Discussion at Annual Council shows need for awareness of biblical ethics within church governance.
What would you do as a conference treasurer if you received a report that one of the accountants in your office had accepted a bribe? Would you confront the accountant? Would you look the other way? Would you transfer the individual? And what if a treasurer who hails from a particular country is using church-paid trips to make stops in his or her home country for personal reasons? What would you do as a leader to stop it?
These and other questions, resulting from what was called “fictional but realistic scenarios,” prompted a lively discussion that many members of the Adventist Church Executive Committee described as “enriching,” and “eye-opening,” during the General Conference’s 2018 Annual Council in Battle Creek, Michigan, United States.
“Trust is all we have,” said General Conference treasurer Juan Prestol-Puesán in introducing the segment on October 16, 2018. “The trust of our people who provide the resources is all we have. And trust is always the result of transparent integrity.”
Transparency and Integrity—Developed Skills
Prestol-Puesán made clear that transparency, which he defined as “honesty and openness,” is not limited to finances. “It is a topic of continued relevance to the church in all areas,” he said. Integrity is, according to him, “adherence to moral and ethical principles.” “No one has the monopoly on transparency and integrity,” he emphasized.
As Christians, Prestol-Puesán said, we adhere to a transcendent worldview — we are not amoral. Being Christians, however, does not necessarily bring us to the full realization of how we are faithful and moral. It is the reason, he emphasized, that we should never take these “two pillars of good corporate governance” for granted. “Besides the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, we have to develop the ability to show transparency. It is a developed skill,” he said. “We want to be holy, but do we know how to be holy in the context of governance?”
Discussion of Case Studies
Aside from revealing definitions, most of the extended session time was devoted to introducing plausible hypothetical scenarios and inviting committee members to discuss how to address each specific situation. Ann Gibson, professor emerita at Andrews University and assistant to the world church treasurer for treasurers’ training, laid out the cases for discussion.
In a first fictional case, a conference treasurer receives a report that one of the accountants in the office has allegedly accepted a kickback from a local entrepreneur with whom the conference does business on a regular basis. What makes this hypothetical case more complicated is that the accountant is from a prominent family in the community and the church, and confronting him may have serious implications.
In another hypothetical case, a division church region treasurer hails from another country within the division (not the country where the regional headquarters is located). Since the treasurer has real estate investments (two houses) in his home country, in planning for his church business trips, he usually routes his trips through his home country so that he can take care of his investments.
Executive Committee members were invited to discuss these cases in small groups and report back to the entire audience.
What Would You Do?
In presenting the first hypothetical case, Gibson suggested considering whether a solution to the dishonest accountant’s behavior might be to not confront but transfer the person to another area or territory of the church. Most of the Executive Committee members who went to the microphones, however, seemed to oppose that idea.
“I do not resonate with the idea of just moving the person,” said Natasha Dysinger, a young lay member of the committee. “It may be difficult [to confront the person], but that’s part of the responsibilities of leadership.”
British Union Conference president Ian Sweeney seconded Dysinger’s comments, adding that looking for an easy way out of the problem also speaks about us. “Sometimes we show our lack of integrity by passing on people who lack integrity to other people,” he said.
In both cases, leaders should view helping the person involved in a perceived unethical situation as paramount, in an effort to assist the individual in making correct choices, said General Conference associate secretary Gerson Santos. It is the reason the situation must not be ignored. “If we do not confront [the person],” he said, “we are not helping him or her to grow.'”
Trans-European Division executive secretary Audrey Andersson emphasized that leaders must think long term, referring to unnamed real cases where people were transferred 20 or 30 years ago but that eventually made the problem worse. “If we do not solve issues at the lowest level, it will come back to bite us,” she warned.
In wrapping up the discussion session, Gibson made clear that some of the questions presented do not have clear-cut answers, but they were nevertheless intended to make church leaders think. Meanwhile, she suggested, it is important for leaders to confront the individual with a definition of the ideal situation, assess the current state of affairs against that ideal, state clearly the consequences of continuing that behavior, and expect a positive answer.
The Leader’s Role
In his closing remarks, Prestol-Puesán emphasized that leaders’ responsibility is “to make [church members] understand that things may go wrong, but if they go wrong, we will work to fix them. And more than that, we will work hard so things don’t go wrong.” And he was adamant in his statement that “trust is all we have, and for Seventh-day Adventist leaders there is no other option; we have to do it right.”
Prestol-Puesán then went to the Bible to point out the example of Samuel, who, at the end of his life, told the people of Israel, “Here I am. Witness against me before the Lord.… Whose ox have I taken, or whose donkey have I taken, or whom have I cheated? Whom have I oppressed, or from whose hand have I received any bribe with which to blind my eyes? … And they said, ‘You have not cheated us or oppressed us, nor have you taken anything from any man’s hand’” (1 Samuel 12:3, 4, NKJV).
“I would like for each one of us to be able to say the same as Samuel,” he said.