Faith Works 2-13-16
Boring is better than headline making
There's an aspect of faith community life, of church involvements, that we all tend to dismiss – intentionally or not.
When it comes to the boring minutae of finance and the organizational detail of what's often called "stewardship" (a broad subject, but in board and committee-speak usually meaning the group responsible for managing finances), everyone from clergy to chairmen, from ministers to moderators, all like to wince a little as the financial report comes up.
Yes, it involves numbers, and true, we're talking about money. In modern-day America, we could talk about dreadful diseases or sexual activity and not see as many people start looking intently at their shoe-tops. Innumeracy may be worse than illiteracy in our society, and money is the guilty secret everyone wants to keep. So the cultural pressure is to glance, shuffle, and move on. Someone understands this stuff, right? Let them worry about it.
And let me (unfairly) speak for clergy. Few of us went into this calling because we loved to work over the budget analysis, or have a head for accounting. It's a different skill-set, and they don't always overlap.
It all adds up to church finances, and non-profit accounting, being an area that's seen as a specialist field where most of us not only don't but don't need to understand what's going on.
Until there's a problem.
Yeah. I feel like I have to write some version of this column about every two years, and it seems that it's time again, so here goes: when someone is caught stealing money from a Little League team, a Girl Scout troop, the Cub Scout pack, the church treasury? I can tell you from painful, hard experience: it NEVER starts as someone thinking "I'll swipe the cookie money from the kids." Really, it doesn't. It begins with a person who is handling too much cash with too few other participants who is dealing with some financial stresses of their own, and says – to themselves, because the set-up doesn't require they talk to anyone else, anyhow – "you know what? this won't be missed for the time being, and I need to pay something over here, and I'll pay it back over there in a few days…weeks….months."
And a year goes by, and you owe the club, the group, the fund something on the order of thousands, and the tax return wasn't as big as you hoped, and now you'd have to explain to people why it was going in now, and you can't figure out where to get it from anyhow, and so far no one notices, so… then it gets to five figures.
It can be, I've seen, almost a relief to get caught. What's horrible for some of us is having to be one of the two or three who have to sit down with someone, and work through a) denial, b) deflection, c) weeping and sobbing, and get to d) what are we going to do about it? A to D can be a long journey, and sometimes you end up stuck at B and lawyers and the police have to be involved.
Here's my sermon for charitable groups in general and churches in particular: if you're taking the easy way out regarding donations and money and giving, STOP. You're creating the circumstances where a decent but weak and/or hurting person could do themselves and your cause a great disservice. Fiscal reports and annual budgets and two-handed deposit and check writing processes and the occasional audit: they can all be SO tedious, and quite frankly, they can be utterly unnecessary for years on end. Until they aren't.
Which is why we do it month after month, year after year. The boring way. The "everyone gets a copy" way and the "nothing happens without two un-related sets of eyes on it" way. The responsible way, for your organization and for those taking on the responsibility. When you say "we trust you, just shove it in your left-hand pocket and put it in the bank on Monday!" you mean well, but you might be creating the grounds for misunderstandings later at best, outright crime that could have been prevented at the worst.
Do it the right way from the start, and give thanks for all of us tedious, rule-citing people. You will never (I hope) know how much pain our boring ways can prevent.
Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; he's been a treasurer and board officer a few times, and knows why you do this boring stuff. Tell him what boredom you're thankful for at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.