4 Mistakes Pastors Make About Death and Money

Death and money are two topics we rarely discuss in common conversation. But do they have to be? These two issues have certainly been more on the forefront of people’s minds during the recent pandemic. Kevin VandenBrink is a PCA Teaching Elder and a Chartered Advisor in Philanthropy (CAP®) who spends his time talking with people about these subjects. He oversees planned giving as the Legacy Giving Director for Langham Partnership, a ministry founded by John Stott to train pastors in 130 countries around the world.

Planned giving is any major gift a donor gives during their lifetime or at death as part of an overall estate plan. As a result, Kevin’s job requires him to regularly talk to generous Christians about stewarding their finances as they face the inevitability of death. The people aren’t necessarily old or feeble. Rather, Kevin engages in these conversations while folks are often in the prime of their life. We sat down with him to discuss why these topics are so difficult and how best for pastors to approach them.

4 Mistakes Pastors Make About Death and Money

1. Ignore it. Our culture tends to not want to talk about these issues but to avoid them is a mistake because so much discipleship and fruitful ministry comes out of these discussions.

You are chasing after the wind if you are waiting until you feel comfortable to talk about money with other people. “There’s a lot of guilt and shame around money in our culture,” says Kevin. “If I wrestle with my own contentment and greed in certain areas in my life, do I have to have things perfectly in order myself to be able to speak to others about it?” The answer is no.

The idea that money is an untouchable, personal topic is a lie in our culture. In fact, Jesus talked about money all the time because, as Kevin says, “when you talk about money, you’re not just talking about money. You’re talking about the heart. You’re talking about idolatry. You’re asking where your trust is and what you worship.”

Death is similar to money in that we’d rather it remain hidden and unspoken in our culture. Death used to be more pronounced for Christians when they literally had to walk past the church graveyard every Sunday. Kevin recounts his experience pastoring small rural churches in Indiana. “Some of these churches would have the cemetery right next to the church. Every Sunday you go to church and pass your relatives’ tombstones and realize that someday you’re going to be there too. Most people don’t have that kind of regular reminder that we’re all very finite.”

You don’t have to address every practical issue of money or death – and really, should not try – but you can’t properly shepherd Christ’s flock if you refuse to address them altogether.

2. Make assumptions. We assume the lifelong Sunday School teacher has no anxiety about their health. We assume the corporate executive in the pew isn’t gripped with anxiety about their money. These assumptions are often rooted in stereotypes rather than actual conversations.

As Kevin notes, there are some people in your churches who by reason of age or infirmity have death on their mind all the time. They are often eager and open to have a conversation. You want to ask permission to talk about it but it’s not uncommon to hear older people say, “I’m ready to be with the Lord, I wish he’d take me.”

3. Talk too much and listen too little. Your church members don’t need you to solve their problems. You don’t need to be Dave Ramsey in order to be able to talk with them about their stewardship. You also don’t need to be an experienced psychologist to talk with them about end-of-life care. They need you to listen, pray, and provide encouragement from God’s Word. They need you in every context to speak the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Kevin encourages pastors to use different techniques to provide an opportunity for people to talk about issues close to their heart:

  • Ask for permission. “Can I ask you a question about your finances?”
  • Own the awkwardness. “I have an awkward topic to discuss and want to put it on the table.”
  • Use the pandemic. “The pandemic has made people reexamine different parts of their life (money, health, time, work, etc.). What parts of your life have you been reconsidering?”

When you ask questions, it shows you are interested in listening and learning. Of course, discussing these topics assumes a strong relationship and your own genuine concern for your flock. People will be more comfortable discussing these topics when they are convinced you have their best interests in mind.

Kevin doesn’t suggest asking or talking about the details of personal finances: salary, debt, taxes, etc. Rather, conversations can focus on general stewardship issues, talking with people about how they are managing the resources God has entrusted to them. Finance is one of the top stress points for people. It is consuming a fair amount of their mental and emotional energy.

4. Not facilitating opportunities for testimonies. People’s own testimonies around these topics are very helpful. Part of the role of the pastor is to facilitate opportunities for others to share from their own experiences with money and death. Providing opportunities for people to speak of how God has sanctified them in these areas will in itself encourage others to do the same.

Kevin notes this is especially true for older people. “As we age, we have a better vantage point on what is important in life. On top of that, senior citizens want to be agents on behalf of God but church leaders don’t often turn to them for help.”

Based on his experience, Kevin says money is one way people who are advanced in age feel like they can still make a difference in the world. Giving is a great way to live out that sense of purpose even as a person is finding diminished capacity in other areas of their life.

“Planned giving truly can lead people in their later years to realize with joy that, when they go to be with the Lord, a ministry or church that they have supported for decades will carry on with money God gave to them for his mission.”

The PCA Foundation facilitates gifts to advance and live out God’s kingdom and is often used by generous Christians who want to make a gift upon their death to their church and to ministries like Langham Partnership. Encourage your members to visit our planned giving resources or to call us at 678.825.1050 as they consider how best to steward the resources God has entrusted to them.