How To Check Your Church for Financial Transparency
Updated: Dec 29, 2022
It’s getting harder to find any Christian churches that have financial transparency today, but I’m here to assure you, they 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 few years, 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 5% 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 in the name of God.
If you’re unsure of whether your church is financially 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 financial reports 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 merely a few 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 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 receive in revenue from its church-funded businesses (ex: coffee shop, cafe, thrift store, bookstore, 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 that includes any meaningful information or refuses to provide it to you upon request, they aren't financially transparent. If they claim they 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. However, without being able to see that information for yourself, you don't know one way or another whether they are truly financially 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 their salary is, 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 from the church for himself in 1 Corinthians 9. The context suggests Paul was being accused of taking more than he should have, but once asked, 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 as 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 for himself, so do you, and just as Paul answered them without hesitation or deception, so should your pastor. Paul clarified the pastor has a right to be supported by the church, but he also displayed that there’s no reason to keep how much he’s taking a secret. The church has the right to know. They’re paying for it, after all!
Tip #3: Check for Third-Party Accountability
There used to be a few organizations that I thought kept churches financially transparent and accountable. 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.
I used to believe ECFA's standards of transparency and accountability were helpful and effective, but after attempting to get financial information from an Idaho mega-church called Real Life Ministries, ECFA exempted them from having to provide it to me by claiming it fell within one of their "exemptions" to transparency.
As it turns out, they can exempt a church from providing its financial information for any reason if the church claims it's being "harassed" or the information request is a part of some "broad, general data-gathering request." This could apply to literally anyone requesting financial information, church checkers, and allows churches to avoid being truly transparent. Therefore, I no longer view ECFA to be a reputable organization that holds churches financially accountable.
I’ve also looked up a few churches that displayed their membership with Guidestar on their website as well, but when I went to look them up on the Guidestar or ECFA website, very little meaningful information was provided. For example, one popular church in the Salt Lake City area is accredited with Guidestar Silver on their website, but when I looked 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 real 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 itself, and just like with the ECFA, appears to be more of a paid service to give churches an impression of financial transparency without actually having any.
As I mentioned a minute ago, another way churches attempt to give an impression of third-party financial accountability is by claiming they provide reports or information to any "members" or church staff that requests them, but if they won't give them to you, it's meaningless. This is an excuse that allows them to appear transparent while literally showing none.
To put it bluntly, the only third party you should trust regarding church financial information, church checkers, is yourself. If you can't see it yourself, it's not truly transparent. You are a third party. If they won't show it to you, a member of the Christian Church by virtue of your faith in Jesus Christ's Gospel, then their claims to third-party accountability are just as meaningless as their claims to providing financial information to other people, but not you, the person actually requesting to see it right now.
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, silent treatment, or arguments claiming you have no right to this information, then your church is 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.”
As we pointed out before, the Apostle Paul’s response to being asked about his support from the church 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)
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. Churches preach on good stewardship frequently but rarely do they call congregates to be responsible givers in regards to protecting themselves from financial exploitation, abuse, and fraud. But we should be. If we're going to donate money to a church in the name of God for the purpose of building and supporting Christ's Kingdom, we need to make sure that's really what it's being used for. Or we're funding something else entirely.
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. A lack of transparency is a red flag of fraud, church checkers, which if you don't know, is a big problem in the Christian Church today.