Political commentator and former Republican strategist Steve Schmidt began a daily newsletter a couple of months ago. The column from August 22nd entitled How We Get Back to Buchenwald: Edward R Murrow vs. Kari Lake, contained a sentence that struck hard. Trust is earned in drops and lost in buckets. As a pastor for twenty-three years, this phrase spoke absolute truth to me. For us to maintain healthy churches, healthy denominations, relationship marriages, and relationships, we must understand the value of what is being said here.
When I was growing up in America, there were a handful for of deeply committed newscasters. He mention Edward R Burrow in his articles but there were others. Many families watched Walter Cronkite with absolute certainty that only truth was allowed on his set. Our family’s town had an NBC station so we watch Chet Huntley and David Brinkley every night. They were followed by John Chancellor. Peter Jennings was the first I remember on ABC and he seemed like a young upstart compared to the giants on the other stations. There were not different versions of the truth back then. They told what happened to the best of their knowledge. Your opinion of the news did not matter. They were not here to tell you what you wanted to hear; they told you what they saw, witnessed, and believed was important to our nations future.
We do not believe in that simple of a world anymore. We do not even live in a simple news world anymore. Truth seems to be unimportant. We want our often limited and uneducated opinion reaffirmed and if NBC will not do that, I can turn to Fox News. Actually, I do not want to talk about news programs here. I wish to talk about leadership in the church.
First, let me tell you that I would be a terrible politician. I believe in truthful negotiation. When trying to solve a problem, there are often multiple ways of understanding the problem and maybe even multiple ways of solving the problem. Having different people look at a problem different ways should not be a liability. Together, we should be able to come up with a better solution. But partisan politics enters a situation and suddenly, solving the problem is no longer the goal. The goal is winning. And often, the ethics of winning at all cost seems more important than doing the right thing.
My parents were very strict about the ethics of church life in the Southern Baptist Church of my childhood and youth. They tithed. the money in the plate was God’s money so you were careful in how it was managed and how it was spent. While I am no longer a Southern Baptist, those standards are ingrained in me. Another standard was that you never intentionally did harm to a member of the body of Christ or to the body itself. That also stuck with me.
As far as I knew, the ethics of the churches I belonged to as a young adult were just as solid as my home church. Then, I became a pastor and discovered that many churches had a unique way of looking at ethics and perhaps we should say, not looking at ethics. They definitely believed in the church as the body of Christ but when it came to rules, they somehow believed God did not have to follow the same rules as others. When I attended the church meeting of one of my church and discovered that the way they were giving to missions was against IRS rules, that discussion was not well received. In fact, I was very glad there was not a tree outside or I might have been “strung up.” One of the leaders told me later that they would not have hesitated to string me up but they would not have kicked the horse. It turned out okay. Many of them owned their own businesses and realized they would not do things that way. It led to another meeting a few days later to fix the problem.
In every church I have led, I have tried to be straight forwarded in telling the truth, especially when it comes to finances, When we understand the truth, we can solve the problem. Yes, I have had District Superintendents tell me that I might be better off to keep my mouth shut but I do not think that is ethically correct. If there is a fixable problem, let’s take care of it the right way. That worked until one very dark day. I was in my fourth year at a large membership church that was not crazy about having a female pastor. When I came to the church, the finances were in shambles. They were completing a building project and some shortcuts have been made without full disclosure. Money meant to fulfill building fund pledges were used to manage operating expenses since giving was low. A major shortfall in our preschool meant money was borrowed from the building fund to pay out our apportionments. Most of the church had no idea this was done. So I arrive and try to figure out just what is happening with our finances.
With transparency, we got the giving up but as we disclosed that we ended up with more debt than we should have, they decided to shoot the messenger rather than see the problem in a previous time period. Okay. We can take that. Then the finance manager comes to me with a bombshell, the Finance Chairman has paid his personal credit card bill with church funds. I told her to call him immediately and she did and it was corrected. Then it happened again. I told her to call the bank and fix it. He was no longer finance chairman and should not have had access to the accounts. I chose not to tell the Finance Committee because this particular family was going through some issues and I did not wish to make it worse. Perhaps that was a mistake. I did tell my District Superintendent. I believed the issue closed. It did not happen again.
Then two year later, this same man and his wife start a letter writing campaign to get me removed from the church. They were accusing me a financial misconduct. The bishop’s solution was a play hardball. He was ordering an audit that would publicly reveal the man’s use of accounts to pay bills. I told the bishop it was a bad idea and I did not want to go through with it. He said I had not choice so I did what I was told only I publicly made sure everyone knew we were having a audit and that specific years would be targeted. It was my hope that this man, a CPA, would understand what would be revealed and would voluntarily volunteer the documentation to clear himself before it came up. He did not.
So, when the auditors sat down with the new Finance Committee and they learned about the transaction, they were stunned. And of course, the CPA got his back to say it was their fault and suddenly, everyone thought I was devious. It took year to try and build trust and it was gone just like that. The man threatened to file a defamation lawsuit against me and sent about 400 people an email the night before Easter telling them I was not to be trusted…ever. Two days later, I requested to leave that appointment.
We all live with regrets. I wish I had not followed the bishop’s instructions or I wish I had gone directly to the man to fix this before it got out of hand. I have never forgotten this lesson. We hide nothing financially in my churches. That is the way is should be. Trust is earned in drops and lost in buckets.