Because Christianity Is More Than Being a Spectator!
Transparency is so urgent an issue in large part because of the emergence in the last decade of ubiquitous digitial technology that makes transparency all but inevitable. - Warren Bennis
Transparency may not be a word that comes to mind when you think of churches and ministries...but it should be. Transparency is not about distrust, it is about disclosure and prevents personal agendas from circumventing God's agenda, which produces church irrelevancy. The Apostle Paul states, "The Spirit clearly says that in later times, some will abandon the faith and follow deceiving spirits and things taught by demons. Such teachings come through hypocritical liars, whose consciences have been seared as with a hot iron." (I Timothy 4:1-2, NIV) Paul's remedy for this assault on the saints is transparency as he tells Timothy, "If you point these things out to the brothers, you will be a good minister of Christ Jesus, brought up in the truths of the faith and of the good teaching that you have followed." (I Timothy 4:6, NIV)
Christianity and transparency have a long history. Transparency was not just an attribute of the early Christians and the churches they formed, it provided three important distinctions. First, transparency provided a stark contrast between the early churches and the corrupt first century political and religious systems. Second, transparency provided a dynamic atmosphere for spiritual growth as Christians were exposed to important, and sometimes serious, spiritual challenges and their solutions. Third, transparency made the early churches relevant as the local community came to see if what they were hearing about these 'Christians' was true. It was also universally understood that churches were people and not buildings because the early churches owned no property. For a well researched history of the early church, we recommend the book A History of Christianity by eminent British historian Paul Johnson.
Transparency is an attribute of all things holy. The Bible is a book of transparency because it is a book of revelation (the Bible takes on new meaning when read in the light of transparency). Jesus was a man of transparency because he exposed sin and brought Truth to light. The Apostle Paul championed transparency in the early churches by exposing blatant sin within the congregation which led to repentance and allowed the Holy Spirit to work unhindered. In reality, Christianity without transparency is just another religious exercise leading only as far as the person in charge can take you while Christianity with transparency will lead as far as God can take you - and there is a vast difference! As the saying goes, "The best of men are men at best."
The most common attributes of opaque (non-transparent) churches are failure to disclose financial details and the procedures, processes, and areas of responsibility within the church leadership. Are your church financial details fully disclosed to the membership? If not, why is it a secret? Typically, finances are the most non-transparent item in churches because it is purposely relegated to a committee or board with no membership oversight or involvement other than to supply the funds. The intent is simple - if an organization accepts financial contributions (especially on an on-going basis), it then has an obligation to show how the money was spent. Otherwise, how will the giver know if the money wasn't spent inappropriately? This is important because the giver is held just as accountable as the receiver. (For the record, many church members would be shocked at how their 'tithes and offerings' are currently being spent.) Also, is it clear who on the church staff is responsible for what areas? This and other church organizational information can be found in the church by-laws. Do you have a copy? (Not surprisingly, many church leaders won't provide copies to church members!) This is important because if things go askew, it is clear who should be held accountable. For the record, it is NOT a sin to report a thief, sex offender, child abuser, etc. to secular authorities even if the accused is the pastor or high ranking church leader.
Sadly, too many church members are content with sticking their heads in the sand and ignoring what's going on within their churches (and many church leaders are happy to let them!). However, the Apostle Paul spent his ministry pleading with the early churches to "wake up" (Rom. 13:11, I Thess. 5:6, NIV) and to "test everything" (I Thess. 5:21, NIV). Paul is pleading with us too.
Causes for concern in churches:
1. Involvement in secular politics - Churches and ministries should never promote secular politicians or political agendas as this effectively turns them into quasi-political organizations. In contrast, the early churches had nothing to do with secular politics but instead focused on Christ's coming kingdom. Always remember that politicians and religious leaders were responsible for executing Jesus.
2. Mission creep - Churches and ministries always begin with a clear focus on serving people. As other needs present themselves, these are usually taken on, as well. Over time, a bureacracy emerges with a splintered focus and top-heavy with administration. The bureaucracy then takes on a life of its own and the focus changes from serving people to maintaining the bureaucracy. Churches and ministries that deviate from or expand their core mission always shift from a 'people' focus to an 'enterprise' focus. If choosing to become involved in activities outside their core mission, such as a day care or school, churches should seek indirect involvement through an independent entity. If a child is alleged to have been abused in church day care, whether true or not, it will harm the church's reputation and witness in the community. Do you want to be known as the "church of child abusers"?
