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Time for Church Accountability

Quite frequently I receive appeals for funds from various ministries. This is probably because I head an all-volunteer ministry, Pacesetters Bible School, Inc. and thus am readily connection with Christianity, non-profits, and thus charitable contributions. Now I have no problem with charitable organizations making appeals for funds, though my group limits appeals to people who have attended an event we sponsor or in some way asked to be on the mailing list.

I got one of these appeals today, and the thing that bother me about it, and triggered this post, was that the pledge card inside invited me to pledge some tithe to go to support pastors in this group’s various mission locations. The question comes to mind immediately as to just why I should send tithe to them, and since I have no personal or business connection with them, other than their mailout, why I should regard them as trustworthy. In fact, reading their magazine I’m pretty sure I would not support them were I to make a full investigation. Since my default is to support things I know about, I won’t bother with that lengthier investigation.

Now I’m not a really strict person about tithe. I do believe it’s a good general standard of stewardship, but I believe each person must deal with their own conscience on charitable giving and service. But I also think that the local church is potentially a wonderful institution for giving and carrying out charity. Here’s a group of people you meet with every week (hopefully), and get to know (ideally), and trust (possibly). You can get the idea over a period of time of how they will spend your money.

In principle, it seems to be that a great way to do your basic charitable giving is through a congregation or local group. Taking that principle and asking you to apply it to essentially random people far away, without accountability is questionable at best. I’m assuming that most people who receive such solicitations treat them as I do. But inevitably, just as a few people get caught by “African dictator” scams in e-mail, so some people get caught by various ministries asking for money.

But as a follow-up thought, I have to ask just how accountable your local church is. Do they, in fact, spend your money in a way that you would regard as good stewardship? I’ve written recently about authority and accountability (Why Authority Issues are Important), and like many, I spoke more of accountability from above. But I think the focus needs to be a general accountability to the members–the people who produce the cash and suffer through failures of leadership.

In Christian churches we have too long lived with the idea that the pastor and the elders are above the rest, and should not be questioned. Even in churches with very democratic structures you will generally find a group of people in leadership who are informally considered above reproach and questioning. I believe that there should be no such time. Everyone should be accountable in what they do, whether they have served the church for 5 minutes or 5 decades.

This is true of financial accountability, of one’s moral life as a church leader, and of teaching and doctrine. In one church I attended I found that people were running around passing on things that I had said about the Bible. Now the fact was that I did have the strongest credentials in Biblical studies in the church, and I had often been able to provide answers and references. I was criticized for giving too carefully qualified of answers (people don’t want all that detail, just give them the answer). Some people even misquoted me back at myself, so that I was the authority behind something I never said.

I would regularly say, “Don’t take my word for it. Study it out and come to your own conclusions.” Some people in the church leadership told me I was unreasonable. Why shouldn’t folks depend on the Bible “expert” among them? Well, there is a simple problem there–accountability. There was nobody else in the church who knew Biblical languages, or who had studied the history of the ancient near east, or Biblical exegesis, or a number of other fields as I did. If I was in a seminary setting, there would be someone questioning what I said all the time, and justly so. I should be prepared to defend what I say. But in that local congregation, it was just one man–me–and my errors were getting perpetuated. I might correct them later, but they were already a tradition for some people.

The same thing happens with the finance committee. It’s too complicated and time consuming to check up on what they’re doing and to see how my money is being spent, so I just assume it’s being done well. But I think that’s irresponsible, and it denies accountability to those leaders.

Check your chuch budget. Find out, for example, how much is being spent on service to the community, and how much on maintaining the church structure. Consider whether those are appropriate numbers and what might be done about it. Consider how much is spent on children and youth, the future of the church, and how much is spent entertaining the older members. (As a grandfather approaching age 50, I think I can say that!) Don’t forget that taking care of the church facility and existing members does cost money, but consider how the church can maximize outreach and service.

One last thing–this isn’t a call for whiners and complainers. Quite the opposite! Whiners and complainers don’t hold people accountable, they just have fun complaining and gossiping. The difference is in who you talk to and how you do it. If you go to your finance committee to talk about the budget with some specific point in mind and a suggestion for positive action, that’s accountability. It’s still accountability if you go to them with a specific problem, along with evidence to support your claim. If you go to them just to say, “I hate this budget,” but don’t have anything concrete to suggest, that’s just complaining. No matter what you have, if you gossip about it around the table at Wednesday night dinner, that’s whining and complaining. Don’t do it. If you hear it happening, hold people accountable. Say, “I don’t think we should talk about this here and in this way. Let’s take any issues we have to the right people.”

That’s enough time on the soapbox for me today.

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