Tuesday, July 24, 2012


In my youth, I aspired to be a baseball umpire. Trained by a former minor league umpire, I pursued that aspiration for many years in my free time, umpiring hundreds of games, up to the college level—although not willing to give up my day job for the joy of making decisions on balls and strikes, safe or out.
Like any sport, rules are the backbone of baseball. Without them, the game would quickly turn into chaos.  The rules must be so thoroughly understood by an umpire that they are applied instinctively—often in a split second.
Each of us lives by rules. In his marvelous new book, Crafting a Rule of Life, my friend Steve Macchia says “All of us have an unwritten personal rule of life that we are following, some with great clarity, others less knowingly. We wake at certain times, get ready for our days in particular ways, use our free time for assorted purposes and practice rhythms of work, hobbies, worship, vacation, and so on.”
He continues, “Your personal rule of life is a holistic description of the Spirit-empowered rhythms and relationships that create, redeem, sustain and transform the life that God invites you to humbly fulfill for Christ’s glory. Rather than being a set of laws that forbid us to do certain things, a rule of life is a set of guidelines that support or enable us to do the things we want and need to do.”
Just as individuals need a personal rule of life, so churches need a biblical rule of organizational life. As a trellis offers support for a plant, guiding its growth in a certain direction, a church needs to adopt a rule to articulate its intentions (via rhythms and relationships) and identify the way it wants to function best to fulfill its mission.
The word “rule” derives from a Latin word, regula. In the ancient sense of the term, regula or rule meant “guidepost” or “railing,” something to hang onto in the dark, that leads in a given direction, points out the road, or gives us support as we climb.
We minister so we can make known Who He is—so the excellency of God can be seen in us. Churches need a guidepost or railing to ensure consistent practices which glorify God. When financial or other pressures come like a flood, a church needs to stay the course following its biblical rule of life.
Throughout its history, ECFA has provided key elements of a biblical rule of organizational life. It does this through its high standards in the areas of governance, financial management, and stewardship.
While the word “rule” often has negative connotations, following ECFA’s “rule” enables an accredited church to focus on what it needs to do. It allows a church to function with intention and purpose in the present moment. Compliance with the law is a fundamental expectation of churches. Many of ECFA’s standards go far beyond the law.  In turn, many ECFA-accredited churches have created their biblical rule of organizational life based on these standards, but they have taken their rule to an even higher level.
Could a church follow its own rule which is similar to ECFA standards without being accredited by ECFA? Yes, this is possible. But how does a church convince others they are following these standards if only a few insiders are privy to whether and how the church complies with its own rule. It calls to mind the old fable about the dangers of the fox guarding the henhouse.
The strong benefit provided by ECFA is its third-party accreditation. The accredited church is the first party. Givers and others entering into transactions with the accredited church might be termed the second party. And, ECFA is a third party, not involved in the interactions of the accredited church.
It is the third-party oversight of compliance with high standards which sets ECFA apart. When a question is raised concerning whether an accredited church is in compliance with the standards, an objective decision can be provided by ECFA.
The combination of the standards and the third-party oversight, evidenced by the ECFA seal, is what sends a strong message to givers and enhances the givers’ trust of the church.
ECFA does not give an accredited church integrity. Churches have their own integrity based on following their biblical rule of organizational life. ECFA’s biblical rule of organizational life lends its significant credibility to churches that already have established integrity. The trust of givers is enhanced, providing more resources to carry out the Great Commission. Craft a biblical rule of life, follow the ECFA standards of integrity, and rejoice as your church flourishes under the guiding hand of God.   

Friday, July 13, 2012

Focus on Churches

For over three decades, ECFA has served churches. Today, four of the 11 largest churches in America are ECFA members. Through our member denominations and other associations of churches, ECFA’s reach extends to over 30,000 churches.
Now in 2012, ECFA is beginning a more intentional focus on the evangelical church community.
Why is ECFA highlighting its service to churches?  ECFA’s standards of accountability apply equally to churches and other nonprofit organizations. ECFA’s outstanding leadership in governance, financial management, and stewardship relates to churches and nonprofit organizations alike.
ECFA’s accreditation of a church sends a strong credibility signal to those who attend and support church ministries through tithes and offerings. Through ECFA’s 32-year history, givers have relied on the ECFA seal to enhance their trust in a church they support.
What are the commitments of an ECFA accredited church?  Accredited churches demonstrate their commitment to exceptional governance by utilizing an independent board (primarily comprised of non-staff, non-family members). They reflect their commitment to sound financial management policies and practices, including compliance with applicable laws. Additionally, they commit to handle stewardship issues with integrity—using giver-designated gifts for the intended purpose, providing proper gift acknowledgements, and much more.
When is the time for churches to partner with ECFA?  Today is the time for churches to step up and demonstrate their accountability, transparency, and integrity. Regulatory issues related to churches are more in focus on Capitol Hill now than at any time in my memory.
The three-year investigation of entities organized as churches was closed last year by Senator Charles Grassley. His staff produced a 61-page memorandum primarily relating to church issues. The Senator turned to ECFA to facilitate thoughtful responses on these matters. This placed ECFA at a pivotal place to speak into national tax policy for churches.
The article on page three of this issue summarizes the church-related issues under consideration by the national commission formed by ECFA: the Commission on Accountability and Policy for Religious Organizations.
How does a church partner with ECFA?  The highest level of partnership with ECFA is through the accreditation process. Accredited churches use the ECFA seal to communicate their high accountability status to givers. They have full access to the ECFA Church Knowledge Center, may participate in ECFA’s valuable Church Webinars at no cost, benefit from ECFA’s compliance program, and more.
Through our online membership application process, churches can easily file a membership application.
Even if your church is not accredited by ECFA, we provide an outstanding church subscription service at the silver, gold and platinum levels—all at very modest cost. A church subscription keeps you up-to-date on current issues of interest to churches and provides access to certain key documents in ECFA’s Church Knowledge Center.  Learn more about church subscriptions at: http://churchwise.org. Whether as an accredited church member or a church subscriber, we look forward to opportunities to serve your church!  

