Five Practical Gift Ideas for Your Pastor or Seminary Student

It’s the holiday shopping season and if you have a clergy person – or pastor or seminary student or church ministry professional – in your life who is on your shopping list, chances are you have their vocation in mind as a potential angle on the perfect gift. There’s a lot of “Christian Stuff” out there, believe me, and some of it is practical and helpful for your clergy person, but some of it is not. I have some gift ideas based on my own observations and what I’ve found helpful for me, personally. Here’s a list of five gifts to consider, three to avoid, and one extra gift that’s free!

UPDATE: I wrote a new update for 2022 with five more gift ideas for your pastor, clergy, or seminary student. I stand by this post and you can read the update here.

What your clergy friend doesn’t need:

They don’t need “a nice bible.”

Clergy have so many bibles. They even have multiple copies of their favorite translation for this cover or those notes. My favorite is the NRSV and I have at least five copies on my shelf (including “The Green Bible,” a bible with over 1,000 earth-related passages printed in green ink). Plus, there are translations they probably don’t enjoy theologically or for other reasons. Let them pick their own bible!

They don’t need “a nice wall cross.”

The “nice” piece is really so subjective. What one person finds tasteful, another finds gaudy. The design that really ties the room together may actually be a real strike out, from a certain point of view. For me, I have enough wall crosses already that I rotate them seasonally.

They don’t need “a nice piece of Christian art.”

Please don’t do this. This is so subjective. Warner Sallman was popular in the 1940s, but that doesn’t mean today’s young clergy person is a big fan. Even if they want it for the kitsch factor, they might not hang it up for fear people think they like it. Leave the art direction to them, thanks.

Okay, with those out of the way, here are five practical gifts that your clergy friend or family member may appreciate:

1. Your clergy person may like a quality portfolio and pen holder.

I don’t know a single clergy person who doesn’t have need of a good folder. It’s for worship, it’s for weddings, it’s for funerals, it’s for around the office.

Now, one could argue a person’s portfolio taste and needs are as subjective as any of the “What they don’t need” items listed above. But even the best portfolio can only take so much wear and tear, and sometimes you don’t realize it until you pull it out the day you need it. Only then, 15 minutes before the wedding, do you realize there’s a big gash running up the seam or that’s when the pen holder splits open.

Even if the portfolio you gift them isn’t their #1 go-to item, it becomes a much-treasured backup on the shelf. I’ve also been glad to have an extra portfolio for colleagues or lay readers who only have loose pages with them. A portfolio just looks more professional and I like having one to slip them before worship.

The brass corners look professional and the 3-ring binder inside is practical.

My new portfolio is the Samsill Classic Collection Executive Presentation 3 Ring Binder/Portfolio Binder. I bought this at the beginning of October when I realized my usual black three-ring binder had a crease up the middle and I needed a new one for a wedding in a couple weeks. Look inside and you’ll find helpful document holders for when you need to slip in some paper but don’t have a 3-hold punch at hand. This model is a half-inch binder, good for 100 sheets of paper, and that’s more than enough for even a few Sundays’ worth of worship bulletins, sermon manuscripts, and so on. I’ve made a ritual out of taking all my Sunday papers out of this at the end of the morning and moving them to my bigger 3-ring worship archive binder to stay organized. Those Sunday papers have all my notes and this little ritual keeps them tidy and in one place.

I’m impressed with how sturdy these are with 3M adheseive pads.

The one thing that portfolio doesn’t have is a pen holder. I’ve tried wide adhesive pad pen holders that you press into a binder, but eventually they can peel off as you pull the pen in and out of the loop, leaving all that sticky residue left to handle. I’m glad I discovered the Stainless Steel Pen Holder 5-Pack from bHouse. It uses 3M adhesive pads that have never moved on me. That’s because of the light touch these holders use on your pen, stretching open slightly to accommodate your pen. Plus they rotate 360 degrees, which hasn’t been a feature I’ve needed so far, but it hasn’t taken away from the product either.

I’ve been using these regularly for a couple months and it’s been cool having people notice both my portfolio and pen holders. They’re always impressed. I plan to set one up in my minivan soon (that’s right, MINIVAN!) so I can take a quick note here and there. That’s when I’m parked, by the way!

2. Your clergy person likely has a favorite pen or pencil and you can help them stock up.

They don’t make my favorite pen anymore (the Zebra Zeb-Roller 2000 was, in fact, last made in twenty years ago in the year 2000), so I’m not very particular with my pens. But I’m very particular about my pencils. For nearly twenty years (yes, my opinions on pens and pencils were set when I was twenty, what?!), I’ve been a big fan of the Pentel Twist-Erase III 0.5mm mechanical pencils.

I’ve owned – and lost – way too many of these!

