Donor, Beware: A Crisis of Integrity in the Mission Field
By Loren Seibold | 11 August 2018 |
A friend who runs a small Adventist-based non-profit organization told me this story. A few years ago she’d gotten a request from a pastor in Africa, describing how he and his wife were running ministries for children and the elderly which included school, daycare and eldercare, feeding people, as well as transportation to and from events. They wanted a small bus that they could use to pick people up and deliver them to the various programs.
My friend didn’t know the African group personally, but this was a Seventh-day Adventist pastor, and what they described seemed like a good project. Her board agreed, and sent them the money they’d asked for.
A year or so later, a friend of hers was traveling in that part of Africa. “Stop by and see the group we gave the bus to,” she said. “Take some pictures for our newsletter, and let us know how the ministry is working, and if there’s anything else they need.” The friend called her when she got back to the United States. “They didn’t buy a bus,” she said. “Everyone is still walking to school and eldercare and daycare. But the pastor has a really nice late-model Toyota that he drives his family around in.” When the visitor had pushed the issue, the pastor had admitted that he needed the car more, because he’d been promoted to conference president.
My friend didn’t resent the pastor having a nice car. After all, she has a nice car. But it did bother her that she had raised money from her donors to buy a bus for a ministry, not a nice car for a conference president. She didn’t make a fuss about it. But the next time a request came from them for money, she didn’t respond, and she learned that another non-profit that had been supporting the ministry had quit contributing, too.
Donor to End User
At one time we gave all of our offerings to our congregation’s treasurer, who sent them via the conference, the union conference and the General Conference to the church’s various ministries. The early media ministries—Voice of Prophecy, Faith for Today, It is Written, The Quiet Hour—may have been the first to appeal directly to the donors. That was dribs and drabs compared to what’s happening today. Three Angels’ Broadcasting Network has become extraordinarily successful from direct appeals, with large donors willing to overlook 3ABN’s moral and financial misdeeds.
Adventist leaders overseas have taken up this direct-to-donor fundraising methodology, which is much helped by Adventist “mission tourists” who got their first taste of mission work with Maranatha or Share Him, but wanted to do more than drop in and do some manual labor or deliver a canned evangelistic series.
But India, Africa and Asia are a long ways from here, and mostly we’ve just had to accept that our investments were wise ones, given to honest people. But what if that isn’t the case?
Rita Corbett is a missionary’s daughter who was attracted by the possibilities for evangelism in India when she was doing a health education program there. She went back to her home congregation in Williams Lake, British Columbia, and got others excited about building a conference center for Southeast Andhra Conference. Being good business people (and because Canada Revenue expects a certain level of documentation to establish the legitimacy of projects people are taking a non-profit tax deduction for) the Williams Lake group wrote a contract with the Southeast Andhra Conference which required full transparency and documentation for the Hope Center project.
The bills started coming, but the documentation didn’t. In meeting after meeting, Williams Lake representatives heard excuses for the lack of documentation, followed by requests for more money.
Meanwhile, the Williams Lake group began to hear rumors that the land didn’t have a clear title. The Hindu builder said in an interview with an outside investigator that he had signed completion certificates without the amounts he was being paid written in, and that the bills that Williams Lake received were higher than what he’d charged the conference. He told the interviewer he felt the Adventists were cheating their donors, and he wasn’t happy about it.
None of this could be proven beyond a shadow of a doubt. But neither was there the documentation to show it wasn’t true. The Williams Lake group was reluctant to withdraw funding from a project they believed in. It wasn’t until about two years ago that they felt they’d waited long enough, and pulled the plug. The Hope Center got partially completed, but whether the money was spent as promised they may never know for sure.
A Major Problem
Since Adventist Today began reporting the Southern Asia Division allegations, the response from Adventists in India has been overwhelming. We receive hundreds of emails and comments saying, “We have long known about this, but we can’t get anyone to listen us.” Intern level pastors have told us, “They barely pay us anything in the field, but they tell us, ‘Just wait until you get into leadership: your money problems will be over.’” When I asked a well-known administrator from India for a comment on the record, he said, “I cannot. I would be hurting friends of mine”—which I took as an admission that he knew some allegations to be true.
It would be horribly unfair to imply that this is happening everywhere, in every developing world field, with every project. But it is happening. Yes, I know that every field has malcontents who love to make accusations. We at Adventist Today don’t believe everything we hear, and we have published very little of it, because we require good documentation. Yet if even a fraction of what we have received is even partially true, the Southern Asian Division has a problem.
