By Lena Thames
Today as Orthodox Christians we realize that the spiritual and material aspects of Church life are not only related, but in a real way united. For many of us, this renewed enlightenment has come about through the Church’s current emphasis upon stewardship. Through the All-American Councils, diocesan workshops, church publications, and guidance in our parishes, we understand that we are called to share God’s gifts of time, talent, and material resources. All dimensions of our lives ultimately belong to God and we have the responsibility of using them as wisely and as well as possible.
Good stewardship, however, is not just something practiced by individuals within the Church. It flows through all aspects of the Church. This certainly includes our corporate parish life, and more specifically, the stewardship of monies and resources entrusted to our care. While this seems obvious, its practical implementation is often easier talked about than done.
TENDENCIES TO AVOID
What follows are some thoughts regarding unhealthy tendencies that can creep into the financial dimensions of parish life, as well as a few of the ways we may avoid or correct them. By no means is this material all-inclusive, but it offers some practical ideas which may be helpful as we strive to strengthen the Body of Christ. By following a few accepted financial norms, we can nurture trust and confidence and prevent unpleasant situations.
We must be aware of the temptation to be too casual in dealing with parish financial matters and in the handling of church funds and records. This has nothing to do with a question of honesty. Our parishes are usually staffed by volunteers and therefore a very relaxed atmosphere often exists. This is especially true if the parish or mission is small. Although records are generally kept, they are sometimes improperly maintained because routine bookkeeping is incomplete or not performed promptly. Sometimes income and expenditures are not itemized, or are possibly misposted, resulting in confusion over expenditures. Inevitably this makes the work of an audit committee very difficult, and more importantly results in unreliable financial reports being prepared for parish use. Understandably, parishioners wonder if their hard-earned offerings are being handled and used properly and they begin to lose confidence in the financial system as a whole. In fact, there may be no intentional wrongdoing, but the Body of Christ itself is harmed because suspicions and uncertainties can develop.
Another poor practice is to place all the financial matters into the hands of one or two individuals - usually the treasurer and/or the assistant treasurer. This becomes unfair to the individuals involved, for no one should have to carry the burden of responsibility alone. In addition, when one or two persons are solely responsible, misunderstandings, negative feelings, and questions can easily arise. Such singular control is poor accounting practice and can be very dangerous. The entire parish community including the priest, parish council, and membership as a whole must have a general awareness of the financial aspects of its communal life.
BASIC TENETS OF AN EFFECTIVE SYSTEM
To avoid these problems, the accounting system of a local church should be simple to understand and easy to follow. Here are some basic tenets of such an effective system.
Pertaining to cash receipts:
- Two unrelated parishioners, ideally members of the parish council, are responsible for counting and recording the collections.
- The collection records and validated bank deposit slips are checked so as to be in total agreement.
- Deposits are made as soon as possible after counting.
- All designated funds, special collections, and transfer of funds from one account to another are promptly recorded by the treasurer. This facilitates the determination of any parish tithes or assessments owed.
Pertaining to disbursements:
- The parish budget is usually approved at the annual parish meeting. Any unusual needs are discussed by the elected parish council and decisions are documented in the minutes.
- No payments are made by cash, only by parish check.
- All expenditures are supported by receipts, with the exception of those which are regular and ordinary, such as salary, mortgage, etc.
- Two authorized signatures appear on every check.
- Bank reconciliations and other financial records are prepared promptly.
- Explicit explanations are provided on check stubs, written reports, etc. especially of any unusual or ambiguous items.
- Payments are made promptly, thus avoiding credit problems or unnecessary interest charges.
- The treasurer regularly updates the parish council regarding any outstanding debts or foreseeable extraordinary expenses so that proper consideration may be given.
Although these procedures may appear demanding, they are actually basic and essential steps. Used without exception, they will provide consistency and promote openness. This will build confidence in the elected parish officials, eliminate the temptation to judge others, and promote unity.
Every aspect of Church life has spiritual applications and affects the unity of its members. We should strive to grow together in the love of Christ. In doing this it is far easier to prevent problems than to resolve them once they have entered our lives. God has given us all good things. We must wisely use them to build up His Church and make it grow and prosper.