Why Church Transparency?

We believe that transparency would be good for churches.  Indeed, there are at least five strong arguments for why churches should voluntarily adopt the transparency measures we recommend. (For additional information, most of the arguments below are covered in far greater detail in John Montague’s article “The Law and Financial Transparency in Churches.”)

1. Transparency Would Increase Donations

As numerous studies have shown, churches that are more transparent tend to have more generous congregants. For instance, on the basis of the studies reported in their book Passing the Plate: Why American Christians Don’t Give Away More Money (New York: Oxford UP, 2008), sociologists Christian Smith and Michael Emerson concluded:

[A] significant increase in the public transparency, accountability, and institutionalized credibility of the many religious and charitable causes and organizations to which American Christians might consider giving money would have the real effect over time of considerably increasing the amount of money they give. (143)

Similarly, several studies of Catholic giving have concluded that Catholic parishes with more transparency and where the laity have a greater say in how their donations are used are more generous.

2. Many Churchgoers Want More Transparency

In many polls and surveys, churchgoers have expressed a desire to have more financial information from their churches.  As Charles Zech, the director of Villanova’s Center for the Study of Church Management, summarized his research in his book Why Catholics Don’t Give … And What Can Be Done About It   (Huntington, IN: Our Sunday Visitor Publishing, 2006):

We asked the question in a number of different ways, and each time the answer came out the same. Parishioners want more say in how their parishes are run…. They want to be consulted and have direct input into decision-making processes. In parish financial matters they expect accountability and transparency. (128-129.)

Those findings are consistent with studies showing that congregants at more transparent churches are more generous.

3. Transparency Is Biblical

Although some church leaders have notoriously declared that what they do with their money is a private matter between them and God, such teaching is contrary to sound biblical scholarship and to the practice of many of the most respected Christian leaders.  As a 2003 Christianity Today editorial noted, such an attitude “demonstrates shortsightedness, and ignores reality.” In contrast, the editors argued that all Christian ministries, including churches, have a “higher obligation … to be transparent in” everything.


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

The ECFA website and standards provide extensive biblical support for transparency. The commentary to each of its Seven Standards of Responsible StewardshipTM contains extensive biblical support for each of the standards.  In its commentary to its Standard 5, Transparency, the ECFA writes: “Financial disclosure is not only an accepted, expected, and required form of accountability in society at large, but it also represents the even higher standard of openness for Christian organizations operating in the forum of the Church.”

Seminary professor Craig L. Blomberg has argued in his book, Neither Poverty Nor Riches: A Biblical Theology of Possessions (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1999) that Paul provided an example of financial accountability when he refused to personally take financial gifts to the church in Jerusalem, instead instructing the Corinthians to select trusted individuals from among their congregation to deliver the gifts (1 Cor. 16:3-4). Blomberg noted: “Christians in all times and places should know what other believers are doing with their finances in ways that help to hold them accountable for good stewardship” (196).

Perhaps the most famous modern example of transparency is Billy Graham. In 1948, he gathered a group of his friends together in Modesto, California and asked them for advice about how he could avoid the temptations that he expected would attend his emerging fame. One of their principal pieces of advice was that he needed to avoid greed by being financially accountable in all of his activities. During his tenure, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association strove to be transparent in everything – going so far as to purchase advertising space in local newspapers to publish financial audits of his evangelistic tours. As Graham’s biographer explained, one of the evangelist’s great strengths has been that “he has never thought that he was beyond temptation or that anything he wanted to do was all right.”

Indeed, any Christian who acknowledges that sin and the temptations of power affect even great Christian leaders – just think of King David – must agree that transparency and accountability are necessary antidotes. Transparency is biblical and is something that should be practiced in all churches.

4. Transparency Would Reduce Opportunities for Financial Malfeasance

The secrecy that is attendant to finances at many churches provides opportunities for and shelters malfeasance. One of the primary motivations for requiring other nonprofits to publicly disclose their finances is the idea that transparency encourages honest dealing. As the future Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis famously wrote, “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman.” Newspapers are rife with stories about pastors who have forsaken their Christian duty to be good stewards and who have instead used church resources for their own gain. Recently, a German bishop invoked the ire of many, including the Pope, when it emerged that he had spent millions lavishly renovating his private residence. Or consider the excesses of the six ministries investigated by Senator Charles Grassley,  which included corporate jets, expensive cosmetic surgeries, posh hotels, and even a $23,000 marble-topped commode. If church leaders knew from the beginning that such expenditures would become public knowledge, they would be more likely to steward their resources well.

5. Christians Need to Talk More About Money

Finally, transparency at the local church level would generate more open conversations among Christians about money and stewardship, and that dialogue would be beneficial. In their book Passing the Plate: Why American Christians Don’t Give Away More Money, sociologists Christian Smith and Michael Emerson conclude that two of the primary reasons why American Christians are not more generous is that their pastors are reluctant to address topics of stewardship and giving and that congregants treat these topics as taboo.

About pastors Smith and Emerson write:

A lot of pastors appear to have been ill prepared to successfully address money matters in their churches, and many seem to feel isolated from their clergy colleagues as they struggle with the issue. Many are also afraid of being branded by the money-grubbing stereotype. They can also hate the fact that by asking their parishioners to give money generously they are easily seen as trying to boost their own salaries. At least some pastors are also individually uncomfortable with their own personal perhaps less-than-entirely-faithful handling of money in their own lives. As a consequence, more than a few pastors seem hesitant when it comes to engaging the financial giving of their parishioners, sometimes actively avoiding boldly teaching their churches about faithful Christian stewardship and generous financial giving… The net result seems to us to be a lot of pastors out there who have made peace with low expectations, tolerance for chronic paltry giving by many of their members, and the use of money collection procedures oriented as much to minimize problems and conflict as to effectively build their churches and the spiritual faithfulness of their members. (176)

If churches had to file the Form 990, there would be no way that pastors could hide their salaries, and it would become obvious to the congregation whether the pastor’s preaching about money leads to an increase his or her own salary. Pastors would therefore have no reason not to preach more faithfully about stewardship. Moreover, pastors would be more willing to talk to each other about the issue. We believe the overall effect would be to disarm the power that money currently has over the lives of some pastors.

Smith and Emerson also suggest that more conversations about stewardship among churchgoers would lead to increased generosity:

[C]omplicating all of these matters is the fact that nearly no American Christian seems to talk with anyone else about the question of voluntary financial giving. Money and income are sacred in America… the issues of the motives, amounts, and purposes of voluntary financial giving are not only touchy but have been radically privatized. What anyone gives and why is defined as entirely their own affair, at best a private matter between them and God. Few Christians appear to talk openly even with their spouses about the matter. Fewer talk with other family members, friends, or pastors. The topic is nearly taboo. Consequently, few American Christians approach the question of faithful financial giving within any social context encouraging role model learning, relational support, information sharing, or accountability. The de facto practice is: every person for themselves. And that, we have reason to believe, does little to facilitate generous financial giving. (178)

Again, if pastors had nothing to lose by talking about money, they would probably encourage their congregants to talk more about giving, leading to more accountability and in turn more generosity. Even if pastors themselves did not lead this effort, the fact that church finances, including pastor salaries, would be widely available would mean a more open discussion about church budgets and priorities, and would naturally lead congregants to talk with each other about these issues.