Monday, March 30, 2015

A Vicious Circle

About one year ago, I was asked by the (then) Dean of Theology at the Africa Theological Seminary to develop a course on Accounting for Pastors to be taught to the BA students in Bible and Theology.  As the seminary works with pastors who are already pastoring a church, there was knowledge of the importance of teaching sound theology but also the need to help develop the ability to run a church that is transparent and accountable.  Many of the pastors are in small churches where much of the accounting responsibility falls to the pastor, or at least the developing of the accounting system, so training is important.  

It didn't take me long to say yes to this request.  I had recently learned from some of the business people with whom I worked that pastors had been telling them to pay a 10% tithe on any loans that they received from their business.  I also could see that the business people with whom I worked often had no idea how to determine their tithe as they were not on a regular salary from their business but were rather taking "small small" from their business on a daily basis.

So I developed a class that helped churches design an accounting system in their church which conforms to the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability (ECFA), in
which the pastors have to develop (or report on) the governance structure, internal controls, financial oversight policies, confirmation of compliance with local laws, transparency, compensation structures, and stewardship in charitable gifts, including truthfulness in communication.  I taught the class for the first time last November and it went over very well.  The pastors responded well to it and stated that it was a class highly necessary for pastors.  I taught the class again a couple of weeks ago and this time learned a few more things that gave me some pause.

The first pause came in the budgeting class as we talked about developing both personal budgets and church budgets.  I came to a better understanding of why there are so many independent churches in Kenya.  Two of the mainstream denominations that were represented in my class reported that the local church is only able to keep 20% or 40% of the local offerings, with the balance of the offerings having to go up to the headquarter levels.  In my church in the US, we call that ministry shares and it
goes to the operations at the denominational level as well as some ministries, and is around 10%.  But giving 60-80%?  Additionally, the headquarters takes 100% of the Christmas and Easter offerings, which are often the biggest offerings of the year.  How is a local church to survive and grow, to pay a pastor and develop ministries if they have so little to work with?

And then the second pause came.  We had a hot discussion about tithing, covering the call in the Old Testament and the changes in the New Testament.  During a pause in the debate, one of the pastors (actually a bishop in a mainline church) said to me, "So then, what do we charge to dedicate a car...or a house?"  Long pause.  Then I carefully asked, "Help me understand why you are charging for this?"  I came to learn that some pastors charge 5% of the value of the car or the house that is to be dedicated in order to have the pastor pray over it.  I asked for the Biblical justification of this.  The response was, "You don't understand.  We get paid almost nothing here and we have to be able to cover our costs.  Plus, they want their car to work well, right?" Hmmmm...pastors are charging members for prayer.  And the implication is that if you don't pray for their cars, their car will break down or their home will have issues.  
But when one of the pastors volunteered to share his personal budget, I saw that his salary from the church ($57 per month or $684 for the year) doesn't come anywhere near his expenses, of which school fees alone were $3700 (for one child in university, one child in the last year of high school, two children in elementary school, and his tuition at ATS).  So what is a pastor to do?  This particular pastor was quite creative.  He farms 1/2 acre, his wife runs the church nursery school, they make and sell liquid detergent, and as a pastor he runs three fundraisers per year of which all the profit goes to him.  But after that, he was still short $190/month.  And that is where the "fee for services" comes in.  Church members apparently "know" that the pastor should never be seen without giving a gift.  Pastors complain that even if they preach tithing, people still don't give.  We discover that many people don't keep records of their income, so how can they even know how much to give. 

And there is the vicious circle.  

It's easy to judge these pastors for charging for prayers. It's easy to judge people for not giving a portion of their earnings out of the joy of their heart.  But when looking in the face of poverty and survival, things become a little less black and white.

One pastor, after our discussions, decided to inform his members not to give him gifts anymore when he came to visit.  He said that he didn't want to be seen by his members as a beggar, and that they are more concerned with finding something to give him than visiting with him as the pastor.  He said that if they want to give him a gift (something culturally that is very strong), they could bring it to his home on their own time but not just because he shows up to pray with them.  While this was lauded by the members, other pastors did not appreciate this pastor sending this message, as it threatened them financially.

More than anything, this class (I hope) opens the door for dialogue on this issue and provides alternatives for healthier financial transparency and accountability.

Please pray with me for these pastors, their churches, and the struggle for survival.