3. A staff member suddenly resigns - Many times weak church leaders will allow a staff member caught in a scandal to resign instead of being outright dismissed. This way church leaders don't have to deal with the fallout and the staff member has a clean work record to get a job at another unsuspecting church...and do it all over again! Out of all the kingdom damaging things weak church leaders can do this is probably the worst, so note those that do this and stay away from them. If a church staff member suddenly resigns, this should be a red flag to the congregation. If your church is considering hiring a staff member who resigned from another church, this should be a red flag too. NEVER hire a staff member that resigned from another church without a thorough investigation by an unbiased third-party, such as a pre-employment screening investigator. Take this very seriously!
4. Constant difficulty meeting budget - God always provides the means and resources to implement His agenda, not the agenda of others. The key word is 'constant'. A church or ministry that constantly focuses on raising money indicates a leadership problem.
5. Churches with over 300 members - Contrary to popular thinking, smaller churches have less of an issue with transparency when compared with larger churches simply because of their more intimate setting - everybody knows everybody else. Just because a church is larger does not mean there are sufficient controls in place because it is much easier to get lost in the crowd. Through experience, we have found that 300 members is the average threshold number.
6. The pastor will not delegate - This is an issue of trust. The early churches utilized deacons (the only other ordained office besides pastor) to oversee the benevolence purse, by all indications the only money the church kept on hand, so pastors (also called elders) could concentrate on spiritual matters (Acts 6:1-7). The recent trend of 'Pastor as CEO' is unbiblical and based on modern secular business practice. The early churches were not led by dictators - it was a collective effort which actively involved the congregations and teams of diverse leaders.
7. The by-laws have been amended - Many churches have reaped untold grief because a newly installed pastor insisted on "updating" the by-laws. While there is nothing inherently wrong with amending the by-laws, this does provide an opportunity for those with personal agendas to covertly expand their authority and autonomy. Any changes to the church by-laws should be done with extreme caution and diligent congregational oversight. Be very careful to whom you grant authority - this is Christ's church, not the pastor's.
8. Members are disassociated from their fiduciary responsibility - In many churches, a board or committee with members hand-picked by the pastor and staff makes decisions on behalf of the congregation. Over time, this practice results in a disengaged membership that sees no correlation on how their personal actions and decisions impact their local church, much less the kingdom. Leadership provided by a church council (which is different from a board) along with full congregational involvement is the biblical method for church administration, keeps the congregation engaged and the church relevant. Relevancy and transparency go hand in hand.
9. Refusal to reveal staff salary information - Church leaders usually claim "privacy issues" as the reason for not disclosing staff salary information. While church members do not have a right to know how much staffers earn, which may include income from other sources such as books and speaking, they do have a right to know as part of their stewardship responsibility how much they are paying them. Most importantly, churches that will not reveal staff compensation also give the impression there is something to hide. Money should never be the motivation to become involved in ministry anyway so it shouldn't matter if staff salary information is disclosed to the membership. As the church transparency movement catches on, churches refusing to be transparent in this area will be left for ones that are. NOTE - every congregation should demand their church file an IRS Form 990 annually to facilitate transparency. Not surprisingly, many church leaders won't touch this.
10. Church leaders demand a tithe of your income - Many Bible scholars agree tithing was an Old Testament practice discontinued by the early churches, as was worshipping on the Sabbath and offering animal sacrifices. In fact, the word 'tithe' is only mentioned in the New Testament to describe giving under Old Testament law. Paul's instruction to New Testament believers is "Each man should give what he has decided in his heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver." (2 Cor. 9:7, NIV) If you want to give your church 10% of your income, fine, but it is be YOUR decision. Paul states, "Now that faith has come, we are no longer under the supervision of the law." (Gal. 3:25, NIV) Church leaders using scare tactics and intimidation based on Old Testament law to illicitly obtain tithes and offerings are in serious Biblical error...and if wrong in this area, they could be wrong in other areas, too. For more information on tithes, we recommend the book Perspectives on Tithing or click here.
11. Debt owed to secular institutions - Statistics show that most pastors leading churches into debt do not remain until the debt is repaid. The Bible also states that a borrower is slave to the lender (Prov. 22:7) and having a financial plan before starting a project is wise (Luke 14:28). Committing church or ministry funds long-term is serious and should be Spirit-led, not ego-driven, particularly when it comes to real state. Across the US, hundreds of millions of dollars in church buildings and parking lots sit idle five to six days each week. Could that money have been spent more wisely reaching people for Christ, which is one of your church's mandates (isn't it?), instead of purchasing seriously under utilized real estate? If the entire congregation is not involved and on board in long term church financial obligations, disaster lurks.
If you are concerned about transparency within your local church, chances are you are not alone. Talk with other church members and seek their insight (this is NOT a sin!). If there is mutual concern, express this to your church leadership. If church leaders will not act on these concerns, pray and seek what to do next, which could involve finding another church to support or staying to be a voice for change. Disengagement is not an option (Heb. 10:25). Wake up, get your head out of the sand and get involved now. Because Christianity is more than being a spectator!