March - April 2016

Written by Dan Busby
From his column God, Government and Me—Money in the Church

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Accountability—it is a word that engenders strong feelings. The obligation or willingness to accept the responsibility embodied in accountability is embraced by many, misunderstood by some, and feared by a few.

Are we accountable to ourselves—self-accountability—or accountable to someone else in a verifiable way? Verifiable accountability and self-accountability differ greatly.

When questioned by Congress on why it took General Motors so long to recall cars with faulty ignition switches, CEO Mary Barra said, “We will hold ourselves fully accountable.” Such an assurance rings hollow.

If self-accountability by General Motors to General Motors were a valid concept, the recall of faulty cars would have occurred much earlier. Instead, there was a 10-year delay in recalling millions of vehicles—all the result of self-accountability.

Contrast self-accountability with verifiable accountability. The latter isn’t just a sound concept—it is a theme that runs through the Scriptures. This is why my colleague Dr. Gary Hoag says, “God cares more about accountability than we do.” As an example of Jesus’ keen interest in this topic, he tells the story about investing funds in Matthew 25:14–30. The crux of the parable is verifiable accountability.

Jesus set the verifiable accountability example when He sent out the disciples two-by-two (Mark 6), and the 72 (Luke 10)—a system that was continued by the Early Church in Acts.

In 1 Corinthians 4:2, we read these words: Now it is required that those who have been given a trust must prove faithful. Proving faithful—there it is again—more verifiable accountability!

Because people do form impressions by looking at outward appearances, the pattern for accountability of churches and their leaders lies in biblical accountability—in the spirit of truth and love, holding one another to high standards in our individual journeys of faith and ministry service.

How do churches measure up on the verifiable accountability index? Many do well in this arena, but in the words of Paul, we must “do more and more” (1 Thess. 4:10b)!

Why aren’t churches more accountable?

  • Lack of understanding. Many churches do not understand how easy it is to be accountable.
  • Fear of accountability. We want to be accountable because we like to be recognized for what we do well. Yet, we are afraid to be held accountable because of the possibility of “failure.”
  • We are afraid of offending someone. Some think because we are doing the “Lord’s work,” it is not appropriate to hold others accountable, because it appears that we are questioning their integrity.
  • Accountability takes time and hard work. Make no mistake about it—it takes time and hard work to be accountable. It takes time for tedious activities like preparing reports for the church board, filing forms with the government, or providing information to church members.
  • Accountability costs money. Time is money, and the additional time required for accountability may cost money. However, in the long run, accountability can save multiples of the investment.
  • Accountability isn’t “ministry.” “Shall we spend money on church programs or accountability?” Too often, accountability loses in this scenario. Actually, it isn’t either or—we need to have strong church programs AND accountability.

How can churches be more accountable?

  • Rotate offering counters. At least two people should count every offering and other individuals should periodically rotate into the counting process.
  • Regularly reconcile electronic gift transactions. Reconciling electronic gifts to the donor management system, the bank accounts, and the financial records is an absolute must to minimize fraud.
  • Regularly reconcile all financial accounts. Checking, savings, and investment accounts should be reconciled monthly.
  • Complete basic internal audit steps. Someone who is not involved in any aspect of the church accounting process should regularly review the:
    • Offering count and deposit records,
    • Electronic gift reconciliations,
    • Checking, savings, investment account reconciliations, and
    • Compliance of expense payments with the church’s accountable expense reimbursement plan and specifically review all expenses incurred by the senior pastor.

A church with accountability systems in place encourages confidence in its membership, and that is a benefit to any ministry. Strong churches welcome verifiable accountability. It is what Jesus taught the disciples, and it remains the model for fruitful ministry today.

Dan Busby is a certified public accountant and president of the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability (ECFA).

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