A recent issue of Business Week not only challenged corporate America, but leadership in the church office as well when it said, “Corporate America is finally getting the message: financial reporting that is technically correct but does not clearly reflect a company’s operating health is no longer acceptable”.(from the article, “Slammed” by Amy Barrett, Spencer E. Ante, William C. Symonds and Mike McNamee, Business Week, March 4, 2002)
Many people have lost faith in the integrity of corporations. The close scrutiny that is going on in business today will spill over into the church, which is in part also a corporation. In the church of Jesus Christ, our ultimate CEO is Truth incarnate. As his representatives in the church, absolute integrity, openness and honesty should describe all we do in our finances and communications. What we do may be “technically correct” but now is a time for us to evaluate our practices so they go beyond being merely correct or business as usual to ones that honor our Lord.
Few people in the church intentionally lie, but there are many areas that I’ve observed as I’ve traveled all over North America teaching seminars and evaluating church communications, where many churches are less than honest. This article will discuss two areas: Integrity in communications with visitors and integrity in our financial communications.
One other very important observation before we discuss specifics: I have observed in churches that the Lord puts us in ministry teams for a reason. Few pastors have administrative gifts – pastors do best at teaching and shepherding. Churches need administrators to handle management and financial tasks. Church communicators and desktop publishers often possess totally different skills and gifts. Getting a group together to do these various tasks may be difficult when a ministry or church is starting, but it is essential to form a team for the sake of needed gifts and accountability. Lone rangers do not plant or manage healthy churches-the advice in this article is for a ministry team-no one individual can manage everything needed with integrity alone.
Integrity in Visitor Communications
This last year we have visited many churches as my husband studies how to be a church planter. As a result of that visitation process we have received many letters back to first time visitors. Following are some observations and advice on how to improve them.
Don’t be phony friendly
In one letter the pastor gushed how much he loved having us come, so good to see us, etc. In blue ink, printed to look handwritten, but obviously a handwritten font run through the inkjet printer, the pastor said, “It was SO wonderful to meet you on Sunday and I really hope you are back next week.” In the same color ink, a “handwritten” signature was added.
I am not stupid or naive. Neither are the other folks who get that letter. He did not meet me. He didn’t meet anybody leaving the church because he wasn’t at the door shaking hands. I know the letter went through an inkjet. I know he didn’t hand sign the letter. I felt insulted, not welcomed.
If you aren’t honest in the mailing you send out to a visitor and that’s obvious, how can someone expect the church to be honest in its dealings in the future?
Don’t try to personalize mailings from handwritten forms
When you spell people’s name’s incorrectly through your mail merge program, this does not make them feel special-it’s irritating. I have experienced this many times.
Our church visiting experience has taught me I have really bad handwriting and our family last name is not an arrangement of letters people think it should be. My husband always has me fill out the forms. My name is Yvon Prehn. I think I make it clear that we are attending as Mr. & Mrs. Yvon and Paul Prehn.
Then something happens between me turning in my form and a mail-merged form letter reaching Almost every letter we get back is addressed to Mr. Yuou Phren. A warm, personal welcome is not our response.
Mail merge was cool about 10 years ago. It has lost its charm.
Financial Communications Integrity
Corporate America has shown us the disasters that can happen if a company is not honest in it’s financial reporting. Enron’s fancy bookkeeping destroyed the company, even though much of it was “legal”.
If your people don’t understand what happens to the money given to and held by the church, problems can result if your books are looked at closely. We need to be above reproach in integrity, but in addition to that, we simply need to realize that the church office is responsible to communicate financial matters clearly.
Your people are not CPAs. Some of the biggest complaints about churches involve finances-we need to work on this area. Following are some suggestions.
Explain your financial practices
Years ago I was doing some publication consulting with a very large mainline denomination church. In one issue of the newsletter (written just before I started working with them) there was a lengthy article informing the church members of the budget shortfall for the year and how everyone needed to increase their weekly giving.
In the same newsletter was another article entitled, “$20,000 Given to Ela May Memorial Music Fund”Needless to say the church office received a large number of questioning, confused, and in some cases angry, phone calls that week.
When we got together later that week, they asked me, “Do you think we need to run an article explaining the difference between designated and undesignated gifts?” My answer, “Yes-as soon as possible! And apologize for the confusion. Make it very clear that you can’t use certain funds for general expenses and any other questions people might have. Take this as an opportunity to explain how the whole system of designated giving works.”
