The MCA research project sent a letter to 65 conferences in the North American Division. We thought that we should get a more accurate assessment of how open the conferences in fact are with their financial information. We have not seen that the financial statements of the conferences contain any information that would be harmful to disclose to any interested party. The following is the letter we wrote:
Dear Institutional Financial Officer:
Members for Church Accountability (MCA) is a coalition of Seventh-day Adventist members whose concern is to encourage, through responsible and constructive means, improved accountability within the SDA Church.
The primary focus of our coalition is to encourage financial accountability. We believe that this goal can be achieved mostly through the faithful application of existing institutional policies and procedures.
A review of several distressing financial losses incurred by the Church over the past three or four decades suggests that the losses were due to the failure to faithfully follow valid, existing policies and procedures. At MCA we believe that if our institutional bookkeeping was-as Ellen White said it ought to be-"open as sunlight," policies and procedures are much more likely to be honored.
Something on the order of a denominational "Freedom of Information" act, we believe, can save the cause from inappropriate and unwise use of the Lord's funds that have resulted from the failure to follow the procedures to which the Church's stewards are committed.
MCA is in the process of developing an accountability or "sunlight" recommendation that would make church members responsible for helping Church institutions to follow the policies and procedures it has enacted through constituency, committee or board actions. Through this letter we are probing the existing state of financial transparency that exists by requesting of you a copy of your institution's most recent annual financial summary.
If you are unable to send us such documentation, would you do us the courtesy of sending a copy of the institutional policy that prohibits sharing such an overview of your institution's recent financial condition with our coalition.
We hope that you share the concern for transparency that we have modeled at our website http:/ /www.advmca.org. We welcome your response at either our e-mail address or post office box.
MCA’s Transparency Survey of NAD Treasurers Concludes
In line with its concerns for the financial integrity of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, and consistent with its confidence that there is a strong positive correlation between financial transparency and the safety of the tithes and offerings that flow to the denomination’s administrative centers, Members for Church Accountability made the effort this summer to assess the degree of transparency that the treasurers of the North American Division’s union and local conference offices would permit.
In the summer of 2003, MCA approached individually by letter the leading financial officers of the North American Division—the Division treasurer, the nine union conference treasurers and the 58 local conference treasurers.
MCA’s brief letter identified the sending organization, the nature of its concerns and explained openly that it was attempting to learn the degree of financial transparency that the addressed treasurer would demonstrate by his or her response to a request for "a copy of the most recent complete, annual audited financial statements."
The letters were mailed in the second half of July and by the first week in September eight treasurers (seven conferences and one union conference) had responded, with one additional union treasurer writing back in late October. (One MCA letter was returned as undeliverable.)
From the 58 treasurers who did not respond at all, MCA is prepared to infer that they were not anxious to provide MCA with their most recent, annual, audited financial statements.
Among the nine treasurers who responded to MCA’s transparency assessment, neither of the union conference treasurers was inclined to cooperate. Both indicated that the financial statements were provided primarily to their conference committees and, quinquennially, to the union delegates at a constituency meeting. One of the two union treasurers wasn’t "sure what purpose it would serve for those fifty-eight Conferences, nine Unions and the north American Division to send financial statements to the members for church accountability each year." The other argued that "since the statements are technical in nature, we want to be sure that the person reviewing them understands what the statement is saying."
While all of the responding treasurers affirmed the notion of transparency, five of the seven responding local conference treasurers indicated more or less directly that their transparency practices did not extend beyond their constituents. Nevertheless two of them promised to present MCA’s documentation request to their conference executive committees with one explaining, "This committee will make the decision as to how transparent they wish for us to be with respect to your request."
One conference treasurer sounded as though he would be willing to send the financial statements but was "sorry that I cannot send what you request" because "I do not have any extras."
Although several of the respondents were unacquainted with MCA, only one made a point to explore the organization’s website "and read several of the recent newsletters and other general information available there in addition to your letter."/p>
Finally, one of the responding treasurers was obviously the friendly acquaintance of an MCA officer and was clearly sympathetic to its extra-organizational effort toward more open and independent financial accountability. This particular treasurer questioned the independence of the General Conference Auditing Service and suggested as an alternative "each organization procuring independent audits from outside CPA firms."
It appears from this survey that one of 68 church administrative treasurers in the North American Division was willing to provide MCA with his conference’s audited financial statement.
Perhaps as discouraging as any result from this survey is the apparent failure of either of the two conference committees that were given the opportunity to authorize their treasurers to cooperate with MCA’s request for records.
As MCA’s treasurer Norm Smith has opined in the past, the denomination ought to consider instituting something like the American government’s Freedom of Information Act first effected in 1967. But for such a policy to be added to the General Conference or North American Division’s regulating documents would require a substantial culture shift among church leaders—one that would view tithe paying members more like valued stockholders than as nosy children.