Monday, October 4, 2021

Image is important. . .

In Rome there has always been an unseemly side to the financial offices of the Vatican.  There have been rumors for years, scandal, and even suicide without much light being shown upon how the Vatican Bank and the Church itself spends the enormous sums of money that pass to these entities.  There is great reluctance to be more transparent despite words from popes and cardinals that this is the only path to financial integrity.  Some suggest that this may have been one of the reasons why charges of abuse against Cardinal Pell were resurrected after being dismissed some years ago.  His vindication has put a shine back on his star but his efforts to bring the financial house of Rome under clarity, accountability, and more transparency were not picked up by others in his absence.  Now a growing scandal in Rome threatens to blow things wide open.

Cardinal Angelo Becciu is facing a courtroom with Vatican prosecutors have filed charges against ten individuals in a sprawling Vatican financial scandal under investigation for two years.  The cardinal faces charges including embezzlement, abuse of office, fraud, extortion, corruption, money laundering, and forgery of official documents (with 9 others).   He would be the most senior former Vatican official to face charges in the financial scandal.  The one issue alone revolving around the shady practices involved in the purchase of a London office building involves hundreds of millions of dollars.

The whole thing casts a shadow over the financial credibility of all churches -- especially in an age of skepticism and suspicion.  We have, over the years, used many opportunities to set up financial institutions and service agencies which churches hoped would cut costs and allow us more flexibility.  The Vatican Bank may be a big example but we in the LCMS have also set up agencies to help us finance church construction and repairs, aid rostered workers, sift through the health insurance market, provide resources for church worker pensions, support our colleges/universities, and oversee endowments and gift planning.  All of these were done with the best of motives.  At the same time, all of them operate with a degree of separation from the churches they serve and with it a certain level of opaqueness.  It may be necessary but it may be working against us.  

On the one hand, it prevents us from being completely transparent.  I do not believe that there is anything nefarious going on but the nature of these businesses require a certain level confidentiality that can encourage skepticism and suspicion.  On the other hand, it involves certain risks and vulnerabilities both in financial terms and in image and accountability.  Again, I have the highest respect for the efforts of these agencies and their leaders to serve the church as best they can.  Finally, the worst impression that it gives is that the church is somehow a big player on the financial scene and is simply being greedy in seeking more money for the Lord's work.  Again, I am not suggesting that this is true -- one look at the reduced staff, reduced budgets, and efforts to stretch the dollar tell you that our national leaders are prudent with the church's finances.  The LCMS is in no way in danger of the kind of scandal that has rocked the Vatican.  That said, it is always time to look at whether or not the way we have done things has been helpful or not so helpful.  I suspect Rome is looking at this now and, if they are not, they are not very smart.  Perhaps it is time for us to revisit how we in the LCMS have done things.  Again, my point here is not to suggest any impropriety but to wonder if things have become complicated enough so that some of the agencies we set up to serve us are still serving their purpose and at what cost.  We are blessed to have the LCMS noticed for their good financial practices (check out the news on this front) but we also face great challenges as we look at the future of some of our institutions.

A congregation in my community suffered a loss of some $700,000 due to embezzlement from a trusted employee.  How odd that such a large amount could go unnoticed until that employee slipped up and inadvertently invited the scrutiny that ended up exposing the crime!  In this case, their stewardship of this financial resource proved to be faulty and their oversight was lacking.  The point is simply that in an age of endowments and trusts and investment we find ourselves having to spend a goodly amount of our time managing these assets.  How well are we doing?  For the fiduciary responsibilities may end up consuming us while our primary mission suffers.  I have no answers but I believe the questions are worth asking.

1 comment:

Carl Vehse said...

"The LCMS is in no way in danger of the kind of scandal that has rocked the Vatican."

Curiously not mentioned in your column is the financial collapse and sudden closing of the LCMS/CUS schools in Portland, Boise, and Bronxville, on top of the previous closing of the college in Selma. Especially curious since the LCMS is currently a defendant in a $305 million lawsuit concerning the Concordia-Portland closing.

And other LCMS partner church bodies have also had their scandals, such as the ABC District scandal in the LCC, which led to a complete restructuring, with several churches leaving the LCC. Also not mentioned is the allegations of corruption made a few years ago against then ELCK Bishop Obare.