Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Above Board: The Biblical Call For Financial Accountability In Christian Ministry (Part I)

     Enron. Sallie-Mae. Creflo Dollar. Benny Hinn. Franklin Graham. What do all of these have in common? Each of them has come under some serious scrutiny over the last five years concerning their financial dealings. Businesses are, despite the scandals of Wall Street, put under the microscope far more often than Christian ministries and nonprofits. However, Christian ministries are often hurt much more by scandals and hints of impropriety. The Scriptures are not silent, not even whispering, on the topic of financial accountability. Whether a pastor or member of a local church, whether a president of a Christian nonprofit organization or the mail-room clerk, whether one who receives donations or an actual donor, Christians have to become biblically and legally informed concerning the ins-and-outs of financial accountability. The following research will: (1) Demonstrate the need for financial accountability, (2) Explain what financial accountability is, (3) Identify who in Christian ministry is responsible for financial accountability, and, finally, (4) Develop some marks on how a church or other Christian organization can be financially accountable.

                                           Why Christian Ministries Need Financial Accountability

M. Kramer (1986: 26), referring to Pat Robertson, wrote these words:
Being a born-again superstar is a swell job—good clothes, nice house, your own plane, an unlimited expense account. Not bad for one of God’s slaves—although exactly how good is hard to determine. Robertson has refused to issue an annual audited financial statement for CBN, and unlike some other evangelists, including Billy Graham, he has avoided joining the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability. In fact, if he did join the watchdog group, he’d have to reconstitute his board of directors, since it is currently dominated by members of his family and staff.
There are few things from the quote above that demonstrate exactly why Christian ministries must have financial accountability—abuses of money, charlatan lifestyles, tendencies toward nepotism, and cultural demands for transparency. This description hardly sounds like the lifestyle that the apostle Paul became familiar with—labors, imprisonments, severe beatings, close encounters with death, lashes, beatings with rods, stonings, being shipwrecked, frequent journeys (many on foot), dangers everywhere, hunger and thirst, cold and without clothing, etc. (2 Cor. 11:23-27). Kramer would have hardly called such a lifestyle “swell.” But, that is exactly why financial accountability is necessary. Financial accountability glorifies God for a number of reasons, and it ensures that onlookers do not confuse God’s call in the Christian life, a life of hardship oftentimes characterized by suffering and weakness, for a life that borders upon something that could be featured on MTV’s Cribs.
     The examples like those exemplified in Pat Robertson are abounding in the Western church. As the Republican Senator of the Senate Finance Committee sparked investigations into some of the mega-ministries found in the United States around 2007, eyes watched to see what sort of monstrosities would be uncovered. Church-based ministries had been afforded some anonymity when it came to finances but rumors of the charlatan lifestyles and abuses of finances sparked inquiry. Of those investigated, surprisingly, Benny Hinn’s organization reportedly responded better than others. The others refused to cooperate and chose to withhold and conceal information even threatening some with lawsuits if they ever violated confidentiality agreements. The Senate investigations really did little with the exception of exposing these mega-ministries of a mega-lack of transparency. In one article, Creflo Dollar’s organization was called the “least cooperative” citing that they even refused to name its own board members (Banks, 2011: 18). They did however disclose that the ministry took in $69 million dollars in 2006. Eddie Long’s ministry likewise refused and would not disclose the amount of his salary (Banks, 2011: 18). These are the rare exceptions, right? These facts and numbers look egregious because of the bright light that was cast upon them in light of the Senate investigations and because of the great amounts of zeros involved. But, the look at Scripture later is going to demonstrate that smaller ministries are missing the mark set by God himself, as well.
      As R. H. Welch writes, financial accountability can raise legal issues.
The church and nonprofit organization has certain obligations for personal financial records with regard to federal tax and Social Security laws as well as an obligation to properly handle charitable contributions to the organizations. (Welch, 2011: 158)
Carlson and Donohoe (2010) point out that the demand for financial accountability is not because of financial scandals or Wall-Street hoopla. Instead, nonprofits, “in exchange for their tax-exempt status, are charged with the legal responsibility to uphold public trust” (2010: 114). The reason for financial accountability is not because there is a presence or apparent rise of financial scandal on the scene. The reason for financial accountability is not because mega-ministries need to be put into check. It is not even because the law says so or because there is an ethical and moral responsibility. The primary reason for financial accountability in Christian ministry is because Jesus Christ is the head of the church and the aim and purpose of the church is to bring glory and honor to him. How Christian ministries operate in every area, including finances, is a demonstration of their submission to the lordship of Jesus Christ. The need is great because the one who Christian ministries aim to serve is none other than the one who gave himself as a propitiation for the sins of the world. In addition to the more general purpose of glorifying the head of the church, it is also necessary because it demonstrates a ministry’s commitment and willingness to submit to Scripture. As mentioned before, the Scriptures are far from silent on the issue. Financial accountability is not a creation of any Senate Finance Committee. There are multiple other sub-reasons for financial accountability—reasons like the fact that ministries’ participation in God’s redemptive plan can be severely damaged as they become stumbling blocks for the lost instead of lights of hope for those that are watching. Great or small, mega- or mini-, God’s expectations are the same for any Christian ministry. And while it may look like a phenomenon of the Western church because of the great publicity it receives here, the demand for financial accountability is supra-cultural. And, be assured, it is a struggle, snare, and stumbling block wherever the church is present in the world, from Atlanta to San Salvador to Beijing. That is the negative aspect. There is also a positive aspect. When financial accountability is a priority for a local church or a Christian organization, the effects are tantamount and used by God in magnificent ways.

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