is authorized to sign checks, then someone else must approve bills for payment and reconcile bank accounts. If the financial secretary reconciles bank accounts, then someone else should approve payments and sign checks. No persons related to one another should perform any two or more of these three tasks."

Obviously, there will be times when the Pastor will have to approve payments for expenditures -- especially in smaller membership churches when she or he is the only person in the church office much of the time. That may be one more reason to avoid having the role of check signer.

In finishing this thought, let me stress that nothing here should be construed to imply the pastor doesn't have an important role in the financial life of a local congregation. On the contrary, I believe in the pastor's role and financial leader, as specified in ¶340.2c(2). That role, however, is distinctive and separate to the roles of Treasurer, Financial Secretary and Finance Chair. It is a leadership and visionary role, and nothing will undermine the leadership and vision of a local church faster than conflict, innuendo or misconduct in the area of church finance.