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Checks that balance

by Dr. Tim Huffman (WordAlone Board Member)

December 4, 2002


Almost all of us have been harmed by the scandals among business corporations. Many of my peers have told me that their plans photo of Dr. Gordon S. (Tim) Huffman, Jr. for retirement have been altered by the devastation in the stock market, which diminishes both personal investments and pensions accumulations. Part of the cause for the large losses in the market was the failure of “corporate governance.”

Boards of directors failed to ask penetrating questions, failed to press their concerns, failed to hold administrators responsible for the trust that had been placed in them. Even the last line of defense—the auditors, representing a public trust—were compromised by self-interest. Major changes have been enacted in the hope of regaining public trust.

The current crisis in the Roman Catholic church is due less to the depredations of a few hundred priests over four decades than to the breakdown of checks and balances which ought to have acted to protect the children of the church and to embody the trust placed in the church. The visceral reaction of lay Catholics, illustrated by the explosive growth of the Voice of the Faithful (www.VOTF.org), a group that moved quickly from protesting the abuse crisis to calling for “the structural reform of the church,” is prompted by the breakdown of checks and balances. The broad effect of this crisis is shown by the way in which even investment and economic reporters allude to the church crisis as one reason for the public loss of trust in all institutions.

The ELCA was constructed by committee (a large committee) and is structured on the premise that the leaders and administrators will be trustworthy. In other words, there are no effective checks and balances. Few of the leaders of the ELCA will argue in private that the national Church Council or synod councils are effective checks and balances. The issue is easily settled by asking how often the councils act contrary to the will of the administrator in substantive matters. The same problem afflicts most of the Boards of the ELCA and its institutions most of the time.

Attempting to construct a church body that would be “representative” of the membership, the committee of 70 ended up with a structure easily manipulated and with no recourse against abuses of trust or of power. Thus abuses of trust and of power are almost invited by the absence of penalties or of effective processes of appeal. To say that is not to condemn particular persons, but merely to recognize human frailty and temptation.

For instance, neither the full communion Concordat nor Called to Common Mission would have had a chance to pass if the people of the ELCA had enjoyed a fair and open consideration of the question, or even if they had had the opportunity to appeal abusive processes. But there was no office or person to whom to present the evidence of misconduct, no one to check the use of power for political ends.

The ELCA is now embarking on a process that will probably lead to significant restructuring. This is an opportunity to correct the faults of the present structures. The first priority needs to be creation of effective processes for appeal, not merely against individual accusations, but against power plays to press issues and agendas.

Nearly as important is developing and implementing a process for the ratification of policy votes taken at the ELCA Churchwide Assemblies, on the pattern of the Presbyterian Church USA. Last year the Presbyterian national convention passed a controversial proposal by more than 60%, but only 27% of presbyteries (districts) ratified it, ending all debate about a gap between national conventions and the people back home. Something similar would help both to increase attention to and participation in the issues facing the ELCA and to rebuild the trust that lies shattered by the events of the last decade.

Concerned members of the ELCA will want to present and support resolutions toward these ends, and can work to elect board and council members with the insight and the courage to hold administrators appropriately accountable. Even one person asking the right questions can make a major difference.

Dr. Tim Huffman is the John H.F. Kuder Professor of Christian Mission at Trinity Lutheran Seminary in Columbus, Ohio.