Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Our Congregation is an Open Book

I've been percolating away for some time now on the benefits of a congregation (or any non-profit for that matter) opening its financial books as wide as possible. What's been holding me up is indecision over whether I want to write a concise "primer" with an editorial slant, or more of a treatise which would explore the theological basis behind the suggestion(s) in greater detail.

Whichever angle I end up taking, I figure now is the time to at least get things moving along here on the blog. Please consider this post an invitation to join in and take part! Suggest, critique or applaud away to your heart's content. And if your faith community or non-profit is doing anything along these lines, please share your experience with us!

Before I go much further I should define what I mean by "open books." It has been my experience that congregational budgets are usually presented for approval as a collection of "overarching amounts" of money rather than a list of individual account lines: salaries are grouped into one number, expenses another, facilities yet another single number. What I'm suggesting with the term "open books" is a move to break these numbers down as far as we can in the name of offering the most visible, transparent and accountable financial statement possible.

With that said, here's the first draft...I'd be great to share your responses with everyone in the comments, but if you'd rather not make your comments public, please feel free to send them to jkblogspot {at} gmail {dot} com. Thanks.

Three Reasons for a congregation to Open Its Financial Books as Wide as Possible

1. Visibility
To open our books is to make the realities of what can happen when a group of people pool their money together plainly visible; it is to offer a view of "the big picture" where our individual generosity visibly mingles with the generosity of others and results in something larger than what any of us could have accomplished on our own. We want to see beyond the narrow scope of our own wallets and be encouraged.

(Think how un-miraculous the story of the loaves and fish would be if we didn't know what Jesus started with and you'll understand why we think visibility is important)

2. Transparency
To open our books is to prophetically proclaim that our finances do not define us, nor do we subscribe to a culture that values (the perception) of economic wealth as the greatest indicator of one's worth. Instead, by freely sharing our collective financial situation, we break free of our addiction to, and worship of, money and take great strides toward being known by what we spend our money on, rather than how much money we have. Transparency in our books reminds us our wealth is a blessing to be passed along before moth and rust destroy and thieves break in and steal.

(Think about how practicing this discipline on a corporate level would change the way we view our finances on an individual level and you'll get a taste for the freedom we could usher into so many lives)

3. Accountability
To be accountable with our books is to underscore that those we have placed "in control" of our collected generosity are merely stewards; they are not above reproach and proper account must be taken at the end of the day. This practice has been adopted by most non-profits and there is a significant legal dimension to it here in Canada. That said, there is still a lot of leeway on the amount of detail to which those in charge of finances are required to share. We believe the more detail given, the stronger bonds of trust will grow.

NOTE: Undoubtedly some will argue that to open our books any wider, merely opens them to a bevy of criticism and complaint from a minority of the giving membership. It is my opinion that a properly drafted budget, created with community input/involvement and distributed well in advance of any official meetings to pass said budget should suffice to allow any grievances to be aired, debated and properly taken into consideration.

Should an individual (or group) continue to find fault and the need to create controversy despite such a process, I would maintain that such an aired and stubborn grievance is preferable to the the alternative rumours of discontent and mistrust which leaves leadership steering a ship they don't realize is slowly taking on water.


LJ Ducharme said...

My question to you then is: How well would you rate your church/non-profit organization on this?

James Kingsley said...

hey lj! i think lpc/the Place is getting better at prepping us before AGM's etc and i wouldn't be surprised if this is one of a few steps in the direction of more open books.

I could probably write another entire post on "how to get there" but i do think that a slow move toward more open books is probably best in most cases.

opening our books is probably more a culture shift than a financial one and in cases like ours i really believe that evolutionary change would be/is much more gentle and productive than revolutionary change...