The business of church

Some years ago I worked for a Christian international relief and development organization. It was a privilege to visit partners, to sit with them and break bread, observe projects and gather stories. The agency worked with local church partners in several African nations, South East Asia, the Gaza Strip, the Pacific and for a short time, in South America.

The South American programs were seed projects, small amounts of money to fund a specific endeavour in communities unsophisticated in the ways of project tendering and which might be described as ‘the poorest of the poor’. These groups are often invisible to development agencies because they cannot provide the degree of accountability demanded by first-world non-government and government organisations.

The duck breeding project in Lima made an indelible mark on me. It was making a significant difference in the lives of very poor Peruvians living in the slums on the foothills of the city. The water project in Chile took me to a Mapuche village and as I shared a mate (a type of tea sipped through a straw in a common cup) around the kitchen table with the project group, we discussed book keeping and project management.

Through a translator, I asked about receipts issued for goods and services provided. I needed to audit their books so I could report back to our donors that their dollars were being well managed.

The response has stuck with me. You are Christian, we are Christian, we do not need bits of paper. We trust each other.

In those simple words rest the seeming paradox which faces all Christian organisations. What is our identity? Are we discerning God’s mission for the world and seeking to live that out or are we serving mammon (Matthew 6:24)? My Chilean brothers and sisters could not understand why I needed evidence that donated money had been used in the way it was intended. Our Australian donors would lose trust in our organisation if we could not provide that evidence.

This divide shows itself in a range of ways. People will be critical of Christian organisations for their failure to fire a disruptive or under-achieving staff member and they will be critical of an organisation for being too quick or too heartless in its management of staffing issues. (‘And they call themselves Christian’ you hear muttered.)

People who work for Christian organisations are committed to a values-based workplace, but sometimes they are barely paid enough to cover their weekly expenses.

In his column this month, the moderator raises concerns around how this Synod manages a strategic review. Where do we put our focus? Are we too busy imposing our own views on a future direction and failing to reflect on what God might want?
How does the Standing Committee hold the governance of the Church, be careful stewards of its resources, and yet be open to the mission and leading of the Spirit?

Whilst we work carefully to not allow ‘corporate-speak’ to invade our church life, it is fascinating to see how church-language has been adopted by the business world. All organisations have ‘mission statements’. They want to be good stewards.

How do we hold to the concept of trust and yet also demand rigorous governance and strong accountability? How does a Christian organisation navigate the challenge of holding to its faith-based values and being firmly anchored in the real world?

Perhaps we need to acknowledge that it will never be perfect. However, that does not stop all of us striving for that balance… and being kind to each other.

By Penny Mulvey

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