This article explores one form of corruption – financial corruption – with reference to Indian churches and auxiliary Christian organisations. It also explores attempts being made to address the issue with particular reference to the Operation Nehemiah Movement facilitated by Transition Network in collaboration with The Lausanne Movement.
A slightly dated but telling report by David Virtue estimates that embezzlement in the global church in 2000 reached 16 billion dollars, a figure that exceeded the worldwide church’s foreign mission expenditure of 15 billion.1
Financial mismanagement in India
The booklet Corruption Free Churches are Possible: Experiences, Values and Solutions by Christoff Stückelberger has documented the corruption situation in India.2
His three page list includes bribery, misappropriation of funds and property, witch-hunts of whistle-blowers, and numerous court cases. He quotes a 2001 study in which 84% of heads of churches acknowledged that there is corruption in the churches.3
While Stuckelberger has shed light on the organized church, JJ Ratnakumar, Missionary Upholders Trust General Coordinator, has shared some of the open confessions he has heard in spiritually reflective sessions by mission leaders, which cover writing false reports, embezzlement, bribery, irregularities in large financial transactions like property, and using earmarked funds for personal needs.4
There are often serious questions about the use of tithes and offerings by independent church pastors and leaders. Hence there is enough evidence that the problem exists in various forms in all categories of churches and parachurches.
Despite this, there is little effort by the church to address it. Roberto Laver points to the paradox – given the moral implications of the issue — that this low level of activity compares unfavourably with the efforts of secular agencies.5 Missiological anthropologist Prabhu Singh avers: “ . . . an ethically emasculated church that lacks integrity and moral authority abdicates its calling to be a prophetic witness for Christ. Therefore, corruption within the ecclesial communities is all the more debilitating to the cause of Christ and the common good of the society, and must be dealt with great urgency and intensity.”6
There are nevertheless some attempts by individuals and organizations to address the issue, as listed by Stückelberger.7 (His work predates the Operation Nehemiah movement which is not mentioned). His critique of these efforts is that most represent a wave of activity often following corruption scandals with insufficient follow up.
He recommends profound changes in theology and structural changes for sustainable improvements.8 He has 35 recommendations for churches and related institutions covering seven areas: theology and ethics, governance and leadership, resources and projects, preaching and teaching, gender empowerment, sanctions and courts, databases-media-campaigns-programmes.9 In this paper, we look at four key areas that Transition Network as a facilitating agency envisions as target areas for change.
1. Need for spiritual renewal within
Chris Wright, in his address to the Lausanne Congress at Cape Town October 2010, asserted that the greatest obstacles to God’s desire for the evangelization of the world are not external.
“The overwhelming problem for God in his redemptive mission for the world,” said Wright, “is his own people.”
“The overwhelming problem for God in his redemptive mission for the world,” said Wright, “is his own people.” He challenges the people of God to confront the idols of power and pride, popularity and success, wealth and greed.10 Laver points towards the devastating consequences of corruption on society, particularly the poor, and contrasts this with the mandate in scripture to care for the poor.11
These concerns apply more to individuals rather than institutions. For institutional change, individuals must change first. There is an urgent need for a deep inward reflection and introspection within the church. It is necessary to create forums that facilitate this introspection among individuals in church leadership – introspection that leads to confession, renewal and revival.
2. The next generation – education
As a new generation of leaders is being trained, theological institutions need to create leaders with integrity and prepare them to counter the pressure to compromise. There is a need for curricula to be developed and incorporated into Bible colleges that particularly address the issue and provide tools for the next generation.
3. Structures and governance
There is also a need to address the structures and the systems of governance of the institutions. Addressing them can be a serious challenge, particularly in the traditional church, where structures are sometimes developed and reinforced over centuries, and any effort towards change will be met with resistance. However, there is scope to ‘tweak’ those aspects of these structures that encourage corruption. An example is the lifelong term of functionaries in leadership, leading to lobbying and politicking in the appointment of leaders.
Dr. Prabuh Singh describes the risks of corruption in mission partnerships between Indian organisations and Western agencies when the latter have not researched the cultural context of the mission field adequately.12
The mushrooming of independent, single leader churches and organisations creates further pitfalls. The lack of a human accountability relationship in such cases supported by an ‘accountable only to God’ philosophy becomes a breeding ground for corruption:
- Many such independent leaders do not have good legal and accounting advice, and are not fully informed about appropriate financial conduct.
- India lacks a universally accepted code such as the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability (ECFA) document that is currently a resource for churches in the West.
- Ratnakumar states that the reasons for improper financial conduct range from ignorance, innocence, foolishness, and to a hidden agenda.13
The lack of a human accountability relationship in such cases supported by an ‘accountable only to God’ philosophy becomes a breeding ground for corruption.
There is a need to document a common accepted financial code of conduct, and possibly an independent agency such as the ECFA, that facilitates adherence to such a code.
4. A beacon to a confused world
The church needs to lead the way in tackling corruption in society. It needs to change from being a sorry reflection of the struggles of secular institutions to becoming a beacon to a confused world – fulfilling the mandate of Jesus to be the salt and light of the world.
Challenges and opportunities
At the first Operation Nehemiah event at Bangalore in September 2011, 51 top church leaders came together to discuss the issue. While there were different nuances, there was hardly any disagreement that financial integrity within the church and its auxiliaries in India is a matter of concern. The struggle, however, lies in the ‘mindshare’ that the issue has in a day’s work:
- There are souls to be won and churches to be run.
- It is not seen to be urgent enough for individual leaders to take it up as a cause demanding significant resources, time and attention – strongly though they may feel about it.
