St Paul considered financial accountability to be very important, as shown in 2 Corinthians chapter 8. Whilst still focused on mission he was very keen:
- to avoid criticism about the handling of giving;
- to be seen to do what is right in the eyes of man as well as God.
Two thousand years later Billy Graham thought the same; he told his team that maintaining financial integrity was very first on his list of priorities.
Charities are rightly coming under increasing financial scrutiny. Recent events at Kids Company and Agape Church in Luton have thrown a spotlight on charity finances. So, with the wisdom of Paul and the warning of experience, it is right we aim for the highest standards in our churches.
The key ingredients in building accountability are:
- building a strong finance team;
- encouraging a culture of healthy challenge;
- openness and transparency;
- communicating financial information clearly.
Introducing these ingredients into your church finances will develop a healthy finance culture that builds trust and helps to protect everyone involved in handling money.
Building a finance team
According to recent Charity Commission research, 43% of respondents suggested that the prime factor of employee or volunteer fraud was excessive trust or responsibility given to one person. Churches are no different. Money is alluring and so brings temptation. Accountability is not about mistrust but is about wisdom. Building teams and internal accountability, along with introducing sensible processes, protects those involved.
Accountability is especially important where cash (notes and coins) is involved, or where payments are controlled by one person.
Encourage a culture of healthy challenge
In that same Charity Commission survey, 24% of respondents cited lack of challenge as a reason for fraud. Financial accountability should be an attribute or a characteristic rather than an action or series of actions, and healthy challenge helps to nurture an environment that invites people to question and so to develop better understanding. It is important that we respond well to challenge, welcoming and positively reinforcing it doing all that we can to spread understanding.
Openness and transparency
It is important that significant financial decisions are taken in a culture of openness and transparency.The minutia of decisions does not need to be explained, but where directional financial decisions are made behind closed doors, perhaps even away from the trustees or others in church leadership, people fail to understand why things happen.
Communicate financial information
Where there is a void, people tend to fill it with speculation. Where churches don’t provide enough financial information then suspicion grows, which can spread very quickly via word of mouth or increasingly via social media.
Suspicion is not limited to sceptics outside the church. We recently spoke to two young church members becoming increasingly disillusioned with their church. They felt that they were continually being asked to give more money, but received no information on how it was used. They became sceptical and generosity died.
Provide relevant and understandable financial information across the church among leaders and members. Ensure that your publicly available report and accounts shares information generously about the ‘what’ and the ‘why’ as this protects the perception of the church in the local community. (NB: Remember to respect privacy!)
Accountability is an essential aspect of church finance. It is a statement of financial integrity, openness and transparency, an application of wisdom in an area of temptation.
Accountability is more than systems and controls. It is an attitude of mind and an underlying culture which builds confidence deep within a church. Financial administration certainly has its place blog, but controls alone, without an attitude of accountability, are likely to come up short.