A plea for opacity

It’s the ecclesiology, stupid.

Calls for the church to be more transparent in its finances are often based on the justification that transparency is an obligation of any organization to its stakeholders. This is a reasonable and understandable argument, but it entails a slight misunderstanding of the relationship between the church and its members, and financial transparency would be at least slightly detrimental to me spiritually.

Stakeholder is the concept we use to think about how to balance the legitimate interests of all involved in some endeavor. In a university, students and their families are properly understood as stakeholders rather than as customers, for example. Alumni, administrators, faculty and staff members are also included among the stakeholders who contribute to and benefit from the communal endeavor.

Stakeholder is a useful concept, but it’s misapplied to the church because of what this church aspires and claims to be. My fundamental identity within the church is not that of a stakeholder, but of a cross-bearer, working out my salvation in fear and trembling. I may have desires and interests, but my role as cross-bearer is to interrogate to what extent my desires are selfish, fallen or sinful.

The church was not established to be a mere meeting-together of Christians where we can learn from or support each other. There are churches who understand themselves that way, and they do wonderful things, and have done so for centuries. But the world does not need (and in 1830, did not need) simply one more gathering of like-minded Christians that would express our collective desires within the world and where we would be properly understood as stakeholders. Nor have we merely been called to bear our cross on the path of the church. Instead, the church’s claim is to provide the authoritative covenants that constitute an essential element in the working out of our salvation. As is made clear to us in the temple, we do not negotiate our covenants with God from a position of strength. It is only by the grace of God that he accepts us as partners in covenant-making in the first place. To presume to have legitimate interests as stakeholders that need to be balanced in that covenant relationship would suggest either monstrous arrogance or raving madness.

Where we have been given opportunities for action within the church is instead as stewardship-holders. We’ve been delegated particular areas of responsibility as church members, and we are accountable not to other stakeholders, but to a much narrower set of people. I have (redundant and overlapping) stewardship over my family, as a ministering brother, and over an auxiliary organization (annual budget: $0.00). I certainly try to be aware of the wants and needs of the people within my stewardship, but I don’t approach them as fellow stakeholders. The question is not: how can I best balance their interests and mine or other institutional interests, but rather: in the confines of my stewardship, what is God’s will for them and for me? Likewise, I am depending on the people with stewardship over me, from the apostles to my bishop and elders quorum president and ministering brothers and wife, not to try to balance my needs and theirs, but to earnestly seek to know God’s will for me.

So calls for financial transparency are subtle but unwelcome calls for me to define my relationship with the church not as a cross-bearer and covenant-maker and stewardship-holder, but as something that it is not and that I do not wish for it to become. There are plenty of options for Christians to gather and negotiate their various interests as stakeholders. But there would have been no need for a Restoration if that’s all we’re doing, and a church of stakeholders is not the church I’m looking for. Abraham did not ask Melchizedek about future resource allocations before he brought his tithes, and the widow did not wait for the temple’s FY XXXVI financial report before she offered her mite. I would prefer to be able to do the same.

17 comments for “A plea for opacity

  1. This simultaneously explains both Jonathan’s unflinching loyalty to the church and the paucity of his charity for others. Thank God his “stewardship” is limited.

  2. But there would have been no need for a Restoration if that’s all we’re doing, and a church of stakeholders is not the church I’m looking for.

    Jonathan, wouldn’t your claim here imply that the leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints misunderstood, or at least did not have a fully developed, understanding of the Restoration vis-a-vis the whole “stakeholder” question prior to the 1950s, when detailed information about church expenditures and revenues were still routinely shared with the membership at general conference? (Possibly! I mean, these were the people who thought it was God’s will to maintain the wholly invented priesthood ban. Maybe they were wrong about other things too.)

  3. Thanks for sharing your personal perspective, Jonathan. I respect it, even if I don’t share it.

    To me, the dichotomy between being a stakeholder and being a cross-bearer/covenant-maker/stewardship-holder just isn’t a thing. Financial transparency by the Church/Stake/Ward doesn’t feel mutually incompatible to my duty as a builder in Zion.

    Could your perspective be generational, in part? I mean, up until the mid-20th century, the Church reported its expenditures and receipts. Were those generations of Saints less capable of being stewards? I also think of the ward of my youth. We held an annual fundraiser (a fair or bazaar) to raise funds for the ward budget. Ward members contributed items. And there was a palpable sense of duty to dig deep and contribute to help the ward budget. I can still feel the sense of belonging that those events produced in our family, as we contributed to make sure the ward’s finances were good. I could go on with other examples.

    To me, knowing “the bottom line,” knowing that my pennies count, actually increases my feeling of being a steward. What say ye to this? I truly want to understand your perspective.

  4. Russell, continuing revelation and a continuously unfolding Restoration is a thing. And it’s a good thing, if not actually a new thing. Fuller understanding and better implementation is what we’d hope and expect to see.

    Then again, I don’t want to put too much weight on that, because I’m not really arguing for what the church should do, just what seems preferable to me and, as I said, suspicion about my own preferences is warranted.

  5. I suspect that the leadership’s decision to discontinue financial disclosure had more to do with the sad state of Church finances in the 50’s and less to do with an ongoing restoration. Now that Church finances are clearly in the black, I can see no reason for not disclosing finances. Members should know what activities they are supporting. Perhaps even have real input into priorities. What is wrong with asking the members whether more emphasis should be placed on temple construction and genealogy, or on global humanitarian assistance? Surely God would support either one.

