Updated: Aug 16
It’s getting harder to find any Christian churches that have financial transparency today, but I’m here to assure you, they do exist. They are rare, but they’re around. Most Christians naively assume their church is transparent, but little do they know just how deceptive and secretive their church really is about money.
In our efforts to check churches over the past year and a half, I’ve spoken to a lot of pastors about money. I’ve asked a lot of churches about their level of financial transparency, and less than ten percent of them are truly transparent. That’s serious, especially coming from a group of people who expect their congregates to pay at least ten percent of their own income to support them.
If you’re unsure of whether your church is transparent, you don’t know how to check, or if you think they are but are courageous enough to test that opinion against ours, read on, church checker! Here are some tips to help you determine whether your church is really financially transparent.
Tip #1: Ask for a Financial Report
Many churches today will provide a financial report to their members once a year. This fact alone does not mean, I repeat, does NOT mean your church is financially transparent.
Unfortunately, most church financial reports are filled with superficial figures that do nothing in the way of showing true transparency. How much your church brings in from donations every year, how many baptisms they had, how many different organizations and charities they donated to, and other related information doesn’t tell you anything of consequence.
When looking at your church’s financial report, look for these key figures:
How much money was donated to other charities and organizations?
How much money is spent on the church’s staff, facilities, missions, ministries, and administration?
How much money did the church profit from its extra businesses (ex: coffee shop, cafe, thrift store, book store, etc…)?
Pastor salary & other salaries of church leadership positions.
How much money did the church bring in from fundraisers and other forms of income besides donations/tithing, and how was that money spent?
How much money your church made at a fundraiser is irrelevant if you don’t get to see exactly how it was spent. If your church doesn’t have a report or refuses to provide this information to you upon request, I think it’s a pretty big indicator that they aren’t financially transparent. If they will only provide this information to members of the church or tithe-payers, I’d be suspicious if they really do, but if they do, they are at least partially transparent.
Tip #2: Ask for the Pastor’s Salary
While most church financial reports don’t include the pastor’s salary, you can still ask him/her point-blank: how much are you taking as a salary? If you’re uncomfortable doing this, I understand. After all, it can be seen as very rude to ask people how much they make in general, but just know this: when it comes to your pastor, you can ask, and you should.
The church in Corinth asked the Apostle Paul how much he was taking in 1 Corinthians 9. The context suggests Paul was being accused of taking more than he should have, but once asked/accused, he eventually came to the answer: Nothing.
While Paul explains throughout the chapter that a minister of the gospel has every right to be supported by the local church, he didn’t want to be a burden on his people and he saw the preaching of the gospel the reward of preaching itself, so he preached it free of charge.
Just as the Corinthians had every right to ask Paul how much he was taking, so do you, and just as Paul answered them without hesitation or deception, so should your pastor. Paul made it clear that the pastor does have a right to be supported by the church, but he also made it clear that there’s no reason to keep how much he’s taking a secret. The church has the right to know. They’re paying it, after all!
Tip #3: Check for Third-Party Accountability
There are a few organizations that work to keep churches financially transparent and accountable. Guidestar is one, and the ECFA is another. You can go to both websites and look up your church to see if they are accredited or members of these groups, and if they are then a report showing some basic financial information should be available to you.
However, just as with the financial report, this alone doesn’t mean your church is transparent. I’ve looked up a few churches who displayed their membership with Guidestar and the ECFA proudly on their website, but when I went to look them up on the Guidestar or ECFA website, very little information was provided to show any real transparency.
For example, one popular church in the Salt Lake City area is accredited with Guidestar Silver on their website, but when I got to look it up, they haven’t given any financial information since 2013! Additionally, the information they did provide in 2013 was vague and again, doesn’t truly show any transparency.
This church also failed to provide any “Board Leadership Practices” to Guidestar according to their report, and yet they still have a Silver level badge to display on their website. It calls into question the relevance of accreditation from the organization, but at the same time, something that attempts to show transparency is better than nothing, and even though this particular church fails to provide very much information, there are others who do. You just have to check them for yourself, either on the websites for Guidestar and the ECFA, or on our site, where we are currently working to provide you with this information ourselves on every church that we check
Tip #4: Know Your Rights as a Christian
The last tip in checking your church’s financial transparency is to look for pushback or stonewalling. If you’re asking these questions and receive a response or reaction of anger, hostility, the silent treatment, or arguments claiming you have no right to this information, then your church is absolutely NOT financially transparent.
To answer the argument that they don’t need to be transparent or that you don’t have a right to that information, we simply need to look to the clear moral and ethical standards displayed in the Bible:
Ephesians 4:25 - “Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another.”
John 3:19-20 - “And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed.”
2 Timothy 2:15 - “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth.”
Also, as we pointed out before, the Apostle Paul’s response to being asked about his salary makes it clear how any preacher of the gospel should react and respond to the same question from his or her congregation. (1 Cor. 9:1--)
You have every reason and right as a member of the Body of Christ to ask these questions of your local church, and you really should. Regardless of how much money your church receives in donations or how it’s distributed, the key is to see if they are willing to share that information, how readily they’ll share it, and how honest they’re being about it when asked.
If the moral standards and examples laid out by the Bible aren’t enough (as they should be), there’s one more obvious reason why your church should be financially transparent with you: because you’re paying them!
The local church doesn’t exist without the donations of their congregates. The pastor doesn’t have a salary, the band doesn’t have the equipment, and the building doesn’t exist. The freewill offerings of the generous Christians attending every church is what gives them the right to know how that money is being spent.
If your church doesn’t at the very least provide the information I’ve mentioned in this post to those who support the church, not only are they not financially transparent, but they don’t deserve your support, and you should find another church.
Make sure you check out our other resources to help you check your church's financial transparency!