What Is Transparency?

In the context of churches, transparency has two important components. The first is that the church’s finances be transparent, permitting congregants to see details about how their donations are spent, and the second is that the church be governed in a transparent fashion such that the congregation understands how and why decisions are made.

Financial Transparency

Financial transparency means more than having an annual meeting where the pastor throws up some power point slides with pie charts. True financial transparency means that the congregation is provided with meaningful financial information. For instance, the congregation should be given a detailed budget that includes specific expenditures such as salaries, gifts to other organizations, building expenses, etc. Other tax-exempt organizations are required by law to provide this information, and donors access it when making decisions about where to give. (This information appears on the organization’s Form 990, which can be viewed on GuideStar.)

Many studies have shown that churchgoers want similar transparency from churches and that congregants at churches that are more transparent give more. In addition, we believe that transparency is biblical and that a lack of transparency tends to provide opportunities for financial malfeasance.

The number one objection we have heard is that transparency will increase jealousy. What this really means is that the individual objecting believes that the pastor’s salary is higher than most congregants would expect and that this revelation will make people unhappy. We believe that if this is the case, the proper response is not secrecy. Rather, it is to confront the issue directly. If some people think the pastor is being paid too much, there should be a conversation about the issue. Perhaps the pastor’s salary is too high, or perhaps it is simply a matter of explaining why the pastor’s compensation has been set at its current level.

One additional benefit of financial transparency is that it will lead to more conversations about money. As Christians, we tend to treat money as taboo, and the way it is handled in churches only exacerbates this problem. In fact, Christians are less willing to talk about personal finances than they are about sex. As a result, we are unable to ask each other important questions about stewardship or to hold each other accountable for how we spend the money God has entrusted to us. Financial transparency at churches would begin an important dialogue about the role money plays in our lives.

To help churches get started on the path towards financial transparency, we offer a number of specific recommendations here.

Governance Transparency

Transparency in governance means that congregants understand how and why decisions are made. It requires clear and open communication.

Anyone who has been attending churches for long has witnessed the problems that a lack of transparency in governance decisions can cause. One Sunday morning an announcement is made: “The church has decided that we are going to [fill in the blank].” Many congregants seem surprised, glancing at their neighbors with a bewildered look. They had heard some talk about [fill in the blank], but there had been no formal meeting to discuss it, and no congregational vote or other attempt at democratic input had been made. How, then, could “the church” have decided on this course of action? The inevitable result of such closed-door decision making is that many congregants are left feeling slightly resentful rather than on board with the new project.

Z33 Art Centre, used under a Creative Commons License. Sculpture by Gijs Van Vaerenbergh, "Reading Between the Lines."

Z33 Art Centre, used under a Creative Commons License. Sculpture by Gijs Van Vaerenbergh, “Reading Between the Lines.”

While we acknowledge that some congregants will always be disgruntled, we believe that decision-making that is open, transparent, and democratic, i.e., that seeks the input of the entire church, is both more biblical and more effective. After all, the church will depend upon members to pay for and volunteer in any major new initiative. If the congregation feels ownership of a decision, there will be more energy and enthusiasm for its implementation.

Equally important, we believe that when decisions are made in a democratic or representative manner rather than by pastors or some hand-picked inner circle, opportunities for financial excesses are minimized, and churches are less likely to develop into cults of personality that can be damaging to both the pastor and the congregation.

For the above reasons, we believe that implementing a transparent governance structure would be beneficial for churches. Although we do not believe in a “one size fits all” approach to governance, we do offer a few concrete suggestions for churches that are searching for a more sound governance model. Those suggestions may be viewed here.