The Case for Accountability Reform
The saying goes, "If it isn't broken, don't fix it." In this page we look at whether there is something that needs to be "fixed" in the church's system of accountability. The conclusion that will be expressed here is that there is. We do not claim that accountability has recently and suddenly been "broken". We will claim that recent events in particular have clearly exposed flaws in the church's system of accountability. We believe that these flaws do indeed need to be fixed.
We believe that there has been and still is much that is right happening in the Seventh-day Adventist Church. We believe that the vast majority of our church leaders are dedicated servants of God doing their best to carry on the work of this church as God would have it. We ask all members to join us in keeping this church and its leaders before the Lord in continued prayer.
It is because we value this church and its work so highly, that we are willing to spend the required energy and resources in an effort to make it even more what we believe God would have it be.
How then is it that we would ask members to give serious consideration to some shortcomings in our organization? If we value this church so highly, why would we give some attention to flaws in it? The fact is that spending part of our energies to correct accountability problems is not a work we like to spend our time doing. There are other things we would rather have occupying our time. We hope in this section to explain why we are asking church members to join us in making accountability reforms in our church.
It is unfortunate that in order to convince church members that there are some corrections that need to be made, we need to draw attention to some of the problems that make changes necessary. We find ourselves needing to walk a fine line here. We need to balance the priority of convincing members that some problems require changes on the one hand with the priority of not being unnecessarily negative on the other hand. We hope that we have hit a good balance.
We will explain problems and point to cases that illustrate that these problems are very real. When we give our illustrative examples, we will try to do so succinctly without elaborating with unnecessary detail.
We mention here one of the first concerns that is in many church members' minds. We address this concern in greater detail later, but we want to consider it briefly right up front. It is often stated that God is able to take care of His church. We couldn't agree more.
Some follow that statement with the claim that His people therefore do not need to become involved in correcting problems in the church. We do not agree with this second claim.
We believe that the means that God often chooses to correct problems is through the efforts of His people. We give the analogy of my car which with all of my belongings is dedicated to the Lord. I believe that the Lord is entirely able to take care of my car. When my car has a flat tire I, however, have the choice of being His agent in fixing it. I could recline the seat and rest saying that the Lord can fix the flat on "His" car. Alternatively, I can haul myself out of the car and become His agent in fixing the flat.
Under ordinary circumstances when fixing the flat is within "my" abilities, it is our claim that the Lord expects me to get busy and fix the tire. Similarly, we believe that the Lord would expect us to correct problems in the church which have solutions that are within our abilities.
We see three primary aspects to accountability reform. First, is reform in financial accountability. Members must be able to know for certainty that the financial operations of their church are carried out with complete honesty.
Second, is policy compliance reform. Members must know that the policies of the church are being carried out fairly and accurately.
Third, is representation reform. Members cannot be certain that the church is run with honesty, integrity and fairness unless in practice they by their votes can set the policies of the church and elect the officers who carry out those policies.
These three aspects of accountability reform are summarized in the following three sections.
Financial Accountability Reform - A Summary
(Adapted from 2nd Quarter 1998 Newsletter)
As Christians, we believe that our Lord desires that all our dealings be characterized by honesty, integrity and fairness. We are convinced that a reasonable extension of this notion is that the Lord would like us to take the responsibility to assure that any larger organization to which we lend our support, also exhibits these qualities. We believe that this is especially true regarding our church.
We are pleased with the great majority of things that are happening in the Seventh-day Adventist Church and are in support of the work accomplished through this church. We are not ones who would take delight in rocking the boat. As members of this church we do, however, believe it our responsibility to be assured that nothing in our church is done outside the bounds of simple honesty, integrity and fairness.
Now, we have heard the notions expressed that the Lord will take responsibility for the integrity of his church and that therefore individual members need not take such concerns upon themselves. While we agree with the first notion that the Lord takes care of His church, we do not accept the last notion that members need not take concern, for two reasons.
First, we do not find any convincing evidence from the Bible that this is the way the Lord would like to interact with His church. We are not convinced from scripture that the Lord promises to keep His church on track while its members neglect actions needed to correct problems that arise.
Second, is the historical evidence that the Lord does not operate in this manner, in that He did not prevent the early Christian church from evolving into the medieval papacy. (We believe that the medieval papacy was seriously flawed. We are not here trying to compare our present church to the medieval papacy, rather, we are simply pointing to evidence that the Lord does not appear to offer any guarantee that He will intervene to prevent His church from changing in ways that do not seem good.)
As far as human activity is concerned, we believe that the individual church members bear the final responsibility for the conduct of the church. We certainly do not wish to be hostile toward those who believe that the final responsibility for church conduct rests with church leaders; but we do disagree with them. We believe that our view is consistent with the notion of "the priesthood of all believers." We also believe our view is consistent with the generally perceived overt policies of the church concerning church government.
The final human authority in the Seventh-day Adventist Church rests in the members themselves and is nominally expressed through the constituency meetings of the various conferences. (We do not think that the intent of these governance policies is very effectively carried out in practice, however.) Again, we believe that every church member bears responsibility for holding administrative leaders accountable, to ensure they operate the church with honesty, integrity and fairness.
In order for members to take responsibility in assuring that the church is operated in a manner of which they can morally approve, it seems that two conditions are necessary. First, they must have access to accurate information on how the church is in fact operated. Second, they must have a system in place to make changes where needed which is effective in actual practice.