Many folks responsible to communicate the financial status of the church have no concept of how little most church members understand about the rules of giving to the church. Most assume it somehow just all goes into a big pot and is used however the pastor wants it to be used. Trust funds, donated property, designated gifts, line-items in the budget, approval processes for capital expenditures, and many more areas with complex rules are little understood by church members and can cause lots of trouble.
The stock market has severely punished companies that shareholders do not feel manage funds appropriately. In your church people will not give generously if they don’t trust how you are using their donations.
Suggestions for Financial Communications
Do up a handbook, brochure, booklet-whatever form you choose and explain these things. Have a section on your web site that clearly explains your financial rules and regulations.
When you are working on this communication piece I recommend having people of various ages and groups in the church read it over and then have them tell you what you said. Don’t just ask them if it makes sense or is good. Church people are way too polite to give honest feedback if asked in that way.
Have them tell you what you think you just told them. If they can’t say it back to you clearly, work on your explanations until they can. This can be a long, difficult frustrating process, but it is important. Bibilical integrity should be our prime motivation in all financial matters, but it is also simple good church office business sense if you want to keep your income consistent.
In addition, clear education on financial policies is not something you do once and then everyone remembers. It should be part of your new members’ orientation and periodically articles and teaching times should be given to it.
Clarify your staff compensation policies
In reviewing the budget reports coming from a number of church offices, I wonder how well they would hold up to scrutiny if published in your local newspaper. Though many areas cause questions, there is only room to discuss one here-staff salaries. Most of the printed budgets I have looked at lump all the church salaries in to one budget line item. Can you imagine the reaction in corporate America if a company’s annual report did that?
Dan Busby, in his must-read article, “Compensating Ministry Leaders” (available at www.ecfa.org) has some excellent advice in this area. He covers many issues that are essential for church financial integrity. Some of the questions he prompts us to ask are:
What is the salary of your senior pastor? That is not an easy question to answer because in addition to the monthly check received by many pastors, much of their compensation is found in other categories such as education, materials, software, transportation, office help, etc. Are these being accounted for accurately? Are taxes being paid properly? If the pastor leaves the church and takes all of his books, tapes and other resources with him is this part of a severance pay package?
What about the differential between the pay of the highest paid staff member in the church and the lowest paid? In many corporations that are held as ethical models in corporate America they have a standard such as the highest paid person makes no more than 10 times more than the lowest paid person.
There can be a variety of standards and pay scales depending on education, experience, location and denomination, but how honest is your church about publishing yours? If not, why not?
The secular world is harshly evaluating the equity of the super-star salaries and severance at ENRON that in contrast left many office workers with no retirement when the company collapsed. But the inequities existed long before the collapse, but nobody was paying attention.
In some churches a not so very different situation exists where one or two people make large salaries and have comprehensive benefit packages. At the same church many support workers are kept on part-time status and receive no benefits. When it is all lumped together on church budget sheets under “Church Salaries” and “”Staff Benefits” most church members have no concept of true situation as it impacts each individual. Nobody is paying attention.
This is touchy, explosive stuff. But our financial books are open to the eyes of heaven-if we explain clearly to earthly eyes where our money is going, we want to do it without apology.
It is often said that you can tell a person’s values by looking at their checkbook. The same is true with a church.
Having opened these cans of worms, I don’t want to leave you without resources. The web sites below will help you in many areas to achieve financial and business integrity in your church office. I highly recommend each of them.
My seminars and resources can help you in the communication areas.
Financial integrity education web sites
Website for Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability, a fantastic resource for all sorts of financial advice with biblical integrity. Check on your favorite charity here.
Website for National Association for Church Business Administrators. GREAT group, every church should have someone from the church staff as a member of this organization. No matter how small your church, these folks can help you do all sorts of things decently and in order. Before you start a church or ministry, you MUST go to this site and the one above to get your financial house in order.
Excellent collection of resources for church administration, policies and procedures. On this website and the one below you can purchase manuals that have figured out and tell you how to implement many procedures essential for the church to do things, “decently and in order.”
Web site of church consultant Nick Nicholaou, great resource for church management, personnel policies and procedures, hardware, and software advice, especially helpful if you are doing ministry in California. Nick has specific, detailed advise on how to comply with the exacting requirements of that wonderful state.