Administering Common Funds

by John Wijngaards, Vidyajyoti March 1988, pp. 137-143

Any form of organisation requires money. This applies also to the Church. As the person in charge of ecclesiastical institutions including the parish, a priest often has financial responsibilities. Moreover, he may be in charge of Church properties such as buildings, and revenue projects.

Funds that are handled properly can do a lot of good. If they are not, they will cause considerable damage. In October 1984 the Bishops of Andhra Pradesh accepted the Jyotirmai suggestion that Church accounts should be open. In this section we will reflect on the reasons why priests do well to implement this far-sighted decision. We will take a lot of inspiration from St Luke’s Gospel.

Accountability

Tradition has it that Luke was a physician (see also Col 4:14). But reading his Gospel we get the impression that he may equally well have been a businessman. No other gospel has so many references to money, to administering property well and rendering an account for it. Luke was very conscious of the role money plays in people’s lives, and* in the life of the Christian community. Some authors believe this may reflect the ancient practice of the Christian community at Jerusalem t® re all property in a common fund (Acts 2:44-45).

For Luke poverty is not an abstract notion or a spiritual virtue. Christians have to be really poor, in the sense of selling all they have and giving it to the poor (Lk 18:22-26). He recalls Jesus’ parables that contain stringent warnings to rich people: the rich man who laid up treasures but died during the night (Lk 12:13-21) and the rich man who feasted day after day without bothering about Lazarus on his doorstep (Lk 6:19-31). On the other hand, Luke recounts how much Jesus appreciated the coins donated by the poor widow (Lk 21:1-4). In Luke’s Gospel Jesus’ words take a very special meaning when he says, “Woe to you rich: you have had your easy life! Happy are you poor: the kingdom of God is yours” (Lk 6:20-24).  Luke -is thinking of real money and what it does to people’s lives.

From Luke’s Gospel we know that Jesus had a good appreciation of the economic aspects of everyday life. Many of Jesus’ examples speak of this. The good Samaritan promises the innkeeper to “refund him” for expenses incurred on behalf of his sick friend (Lk 10:35). The man who built a tower, first sits down and makes a “budget” to see whether he can finance it (Lk 14:28-30). When you give a feast for the poor it will be a financial loss; but God will pay the billon the day of judgement (Lk 14:12-14). A debtor who has not repaid his debts in time is taken to court (Lk 12:57-59). The poor widow wins such a court case by unceasingly pleading for her rights (Lk III: 1-5). This is the kind of financial imagery we still understand today.

It is in this context that the principle of accountability deserves special attention in Luke’s Gospel. Zacchaeus was a tax collector. He could not become a disciple of the Kingdom without first having rendered an account of his financial dealings: “I will give half my belongings to the poor, and if I have cheated anyone I will pay him back four times as much” (Lk 19:8)„ After the multiplication of the bread, Jesus makes the disciples do some stocktaking. They collect and count twelve baskets full of broken bread (Lk 9:17). Jesus pro­claims the principle of accountability at the end of the parable of the servant who was put in charge of the household. “Much will be required of the person to whom much is given. Much more is required; from the person to whom much more is given” (Lk 12:48). And he Concludes the parable of the unjust steward with these words: “Whoever is faithful in small matters will be faithful in large ones, whoever is dishonest in small matters will be dishonest in large ones. If then you have not been faithful in handling worldly wealth, how can you be trusted with true wealth?” (Lk 16:10-11). These words seem especially appropriate to us, priests. We will be expected to render an account for the money entrusted to us. How could spiritual treasures be committed to our charge, if we cannot even render an honest account for the funds we administer ?

The Dangers of Secrecy

When we handle common funds, we are stewards managing pro­perty on behalf of the whole community. Accountability results from the fact that it is not our own property we are dealing with, but money owned by all. As priests we have known the reality of this accountability for a long time. Apart from feeling responsible to God, we have also been accustomed to render an account to the government, to our bishop and to donor agencies. What is new in our time is the recognition that we also have .to open our accounts to the whole community. Why is it so?