We do not believe that individual members have the prerogative to dictate to the whole church the manner in which it will operate, except in concert with a majority of members who agree on needed changes. However, if we believe there to be problems that keep us from knowing that our church is acting with integrity as we understand it, we believe that as individuals, we must find ways in which we can channel the energies and resources we expend which do meet our own standards for honesty, integrity and fairness. We believe that a way we can thus channel our energies and resources is in working to bring about those changes needed so we can be assured that the general operation of the church meets at least what we consider to be minimum standards.
In many organizations, access to detailed information about the organizations operations is not provided directly to the members. Rather the members rely on the reports of auditors who have access to the detailed information. We consider this arrangement to be acceptable for our church provided that the auditors are allowed complete access to all information that is necessary and provided that some of the top level auditors are responsible to, directly report to and are directly financed by, the members.
We find an arrangement where the auditors are accountable to the officers they are auditing, not satisfactory. We do not believe that an arrangement where all top church auditors are employed by the church and can be fired by its leaders to be an arrangement that provides satisfactory accountability. We believe the auditing system of the church to be fundamentally flawed in this regard at the General Conference level.
We are not opposed to the system of internal auditors whereby the general conference audits the lower conference levels. However, at the general conference level, the internal auditors report to and are employed by the General Conference officers (even though they recently claim to be independent).
This is not adequate to give the members assurance that all is well at the General Conference level. We understand that the general conference does arrange for some external audits to be made in addition to the internal audits. However, these external auditors are again paid by the very officers they are auditing and the extent and focus of their audits are directed by these officers.
We propose a simple solution. We believe that all conference records should be open to professional auditors financed by and reporting to any group of church members who are concerned enough to foot the bill (which should rightly include the added expense incurred by the conference in cooperating with any such audit).
Certain restrictions protecting the privacy of individuals would, of course apply. We believe that our church should have nothing that it needs to hide. We would like our church to operate in a "goldfish bowl" as the expression goes.
Again, we are not opposed to the General Conference Auditing Department. We are not opposed to the external audits that the General Conference arranges. We simply believe that by themselves, these arrangements are not enough to provide members the needed assurance that business is conducted correctly at the General Conference level.
We applaud some of the efforts that have been made to distance the auditing department from the general conference leadership. However, no matter how devoted and honest these auditors may in fact be and no matter how earnest their claims of independence, as long as their salaries are paid by the General Conference and as long as they can be fired by the conference leaders, they can not provide adequate assurance to the members.
We do not fault the General Conference for not making arrangements for independent audits themselves - the nature of the situation dictates that they are not able to do this on their own. We do fault the leaders for not making it easier for groups of concerned members to arrange for independent audits on their own.
Of course, auditing in itself does not cause correct financial operation of a church. However, the knowledge that any financial misconduct is likely to be exposed by audits is s strong deterrent to misconduct in the first place and can also be the basis of changes in leadership if misconduct arises.
Some of the following links are elaborations on the above summary. Others of the following links provide further information on situations which we believe are examples showing the need for reform in financial accountability.
However, we believe that even without these examples the need for reform still exists. We believe that in our church, we should have a sound financial management and accountability system even if there has never been any misconduct by any church leader.
The link to the report relating to David Dennis (the former head auditor of the General Conference) is of special importance because it reveals the above mentioned fundamental flaw in our present accountability system. We do not claim to know the complete truth of the David Dennis case.
We do claim that any time the head auditor of the church is fired it is a very big deal, just by virtue of the office he holds and the implications for accountability. We also claim that the church leadership has not dealt with this case in a manner that shows accountability to the church members. This page about David Dennis is incomplete and still in work.
Further Information on Financial Accountability Reform
Policy Compliance Reform - A Summary
This section will be available in the future.
Representation Reform - A Summary
As stated above, church members cannot be certain that the church will be run with honesty, integrity and fairness unless in practice they by their votes can set the policies of the church and elect the officers who carry out those policies. This is nominally the case in the current church government structure, however, in practice it is difficult for church members to direct their church. There are, of course, many church members who are content with the current organization of church government. There are also many members who are quite concerned that they seem to have no voice in the directions their church is moving.
There is a question which underlies all such discussion of church government. That is, does God choose church leaders who are to govern the church and to set its policies or does He give this governing and policy setting responsibility to the church membership as a whole? The Roman Catholic church clearly believes that the former is true. It is our belief that the latter is true, that God gives this responsibility to the church membership as a whole. While it is right that the membership delegates many of the details involved in this responsibility to church officers, nonetheless, the final responsibility rests with the membership.
There are those who are very concerned that if the direction of the church is in practice placed in the hands of the general church membership, then the church is in danger of losing sight of its mission and compromising its doctrines. We would agree that this danger is significant. However, we would claim that the danger of this happening over time is also significant when direction of the church is placed in the hands of a bureaucracy of church officers. We believe that members must earnestly pray that this will not happen in either case. The question, however, is to whom has God given the responsibility for directing His church. We believe that He has placed this responsibility on the general church membership.
We realize that there are many dangers involved with making changes in the way the church is governed. There are also dangers associated with failing to make needed changes. This is an activity that must be approached with great care and prayer. We are not suggesting that the church body make changes in this area without a great deal of consideration. We believe that it is the general church membership that needs to consider the alternatives. We expect that church officers generally have little incentive to make changes in this direction.
We are not going to claim here that we have the final answer or the right solution in detail. We do believe that God has given the church membership the final responsibility for directing His church, and that changes should be made to give the membership practical means for carrying out that responsibility.
In the following links we would like to present a variety of possibilities for changes in church government. At present we have only the one following suggestion written. We would welcome other carefully considered and concise suggestions. We hope by these suggestions to promote a more active dialog on this topic among MCA members and among the members of the whole church.
Suggestions for Representation Reform