A Wonderful Opportunity to Demonstrate the Genuineness of our Faith
On choosing honesty and transparency
M o s c o w -- Obviously, church donations from the West have achieved a lot of good. Moscow, which featured a single, registered Protestant congregation until Perestroika, may now have 100. Uncountable humanitarian projects would not have come to pass without Western funding. Thousands or millions of Russians have cause for gratitude.
Yet, though nearly a quarter century has passed since the fall of Communism, the process of establishing transparent and just administrative and financial structures has not made significant progress. The history of financial relations has not been a happy one. Citing an East European country, German Baptists have complained that partnerships usually result in an imposing house for the senior pastor. Western giving is down - the vast majority of East-West partnerships have floundered.
Cases of theft do occur. In one recent case, a now-dismissed church worker diverted donations for humanitarian work into the construction of his very attractive private residence. After finally being called to task (the house was nearly done), he apologized in church and returned a portion of the funds. He also transferred ownership of the residence to his son – which flies in the face of any true repentance. Passing on questionable property to “innocent” offspring is a common tactic for limiting losses.
Yet most cases are less clear-cut. Church “corruption” is rare if the term is defined narrowly as money exchanging hands in order to influence decisions. A broader definition, such as using one’s position of power for personal enrichment, creates a larger circle of “suspects”. In practice, the border between corruption and non-corruption gets fuzzy. Things are complicated when central church bodies sanction questionable transactions.
Making church property private
There are many instances in the ex-USSR in which private persons hold title to church buildings. But often this is involuntary and only happened because government bureaucrats refused to permit church ownership. It is a different case when a church donates its legal holdings to private persons. And there are instances in which East European churches have donated valuable real estate or housing to private individuals.
A registered charity may sell its property. But to impoverish itself by giving away its possessions is highly questionable. It can also cause serious disagreement with the original donors. In Germany, diaconal (church medical and social) agencies may give a retiring executive the used car he has been driving on official business. But to bestow him with real estate would be another matter.
This problem was especially acute in the mid-90s when valuable, used wares – vehicles and kitchens for ex. - stemming from redundant NATO bases poured into Eastern Europe. One organisation on the receiving end allowed the vast majority of its treasures to fall into private hands. Today, little remains for the work of this impoverished church institution. “Poor factory but rich factory owner” is a common Russian phenomena. Even though the numbers in the church realm are smaller, the churches sometimes appear to have their own variation on that theme.
Another variation is the resale of property donated to the church. Who pockets the profit when such a sale occurs? In such cases, transparency has been lacking.
Noticing the danger signals
1. Disparate incomes. Is one church worker receiving a much higher salary than colleagues of similar status? That looks like hush money. Knowledge of embarrassing secrets gives persons incredible power. It pays to keep the holders of secrets happy.
2. Bookkeeping tricks. There are rules and ethics on bookkeeping. Are churches adhering to them? Do financial books reflect the true numbers? Tax reasons can be a major cause for re-arranging the numbers. Here it would take a truly independent audit to restore integrity and order.
3. Unfair job allocation. Are a particularly high number of family members or close friends employed by the leaders of church unions and organisations?
4. Private usage of church property. It occurs frequently that a church worker will treat a vehicle donated for the ministry of an entire congregation as his own private property. A common problem is that gift monies are not used for the purpose intended by the donor. Easterners end up “improvising” more than ethics allow.
The “Co-Guilt” of the West
Western donors do not care much about the whole truth – they want happy stories. They want to be encouraged and the people writing the stories want to encourage giving. Westerners have enough grief back home and prefer not to be troubled with problems elsewhere.
Our Western PR is often propaganda – partial, selective truth. The accuracy of our reporting is questionable. In a letter to a US mission news service in July 2012, I complained about several glaring errors in a report on the land in which I reside (Belarus). One involved the claim that evangelicals there were not allowed to do any social ministry. No response ever came and the report was never corrected.
A US-mission reported several years ago that its workers had led something like 46.336 persons to Christ in Russia (the exact number is no longer on its webpage). Yet I am acquainted with one of their local missionaries who is actually supported by three missions. Does he therefore count only a one-third conversion when reporting his numbers to this mission agency? We count our converts twice and thrice. The “e3 Partners Ministry” admits in a dated statement on its webpage: “Over the past few years, thousands of short-term volunteers have flooded into Russia. And judging by cumulative reports, more than half the population has committed itself to Christ. In practice though, less than one percent can be found in any church of any kind on any given Sunday.”
Russian churches are reluctant to publish news on declining memberships, which is discouraging news for potential donors. Perhaps Easterners would be more exact on their numbers if we Westerners also were.