One reason is the democratic principle which pervades modem society, and which also extends to the Church community in many ways. In the past, kings and governors could spend public money as they wished. It is only when they began to open accounts, when they submitted budgets for approval to parliament and published financial reports afterwards, that the people as a whole could truly participate in deciding their own welfare. By their political involvement Citizens can regulate the levels of public income and expenditure, and tan influence the purposes for which the money is spent. This same principle applies to associations, for which it is now generally held that all accounts should be open and subject to critical examination by the members. Institutions that handle funds for charity are required by law to make their accounts accessible to any enquirer. The reason is: because they collect money from the general public for ’purposes affecting the community, the accounts should be open to inspection. The principle of open accounts has proved exceedingly beneficial for modern society. Many abuses can be checked. Because of constant public assessment, the money will more likely be spent fairly and Responsibly.

The beneficial effect of keeping such open accounts have been understood by the Church. We are not talking here about the personal accounts of bishops, priests or religious which, obviously, are con­fidential and need not be submitted to the community. But in the question of common funds and public property, the desirability of ^strict accounting and the publication of budgets and annual reports has now been recognised. The new Code of Canon Law enshrines the principle of accountability. All administrators of Church property have to keep accurate records of income and expenditure, draw up an account of their administration at the end of each year and prepare each year a budget of income and expenditure (Can. 1248). No admini­strator can manage property without the supervision and advice of others. Bishops, for example, must consult their finance committee and a college of consultors on financial matters pertaining to the diocese; and in important matters they even need the consent of the committee and the college of consultors (Can. 1277). Priests are to submit annual accounts of their administration of Church properties to the local Ordinary (Can. 1287). And most revealing of all— “Administrators are to render accounts to the faithful concerning the goods the faithful have given to the Church in accordance with the norms to be laid down by particular law” (Can. 1287, 2). In other words: the decision of the Andhra Pradesh bishops to promote open accounts on all levels is in perfect harmony with the new Code of Canon Law.

Now I realise that many legal points could be made here. For those who want to circumvent the law, as usual, loopholes can be found. For example, some funds we receive may not be strictly ‘Church’ property; it could be argued that the local faithful have no “right” to know about funds received from abroad, and so on. What matters, I think, is to understand the spirit of what the Church is. asking of us today and to see that acting according to this spirit will greatly help us in the apostolate. Let me point out some of the advantages.

The Church in India has acquired the image of being a “rich” Church. We all know how this came about. By foreign contributions, donated by the international Catholic community, we have been able to build up institutions and create a lifestyle for Church personnel that stand out from the ordinary Indian economic situation. Because we: kept our accounts secret, secular magazines speak of crores of rupees entering the country every year, and even our own parishioners often think priests and religions have unlimited financial resources. Secrecy has not served us well here. By honestly opening the accounts, every­one, whether Christian or not, can see how much money is received and how it is being spent for public service.

It is essential for the Church in India that the faithful learn to contribute to the running expenses of parishes, dioceses and other service institutions. Foreign aid could be cut off at any time; moreover, it will not continue, certainly not at its present level, in the future. The Church will have to stand on its own legs. In view of the wrong image already mentioned above and of the democratic principle of our society people, will not be motivated to really participate in building up common funds if the accounts are not open.

Then there is a simple human factor that we need, as administrators, to be constantly checked and criticised. Because of the secrecy of the accounts in past years, errors could more easily be made. Sometimes funds have been allocated to projects that were no real priorities for the community. Sometimes priests may have been misguided and allowed accounts to go haywire. Open accounts for all funds administered on behalf of the community will serve to bring out defects before they have gone too far and liberate the priest from unwanted temptations.

Most of all, it is only when people are given an idea of the finances and are allowed to have a say in how they are spent, that they become Teal partners in the building up of the local community. It is by discuss­ing the allocation of funds that a parish council can get a real grip on the apostolate of the parish. Here the principle of decision-making comes in again. If lay people discover that they can take a responsible part in ‘deciding how money is spent, they will grow in maturity. And through a (earning process they will eventually understand the true priorities and will be able to give valuable advice on how the common funds should foe administered and spent.