The Small Stuff

A senior pastor is accused of defrauding the church of $100,000. The church treasurer of another church has been writing checks to himself for the last few years and the church discovers the loss totals $250,000. A third church awards a million-dollar construction contract to a member of the church board—paying 20 percent more than market price. These are stories that are likely to appear on the Internet and in other media. Sadly, the church and the name of Christ are disgraced.
The examples above are of big issues that could have a major impact on a congregation. Some of these matters may be resolved in a few months—others may require years to work through. Congregations have even split because of big issues.  
The good news is most congregations will never experience one of those big issues. Rather, it’s the small stuff with which churches struggle. While the small stuff usually doesn’t make the headlines, it creates an insidious drip ... drip ... drip, wearing away at the credibility of a church and causing staff friction.

What are examples of the small stuff that many churches find challenging? Here are three issues that often perplex churches:
Reimbursing reported, but not substantiated, expenses. It is common for church treasurers to receive reports of expenses that were not properly substantiated? Having logged more than 25 years as the treasurer of three different churches myself, I have seen more than my share of unsubstantiated expenses.
Where do unsubstantiated expenses often appear? Entertainment expenses are a common culprit where expense reports do not establish the amount, time, place, business purpose of the expense, plus the business relationship of the parties involved.
If a church reimburses church-related unsubstantiated expenses, has something improper occurred? It depends. What was the level of detail reported? The reimbursement of church-related expenses that are unsubstantiated creates taxable and reportable income to the recipient of the payment. So, did the church step up and do the right thing—report the compensation as taxable on Form W-2?
How does this scenario usually play itself out? Church staff sometimes submit unsubstantiated church-related expenses for reimbursement, expecting a tax-free payment. The church treasurer, knowing substantiation is needed to avoid reporting the payment as compensation, is caught in the middle.
Reimbursing expenses that are not business expenses. Submitting an expense report which includes expenses that are not business expenses is an issue which is a cousin to the unsubstantiated expense matter. 
One common issue in this area is spousal travel. A church may desire that a pastor’s spouse accompany the pastor on all out-of-town trips—and appropriately so. But does church approval of spousal travel constitute business expense? No. It depends—on whether there is a bona fide business purpose for the spousal travel. 
So, how does this play out? Church staff sometimes submit non-business expenses for reimbursement, expecting a tax-free payment. The church treasurer, knowing a bona fide business expense is needed to avoid reporting the payment as compensation, is caught in the middle. Sound familiar?
3.  Failure to report all the taxable income for church staff. The reporting of all taxable compensation for church staff is one way a church complies with the law and sets an example of ethical behavior. Here are just a few ways the reporting of taxable compensation can fall through the cracks:
  • Fringe benefits. Let’s say a church pays whole life insurance premiums for a staff member. This is a fully taxable event.
  • Social security reimbursements. Ministers are not subject to FICA-type social security. Many churches desire to assist ministers with their self-employment social security taxes. Call it a social security reimbursement or an allowance—the terminology does not matter—the payments are fully taxable and reportable to the minister.
  • Allowances. A church provides an auto allowance, an entertainment expense allowance, or some other type of allowance. The term “allowance” is simply a reference to non-accountable expense reimbursements which are fully taxable and reportable.
  • Transfers of property. Churches often transfer property—it may be a used computer or some other church property—to a staff member at no cost. While these property transfers may be appropriate, they represent a form of taxable compensation.
  • Love offerings. When a church pays its staff based on funds solicited using church resources and/or church leadership, these payments almost always represent taxable income to the recipient because of the church’s interest in compensating staff.
The small stuff can result in unreported compensation and under-paid taxes. The small stuff can create friction between staff when appropriate documentation is not provided. Left unchecked, the small stuff can leave a church with the reputation within the congregation, and perhaps outside the church walls, of not complying with the law. So, the small stuff really is not so small after all!