And like the bus in Africa, like the Hope Center, when donors feel they’re being misled they withdraw. One response we read from a Southeast Andhra Conference treasurer spends a thousand words blaming the donors and those who told the story. In spite of he and his fellow leaders having not produced the documentation that was agreed to, the donors, he implies, are being unfair. Even if he sincerely sees it that way, it doesn’t seem like a very good way to encourage continued giving: assuming everything was above board, wouldn’t it have been better to have kept records, and produced them when asked? Why should people keep giving if you’ve told them your failure to account for the money they gave you is their fault?
One man thought us ungenerous for pointing any of this out. “You in the west are so rich,” he said. “While we’re struggling from day to day.” I have no doubt that’s true. Some fields have remunerated their workers poorly, and that needs to change. But it just seems to us that helping yourself isn’t the right way to get it. I know that some cultures may not frown on skimming a bit. But mine does. And, it seems to me, Christian principles are against it, too.
“There are countries where corruption is a way of life,” a General Conference officer told me in a hallway conversation at Spring Meeting. “The whole economy is based on corruption. Westerners are upset when they hear about it, but it’s how you do business there.” He’s right. There are places where bribes grease the wheels of commerce. But I didn’t find that a fully satisfying answer in this situation. This isn’t about appeasing government officials or the local construction mafia. Here, church leaders are alleged to have taken advantage of the generosity of their fellow Seventh-day Adventists.
There has been a lot of blaming the messenger. No one likes whistleblowers, and the church is no exception. Complaints of sharp practice or dishonest dealing are troubling, and mostly we’d rather not hear them. Indian church leaders vent their spleen at K. Rajee Mathew, an Adventist agricultural engineer from Chennai, who as a concerned layman and church elder has been trying to expose dishonesty, favoritism, lying, fake credentials, criminal actions and abuse from across the division. Mathews’ manner costs him credibility, but he is not, as his opponents accuse, merely making trouble. He wants to see the church change.
Nor are they happy that Adventist Today has given voice to these complaints. “But why did you go to Adventist Today?” a church official asked Mrs. Corbett. “I came to you first,” she said, “and you didn’t do anything.”
Theft and corruption happens in the western church, too, but there are three things that are better here. First we pay our workers equitably. Second, in the west this kind of behavior is not an accepted part of doing business; it is recognized as dishonesty, and not only not overlooked, but prosecuted. And third, we’re more diligent about bookkeeping and auditing. Organizations here don’t work in cash, so most of what we do has a trail.
What to Do?
What the Williams Lake/Hope Center group experienced should be a warning to those who give directly to an overseas mission project: should you suspect your gifts aren’t being well-used, you may have no recourse. Williams Lake thought they could appeal to the General Conference for help. But that expectation was deflected: Elder Ted Wilson’s associate replied, “This will be addressed by the SUD officers.” But Elder Lakra has been largely uninterested: when the Williams Lake representatives went to meet with him and his team, he talked to someone else on his phone the entire time rather than participate in the discussion with the donors.
But what about audits? A locksmith once told me “Locks are only for honest people: those who want to can break in anyway.” So with audits. A man in GCAS (the General Conference Auditing Service) explained to me that the purpose of an audit is to find out whether the financial records match the actual financial situation. That’s a pretty narrow definition. “We may find fraud,” he said, “but that’s not the purpose of an audit.”
A financial audit assumes that honest records are being kept, that everything that is done passes through the treasury. In some parts of the world, that’s not a safe assumption. If a contractor is being asked verbally to falsify his contract, as was alleged in Southeast Andhra Conference, how can that be found out? If people are diverting cash into the wrong pocket without ever recording it, who would know? How do you guard against kickbacks? For this you need a messy and expensive forensic audit, the kind used by law enforcement to discover financial fraud. No church wants to do that, and I can hardly blame them.
There are things that could be done, though. We have a General Conference that has been very proactive in enforcing policies on women’s ordination. We’d appreciate that strong hand more, I think, if we saw them trying to make sure that church leaders around the world deal honestly and lead with integrity in their fields. Lay leaders like Dr. Suranjeen Prasad Pallipamula are ready to lend their expertise to changing the church culture there. Administrators like Elder Joshi Victor Rayavarapu are exposing what they see in their own offices. They and others like them are just waiting for someone in leadership to hear them and lend a hand.
But the bottom line is this: donor, beware. If you are giving to projects that have no oversight, trusting to the handshakes of brothers in Christ, then you can’t complain should you be taken for a ride. Good relationships require good records and honest brokers. No amount of prayers and pious words will substitute for that. I would go so far as to suggest that donors hold back your money from any independent overseas project until the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists takes as much interest in examining the ethical and financial behavior of its division leaders as they do in forcing compliance about theological differences.
Loren Seibold is the Executive Editor of Adventist Today