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An Interview with the Acton Institute’s director of administration and finance, Robert W. Simpson, Ph.D.

Dr. Simpson recently spoke at the Christian Management Association’s National Conference in Colorado Springs, Colorado, on the topic of ethics and accountability in the governance of faith-based enterprises. He sat down with Acton News and Commentary to discuss the foundations of the presentation and remarks he delivered at the conference. His presentation and Ethics Audit are available on Acton’s website.

ANC: Dr. Simpson, you have lectured and consulted widely on the subject of ethics and accountability in the governance of faith-based groups. Could you offer some insight as to why this issue is so important?

Simpson: Much of it comes from my experience working for and with numerous faith-based groups and ministries. These groups, who are on the front lines of helping those in need, provide invaluable services to individuals and society. The goodness or rightness of their mission, however, does not make them immune to the management problems that have ruined many businesses in the for-profit world. Faith-based groups, especially, need to serve as an example to others that accountability and ethical behavior are essential components of the good stewarding of resources.

In the last year alone there have been numerous reports of financial malfeasance in faith-based and church administered charities. If you believe, as I do, that civil society solutions are more effective in addressing social ills and more respectful of genuine human needs than welfare state policies, it is extremely important that the faith-based institutions of civil society avoid even the appearance of corruption. To do anything less is to hand significant ammunition to those who argue that the state is the only morally legitimate provider for those in need.

ANC: How do you define ethics and accountability in relation to your work with faith-based groups?

Simpson: When you talk about ethics in management circles, Christian or otherwise, what you are really talking about is morality. A colleague of mine offered a wonderfully succinct definition that warrants repeating: “Morality is the ‘doing part’ of the oughts and ought nots of human action. Ethics is the study of the doing of those oughts and ought nots of human action.”

Accountability is about being responsible, open, and transparent to the various constituencies that have a claim on your work. These include the donors, the board if a group has one – and it should! – the employees, and those served by a ministry. Essential to establishing accountability is clearly communicating the information essential to each of these groups, so that they may carry out their functions faithfully and in a fully informed fashion. Failure to communicate clearly always results in a lack of institutional accountability.

ANC: What are the theological foundations of your view of ethics and accountability?

Simpson: I always begin with Luke 16: 1-15, the parable of the crafty steward, which in many respects, is a puzzling passage of Scripture. Here we have a man who uses someone else’s money to get himself out of a pinch and he earns the Lord’s praise!

Three important points come to mind about this passage. First, the steward, ultimately, is an ineffective manager. He is unable to identify for his boss the results from the use of the business’s capital. Secondly, he is an inefficient manager. He wastes the money of his master. Finally, he uses the master’s resources for the sake of his own private gain. Jesus’ praise for the man, I think, is related to the intensity the steward exhibits in solving his dilemma. The purpose of thinking theologically about faith-based governance is to help us to be equally crafty and innovative in pursuit of the good and in service to God. Unlike the crafty steward, we are obliged to think seriously about right and wrong in making our decisions and leading our organizations.

ANC: Are there any challenges in the area of ethics and accountability particular to faith-based groups?

Simpson: The small size and highly localized nature of many groups often keeps them from connecting with the larger issues affecting their work. Also, the excellent work of faith-based groups is almost always underwritten by an intense personal and spiritual commitment not present in more secular enterprises. Such personal commitment and sacrifice is a great source of blessing for such groups, but the personal nature of these groups can have the effect of blurring the lines between what is ‘personal’ and what properly belongs to the ministry. Failures in this regard, even if unintentional, are always widely reported by the media and hurt the credibility of a ministry. This is all the more reason to be diligent.

ANC: As you mentioned, the small size and localized nature of many groups poses a challenge to many ministries. Some would argue that the type of diligence you advocate in the area of ethics and accountability is simply not doable, given limited resources and staff time. How do you respond to this?

Simpson: Regardless of a group’s size or resources, being sloppy when it comes to ethics and accountability is never an option. Carelessness in these areas will have the ultimate effect of undoing the ministry itself. As I said earlier, an ethical failure, real or perceived, undermines the credibility of any organization that claims its reason for existence is a moral imperative stemming from the life of faith. A failure to be publicly accountable to these first principles further gives the impression that there is something to hide, leading to charges of hypocrisy. In our culture, a culture sometimes hostile to religious values, a lack of accountability and of ethical diligence is a combination deadly to the very existence of faith-based charities.

ANC: What then, specifically, can faith-based enterprises do to ascertain how they are doing in the area of ethics and accountability?

Simpson: They can do several things. First, the mission of the group should be clearly communicated by the group’s leadership at all times. The group’s leadership must clearly communicate the conduct it expects and the reasons why it expects it. It’s a cliché to sum this up by saying, ‘lead by example,’ but simply because it’s a cliché doesn’t mean it’s not true. Words must match actions.

Another thing a manager can do is to sit down and clearly articulate the mission of the group and the moral vision that informs it. This is always a very useful exercise. Too often we take our moral convictions and vision for granted, failing to infuse all we do with the power of our convictions. This is a great source of power and vision for a ministry; we just need to tend to it every now and then.

If he or she wanted to do something more formal, but quite simple, the manager could take “The Ethics Audit,” which is a relatively brief worksheet I designed to assist faith-based leaders in evaluating their organization’s performance in the area of ethics and accountability. It is a wide-ranging assessment covering issues of ethical investment, fundraising, program design, and even human resources. The “Audit” is not a tool of judgment. Rather, it is a tool of assessment, designed to assist organizations in realizing their goals of being good stewards of all the blessings they receive. It can be adapted to fit the particularities of an organization.

If managers do these few things, they will have done much in bringing a helpful clarity to their work and in identifying the many potential challenges their group might experience.

Rob Simpson, Ph.D. is the director of administration and finance at the Acton Institute.