If you agree with us that churches should be more transparent, we invite you to act on that belief in at least one of three ways (described below). In addition, you may sign up for our e-mail list, and we will provide you with updates about our work and more ways for you to get involved.
Urge Congress to Make Churches Transparent
First, we ask that you consider urging Congress to amend the law to require that churches file the Form 990 – the information return that forms the basis for the transparency required of other tax-exempt organizations. Senator Charles Grassley has recently discussed whether the law needs to be changed. Tell him that it does! You can submit a comment to Senator Grassley through his website here.
We recognize that it is possible to favor transparency without wanting government-mandated transparency. Although, for the reasons explained by John Montague in his article “The Law and Financial Transparency in Churches,” we do not believe widespread transparency is possible without a legal change, we nonetheless appreciate your perspective and ask that you consider taking the second or third suggestions (below).
Ask Your Church to be More Transparent
Second, on a local level, we encourage you to pursue transparency at your church. Ask your pastors, elders, or other leaders questions about how financial decisions are made, what happens to your donations, etc. Encourage them to consider adopting the policies recommended here. Please be warned that some pastors will be unreceptive to these suggestions. Their reasons for opposing transparency are many: some are simply afraid of change; some do not understand the importance of transparency; others are defensive and think questions are tantamount to challenges to their authority; and still others believe – rightly or wrongly – that they have a vested interest in nondisclosure. If you have an interesting experience pursuing transparency at your church, please send us an e-mail with your story. We may publish it on our blog (with your permission). Because we know it can be difficult to push for transparency, we hope to provide a forum to support those who are.
Tell the ECFA that You Are Concerned about Church Transparency
Finally, we suggest that you tell the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability (ECFA) that you are worried about the lack of financial transparency in churches. When Senator Grassley concluded his investigation of the finances of six “prosperity gospel” Christian ministries, he asked the ECFA to recommend ways to make churches more financially transparent and accountable to donors and the public. The ECFA subsequently formed the Commission on Accountability and Policy for Religious Organizations. In December 2012, the Commission recommended that Congress should “never pass legislation requiring churches to file Form 990 or any similar information return.” The Commission based this recommendation on a strained reading of the Free Exercise Clause that is at odds with legal scholarship on the issue. Instead, the Commission said that churches “should, as a best practice, establish appropriate measures to verifiably demonstrate” financial oversight, and it recommended that congregants seek more financial information from their churches.
Overall, we believe that the Commission’s report failed to take seriously the problems that a lack of financial transparency pose to the Christian reputation – a danger that the ECFA acknowledges elsewhere. When greedy pastors steal the headlines (in addition to stealing from their congregants), the whole Church suffers. Moreover, the Commission’s unimaginative suggestion that congregants should seek more financial information from their churches is utterly unrealistic at some churches, including those investigated by Grassley.
At the very least, we believe the ECFA should do more to encourage transparency in churches and that it should do more to speak out about the dangers posed by a lack of transparency. Please write to the ECFA or submit a comment through their website. Tell them that transparency in churches is an important issue and that they do not appreciate: (1) how damaging financial scandals at churches can be to the Christian witness; and (2) how difficult it can be for congregants at some churches to push for financial transparency. Tell them that you support requiring churches to file the Form 990.