Serving with Clear Hands

 In 1985 Cardinal Basil Hume submitted a detailed financial account to the faithful on behalf of the seven bishops in charge of the Westminster section of London. It contained both financial details and lengthy explanations on how the money was distributed. I quote from the Cardinal’s letter to the faithful: “A properly funded and managed budget is needed to ensure that we spend what money we have in the wisest possible way and to maximum effect. And through such budget­ing, parish contributions to the diocesan funds will be kept to the minimum. As I have already said, we need advice and assistance from lay men and women with relevant financial and administrative skills. They will be able to provide the detailed information on which a budget can be based. It was the lack of such detailed information in the past which was, perhaps, the single most important factor in the inability of the Diocese to draw up a proper budget… We are well on the way to achieving better management and improved administration. It has involved many changes which are reflected in the new parish assessments and in methods of controlling diocesan expenditure, particularly through the annual budget. There will be those who will criticise these efforts, but a start has to be made and through cooperation and con­structive suggestions, the optimum system will evolve….So much more needs to be done. It is my hope that the careful husbanding of our” resources will set funds free to finance new activities. These will be to support the faithful, to recall the lapsed, to fulfil more adequately our responsibilities to the universal Church and to the Third World and, in general, to make the reign of Christ more effective among all the people of the Diocese and beyond it.” This was the first time such a detailed report had been published. It was well received throughout the London parishes and led to many discussions and new suggestions. By demon­strating such confidence in the faithful, Cardinal Hume succeeded to make the Church much more credible in the eyes of many people.

If we account openly and publicly for the funds we administer we free ourselves from suspicions so that we can truly be seen to have only spiritual motives. Jesus said to his apostles: “Wherever they do not receive you, when you leave that town shake off the dust from your feet ‘ as a testimony against them” (Lk 9:5). “Whenever you enter a town and they do not receive you, go into its streets and say, ‘Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet we wipe off against you; neverthe­less know this, that the Kingdom of God has come near’” (Lk 10:10-11). Shaking the dust from our feet means here: “We owe you nothing. We have not cheated anyone or taken anything that was not our own property. That is why with clean hands we proclaim to you the good news.”

Through these words Jesus referred back to the old prophetic tradition. When Samuel retired from his spiritual leadership, he said to the people: “Here I am; testify against me before the Lord and before his anointed. Whose ox have I taken? Or whose ass have I taken? Or whom have I defrauded? Whom have I oppressed? Or from whose hand have I taken a bribe to blind my eyes with it? Testify against me and I will restore it to you.” When people protested that he had never taken anything unjustly, Samuel concluded: “God himself is witness against you, and the king is witness this day, that you have not found anything in my hands.” The people responded, “God is witness” (1 Sam 12:3-5).

When Paul took leave of the Christians of Ephesus, he made a  similar statement. “I have not appropriated anyone’s silver or gold or clothing. You yourselves know that I have worked with these hands of mine to provide everything that my companions and I have needed” (Acts 20:33-34). Jesus himself could say, “The Son of Man does not ‘ have a stone to lay his head on” (Lk 9:57-58). Does such disinterested service not give us the real freedom to be prophets and to lead people, spiritually? Would we like to die with money that does not really belong to us, stashed away in a bank account or weighing down our conscience? Shall we not be happier if we have “provided for ourselves purses that don’t wear out, and saved riches in heaven where they will never decrease in value, where no thief can get to them and no moth can destroy them” (Lk 12:33)? Let us, like the prophets of old and the apostles, render public accounts of the funds we handle so that our stewardship can be assessed by all. It will make us happier and more effective spiritual leaders.1

  1. Sources consulted for this article:

M.’Dockray, Charity Trustees’ Guide, London, Bedford Square Press, 1982. The Code of Canon Law, Bangalore, TPI, 1983.

Card. Basil Hume, “Presentation of the Accounts and Budget for the Diocese of Westminister,” Westminister Record, March 22nd, 1985.