How do I know I’m such a big fan? I didn’t have to look any of that up to type it! Part of the reason is because I’ve had to purchase so many replacements over the years. I like this pencil because it holds up against wear and tear really well, and that’s even included going through the wash! Well, it hasn’t always come out in one piece in the wash, but sometimes it has! You can pick up whatever hard or soft level of lead you need and for me, that’s HB. It leaves a nice, heavy line and that’s how I like to write longhand.

Pens and pencils get lost easy, but preferences never do. Be eagle-eyed and see if you can scope out your clergy person’s favorite pen or pencil and build their stockpile.

3. Your clergy person could use help building their favorite bible commentary series.

For this gift, you’ll have to forego the element of surprise. Many clergy have favorite bible commentary series. They probably have at least one full set but chances are, there’s at least one set out there they wish they could afford but it’s out of reach. In that case, some save up to get it all at once (sometimes there’s a discount to be had this way) while others buy it piecemeal, volume by volume. Approach your clergy person and ask what’s a commentary that’s been out of reach or one their working on picking up. Then, purchase the next volume to add to their collection.

Way too much for me. Glad I got it as a gift!

I was lucky. I inherited the amazing Feasting on the Word from a retiring clergy colleague. This is a commentary set that is priced beyond my reach. I could save up for this one for quite some time before I finally reached the point where I’d take the plunge. It’s also different than other sets that take on different books of the bible. It’s based on the three-year lectionary cycle and for me, I’m not a lectionary preacher but I appreciate the people who put this together and I’d have to figure out which volume would have the most helpful part for me. That means it would’ve been tough to know where to start. Thank you, Pastor Pam, for giving me your set!

Check out the price on just the New Testament alone. And that’s in paperback!

Another I like is Interpretation but that’s expensive, too. For this set, I tend to pick up one at a time here and there. It’s worked for me to do it this way, and you may have a clergy person who does it this way, too. Partner up with them to help them build their exegetical library. But be sure to do so with them, not for them. Like bible preferences, commentary preferences are subjective and so don’t pretend like surprise is going to work for this gift. Theology matters for your clergy person and yes, there are some commentaries that are better than others for a variety of reasons.

Don’t give them a book they’ll give away. Give them a book they’ll actually crack open. It’s better to partner up and be honest than make your best guess.

4. Your clergy person could use a handful of gift cards to give out.

This one is sensitive and not everyone will agree, so know your clergy person and how they handle this sort of situation. Many churches aren’t set up to give out resources to people in immediate need. I know that seems antithetical to the mission of the church, yet the truth is many churches actually partner with nonprofits or other programs who parse out who needs resources. For example, instead of handing out bus tokens, a church may direct someone to a service they sponsor through drives and donations that have this sort of thing. And you may or may not know this: not many churches just give out cash, if any.

That said, I’ve been known to, on a case by case basis, give out a little bit of help in the form of specific gift cards from time to time. I track them so I know who gets what and at what frequency. And while it’s rare I have the opportunity to be helpful this way, it’s good to have it in my back pocket when someone has a dire emergency.

What’s a good gift card? Gas stations and grocery stores. Even then, this may be a gift to really check in with your clergy person on what’s going to be the most helpful. And some clergy may not want to get into this at all. Ultimately, it’s a tricky topic, but something to consider.

5. Your clergy person could benefit from what I call The Cot of Cots.

I’ve done more than my fair share of overnights. Lock-ins, retreats, camps, mission trips, and so on. I like to think of myself as a young, spry lad. Yet time catches up with us all, and the prospect of sleeping on a church basement floor, or even an air mattress, has lost its appeal.

Oh, yeah…

This beautiful item has been a constant overnight companion for a few years. The TETON Sports Outfitter XXL Camping Cot is what I call “The Cot of Cots.” It’s always comfortable, it’s always sturdy, and it’s always a relief to lay my head down where I can feel nice an cozy. I admit, it’s heavy and takes up lots more space than a folded up air mattress or rolled up mattress pad, but if you’ve got the room and you’ve got the muscle power, I can’t recommend this enough. I’ve had at least one clergy colleague be so impressed he ordered his own pretty much on the spot!

You can pick up an optional hanging organizer pouch, which has been key for me as a person who wears glasses and needs to keep them safe, and I learned about TETON from picking up one of their amazing XXL sleeping bags a few years ago. Turns out I accidentally became a TETON fan over the years, who knew?

Finally, here’s one gift you can give the clergy person in your life and it doesn’t cost a dime:

Heartfelt compliments go a long, long way.

Your clergy person works hard. They wear many hats, not all of them very public and not all of them are their absolute area of expertise (but they try their very best). It’s a big job and your encouragement can mean the world to them. Verbal compliments are great, but consider following it up with an email or even a card. I have a box of encouragement cards from people over the years that I’ve pulled out and looked over on tough days before. Truly, kindness counts.

Okay, those are a few ideas for how to shop for that special clergy person in your life this holiday season. Thank you for reading, and please share this with someone who you think would benefit from it. May you have an excellent weekend!


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