- Changing an entrenched and institutionalized system is a huge and draining challenge.
Laver alludes to work done by faith-based movements like the Micah Challenge and TearFund towards advocacy against corruption in government – pressing for effective legislation and its implementation. The World Bank reveals that, in some countries, religious bodies are some of the most strategic institutions to hold public servants to account.14
However, in relation to corruption within the church, it is questionable whether a similar model — where laymen take up a confrontational bottom-up approach with the clergy – would work. Stückelberger has captured the attempts at this in India:15
- While advocacy and the bottom-up approach have their place, history suggests that revivals begin with a small praying group that workstogether with Church leadership.
- This is the model that Transition Network (www.transitionnetwork.in) is using in facilitating the Operation Nehemiah movement (www.operation-nehemiah.in).
The 2011 Bangalore event was a new beginning, but the responsiveness of the leaders to participating in the initiatives of Transition Network was encouraging. The Operation Nehemiah Declaration against Corruption (ONDAC) is one initiative that was taken to closure.16 At the same time the challenges of conflicting priorities, lack of a mechanism for resource sharing, and ambiguity in whether the participants were present in their own personal capacity or as representatives of their organisations, resulted in limited output on the rest of the initiatives.
The October 2012 event addressed the issue of the influence of leaders on their organisations in either their personal or official capacity by stressing the need for them to take personal responsibility for the state of affairs in their respective organisations and the church in India at large. Plenary sharing among the participants moved progressively from hiding behind a corporate “we” language to a responsible “I” language, which augurs well. They agreed that any attempt to address the issue purely systemically would fail without first addressing the spiritual failure at individual levels.
Participants articulated their vision of a corruption-free church through four tangible sub-projects, reflecting the four impact areas chosen by Transition Network for the Operation Nehemiah movement:
- Spiritual renewal. The starting point will be the replication of Operation Nehemiah events at a regional and organisational level. This will be accompanied by organised intercession.
- Testimony. The aim is to be a beacon to a confused world where the church’s public stance on the issue is envisaged to be an edifying force for the rest of society. The activities will revolve around the ONDAC and a declaration of assets by senior functionaries among the clergy.
- Next generation. The key here is education and training. This project focuses on curricula around the issue of financial integrity and their dissemination through seminars.
- Governance, systems and standards. As a starting point this group will work on documenting a set of standards of financial integrity that are relevant to the Indian context. They will also work on a social security project that will address the financial needs of the clergy and Christian workers.
Given the highlighting of the corruption issue in the church in India and the attempts being made in a genuine spirit to address it, The Lausanne Movement could assist the Operation Nehemiah movement by reinforcing its decisions and plans.
This could include:
- Reporting on them within the Lausanne network.
- Affirming participants’ decisions and gently encouraging them towards closure.
- Asking a Financial Integrity Working Group to monitor their progress. (Editor’s Note: A Financial Integrity Working Group does not currently exist within Lausanne.)
- Sharing Lausanne resources such as the Lausanne Standards, and experts to teach and develop curricula.
- Encouraging churches and denominations in India to participate.
- Generating global prayer for them.
Further assistance could be provided through the facilitation of scholarly work either validating or helping course correction in the initiatives of the movement — whether through publishing, highlighting or updating of papers; or facilitation of primary research. Given that the issue is a worldwide phenomenon, this movement could be used as a model to be replicated in different nations in culturally relevant forms. The Lausanne Movement could use its influence to educate funding agencies on how to avoid funding methodologies that fuel corruption, and also alert them to the existence of the Operation Nehemiah movement.
A transformative approach (as against a punitive one) could be adopted in gently nudging fund receiving agencies to follow good financial practices in line with the outcome of the work on standards by the Operation Nehemiah movement. In sum, The Lausanne Movement has a great opportunity to serve the Operation Nehemiah movement in India by sharing its intellectual resources with the movement and keeping the movement accountable to its commitments.
1 David Virtue, “Global Embezzlement costs Christianity billions of dollars annually,” Virtue Online, http://listserv.virtueonline.org/pipermail/virtueonline_listserv.virtueonline.org/2002-February/003248.html, accessed 27 September 2012.
2 Christoph Stückelberger, Corruption Free Churches are Possible, Experiences, Values, Solutions ( Globethics.net, 2010),66-68, http://www.globethics.net/c/document_library/get_file?uuid=c49458ab-e476-49ef-89b4-5fc7f75dd0be&groupId=10131, accessed 27 September2012.
3 Ibid, 73.
4 JJ Ratnakumar, e-mail message to author, 5 September 2011.
5 Roberto Laver, “‘Good News’ in the Fight against Corruption,” The Review of Faith & International Affairs 8, no. 4 (2010): 49.
6 Prabhu Singh, “Corruption in Ecclesial Communities in India, Concerns, Critiques, Cures,” 4.
7 Stückelberger, Corruption Free Churches, pg 69-72.
8 Ibid, 73.
9 Ibid, 163-191.
10 lausannemovement, “Plenary 2: Confronting Idols – Chris Wright -Cape Town 2010,” YouTube video, 3:15, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gZ57kCNQ6oQ, accessed 27 September 2012.
11 Laver, “Good News,” 52.
12 Singh, “Corruption,” 12.
13 Ratnakumar, email to author.
14 Laver, “Good News,” 53, 54.
15 Stückelberger, Corruption Free Churches, pg 69-72.
16 Operation Nehemiah, “Operation Nehemiah Declaration Against Corruption,” Transition Network, http://operation-nehemiah.in/declaration.html, accessed 27 September 2012.