Suggestions for getting us back onto the straight and narrow
1. Trust no one blindly. Traditional, non-democratic church cultures love the patriarch: the all-knowing, nearly infallible, all-caring, charismatic and male church leader. The patriarch may have an angelic spouse and 12 angelic children, but he will have cracks in his armour elsewhere. We dare not forget that are all sinners and all have succumbed to temptation somewhere in their lives. A president or senior pastor must always be accountable to others for his financial dealings.
People’s ethics tend to be subjective. When it is in their own interest, even patriarchs can explain away sin. Trust no one completely, including yourself. I check out others - others check out me. Everyone must be responsible to others, and not just to God; the temptations are too great. When larger donations arrive, two or more persons co-sign. When an offering is taken, a number of persons confirm the exact amount. It would be unfair to label this mistrust as unhealthy – it is simple recognition that we are mere humans and redeemed sinners.
2. Be nice, but not so nice that you skip the questions. Find the nerve to ask embarrassing questions. If a church employee suddenly possesses a nice house, ask him about the source of his funding. You need not ask about the amount. If that person will not answer, report that information confidentially to higher-ups. That’s rough on friendships, but the church and its reputation must be protected or improved. We must care enough to ask.
Being nice and shy encourages misuse. A church or mission should never donate unless it is also willing to accompany that gift with hard questions. Westerners have encouraged misuse by not demanding accountability. When disappointed, they have taken the easy route by silently dropping the matter and redirecting their giving to Africa.
Do not be a respecter of persons. As a believer in the priesthood of all believers, you have every right to ask. No central church office has the power to police the whole – it may not even be fair and objective enough to judge individual congregations.
3. I too am responsible for the whole. In one case in which financial numbers were suspect, a church worker exclaimed: “Boy am I glad this thing will not be coming across my desk!” But can we imagine Jesus allowing us to withhold verdicts on moral issues? If we are a Christian brotherhood, then any member of the body has the right to ask hard questions. In fact, national leadership is required to do so. For it to remain silent is an abdication of responsibility
If individual congregations are pushed hard on finances, they may simply flee to another union. We must live with and accept that risk.
4. Be transparent. I believe everyone living from donations (including me) must reveal their true income to a controlling body. We also owe that to our supporters. An overseeing body must be aware of the total financial picture. No church head has the right to keep financial information concerning his church for himself - the temptations are too great.
A president is responsible to his church’s top council, not vice versa. Among the Baptists of Germany, a pastor answers to his congregation’s council, which has hired him. National church officers are responsible to a committee consisting primarily of lay people not supported by church funds. That gives the top committee the objectivity and independence it needs.
A German friend asks: “How could we be afraid of transparency?” That is a wonderful opportunity to demonstrate the genuineness of our faith to others.
5. Promote fairness and equality. Church openings should be advertised among the member congregations. That would limit subjectivity and keep top leaders from simply hiring their own cronies or family members. All candidates would be gauged by a single list of expectations and that would give the most qualified candidates the best chance.
It is said that English-speaking pastors with congregations near to international airports enjoy most of the East-West church partnerships. Though the majority of Russian congregations have none, I can think of a congregation in airport vicinity with at least five foreign partnerships.
Routing donations through central church offices can make foreign giving more objective and strategic – and also strengthen the central governing body. Yet this can only be helpful if the central body has a functioning administration committed to the good of the whole.
6. Create guidelines. Churches need to draw up guidelines for good practice – they must define and insure ethical financial practice. Here the West could help. Bodies such as an interdenominational Evangelical Alliance are a suitable, relatively impartial place for defining proper business practices to member churches.
Bad governance needs to have consequences. Motivated by the hope for change, those responsible for impoverishing a church or institution for the sake of individual gain need to be sanctioned or replaced.
In all this, the West can afford to be modest - the annals of church corruption in North America alone would fill
volumes. Yet many Western churches have been able to implement successful models for ethical church governance. But no system is perfect and free of loopholes: An insider in an evangelical
congregation in Germany committed a major theft recently.
The evangelicals of Russia are undoubtedly less guilty than their government. Protestants numbers are obviously much smaller – but is the moral gap sufficiently large? We want to be model citizens – but can a model citizen do double bookkeeping and be dishonest on his income tax? Many Russians receive two incomes: The tax-free one is handed over in a cash-filled envelope. Being honest and transparent can get very expensive. But being true to our convictions separates the men from the boys. Our character and reputation are on the line. There is no option other than the way of honesty and transparency.
Russian believers are certainly capable of getting a handle on the issue of corruption. To explain it away as an inseparable and irresolvable part of Russian culture would be arrogant and unjust. Articles like this one need to remain vague – they can make all look suspicious. Even the strong-in-character end up in a questionable light. But it is the insiders who need to locate the weak spots and handle accordingly. We outsiders can only encourage them to launch into their task.
William Yoder, Ph.D.
Moscow, 20 February 2013
This commentary is being released strictly in the name of its author. It may be reprinted free-of-charge if the source is cited. Release #13-02, 2.020 words, 12.483 keystrokes and spaces.