  6. I would like to see the ward’s financials made transparent, much sooner than the Church’s as a whole. I don’t care too much about the expenditures related to worldwide seminary/institute or the BYU-I Pathways program or BYU TV. And to what I think is Jonathan’s point, that information may simply be a distraction from our goal of following in Christ’s footsteps. However, knowing that ward’s inflow of fast offerings would be a more tangible report card on how well we are ACTUALLY caring for the poor in our area.

  7. I can respect this position and have held a similar opinion in the past, even if I don’t hold it so much now. I have to say though, I felt similar to Commenter Russel Arben Fox above regarding the bit about “no point to the restoration”. Thou dost protest too much.

    I imagine you got a bit carried away there. I don’t imagine that you seriously think the only value of the restoration was to create a Christian institution that doesn’t disclose its finances. Or that if the leadership decided to disclose again that you would deem the church to be no better than all other Christian institutions. But that is what is stated in your OP.

  8. Rockwell, that’s very clearly not what I wrote. If a way to construe what I wrote doesn’t seem to make sense, a good rule of thumb is not to construe it that way.

    I don’t think it’s a difficult concept: financial opacity is just one of many factors that distinguish the church as an organization of cross-bearers and stewardship-holders from an organization of stakeholders. If church leaders decided the benefit of transparency was worth it, that would not by itself change the nature of the organization, only shift it slightly in a direction that I don’t want it to go.

    Like if I preferred a yellow church, and there were already lots of red and blue churches, it’s still true that we wouldn’t need one more red or blue church, and I would still prefer our mostly yellow church despite flecks of red and spots of blue, even if it sometimes needs to add a touch of red or blue in places.

    Hunter, I’d say that the point is that you and I don’t have stewardship over the church as a whole or its finances, and that’s why financial transparency would contribute to the illusion of something that doesn’t exist. We don’t have stewardship by virtue of money we give – that’s how stakeholding works – but because of some responsibility or resource that we receive.

  9. Couldn’t the church return to being transparent, and Jonathan and like-minded members could just ignore the reports? Win-win

  10. I agree with you, Jonathan, but I think you’ll never convince those who believe the church is a civic club, or want more to bash the leadership with. I’m perfectly satisfied letting the Lord deal with my offering, however that happens.

  11. Like the majority of commenters, I did not agree with how you justified you acceptance of the status quo. I too think we are entitled to a financial report.

  12. What is the relationship of the institution that administers the Gospel of Jesus Christ, to the people [Church] of Jesus Christ? (The institution is NOT the Church).

    Some say those that administer the institution have no responsibility towards the congregation outside of whatever mandate is set forth. The veil of separation isn’t woven linen, but instead, transparency and access.

    In some cases, LDS are blocked from family archive history by the administrators of the institution; in some cases, LDS are blackballed from building contracts that compete with “connected” competing contractors; in some cases, LDS are digitally monitored by those that administer the institution.

    The relationship between institution and congregation is at the heart of any question about financial transparency.

  13. Greater transparency would also serve as a potential corrective for waste, fraud, and abuse (which, to at least some degree, are inevitable in in any large institution). Perfunctory semiannual recitals from accounting functionaries (“All good here and according to GAAP!”) don’t offer a level of reassurance that would satisfy donors to most nonprofits (setting aside shareholders in a commercial venture). It is what it is, I suppose. But as a member who’s able to reluctantly accept that, I can easily sympathize with those who, quite reasonably, find it unacceptable.

  14. It seems to me the original argument could be overstated, or perhaps slightly straw-manish in light of the law of common consent as originally understood and practiced. I understand that in the early years of the Church, the members’ consent to important proposals was a big deal. Members wielded a veto power with sustaining votes, at least for a time. I’m not sure about how common consent relates to early church financial reports, but my point is that it seems too dismissive of members’ status to classify them as nondescript “cross – bearers” instead of as individual children of God, free moral agents whom God himself deigns to bring into councils in both their first and second estates, and for whom he requires approaching with gentle persuasion and with reason. (See D&C 121; 50:10-12.) (Especially when modern tithing practice is so stringent.) Stubborn financial opacity flouts this, in my view, and I question it along with the demise of common consent. Sure, members covenant to be cross-bearers, but not to become objects to be acted upon, or mere porters for general authorities.

  15. Just a late addition to my last comment: It seems significant that in scripture, even new saints are called fellow “citizens” rather than subjects. (See Ephesians 2:19.)

  16. Thechair, that’s a nice verse, but note the context: reassuring baptized gentiles that they are as welcome in the early Christian church as Jews. Thus the verse compares them to full citizens and household members, in contrast to strangers and aliens. Given the context – citizens of Rome were still subject to an emperor, a household was still headed by a paterfamilias – I don’t think we can read that verse as suggesting a congregational model of ecclesiastic government.

    Also, it won’t do to promote “children of God” as our primary role as church members at the expense of cross-bearers. Every human being is a child of God, but only some have accepted the call to take up the cross and follow Jesus; and church members are an even more limited subset.

    I do quite like council-member, though, and I’d be happy to include that in how we relate to the church. But some councils have budgetary responsibilities, and others don’t, and very few have direct dealings with the overall budget.

  17. More transparency, not less. Time for the pendulum to swing the other way. It will happen voluntarily on leadership’s terms or it will happen through WikiLeak-like disclosures.

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