In the last few days, the new Prime Minister of Australia, and several other members of parliament have got themselves into a spot of bother with the way they have used (and some say, mis-used) their travel entitlements. It seems to be a case of "one man's junket for a sporting event is another man's opportunity to meet members of the electorate at a community event."
Who knows what will come of it? Probably not much. (and living in a country where rip-offs of the system usually involve figures containing many more zeros, it hardly seems big bikkies).
However, there is an important lesson to be learnt for those of us who have the privilege of being paid from donations, and there have an important level of accountability to our donors. (To fit in with my opening argument, I'm using the term "donation" in a very broad sense, to include tax! But I think the issue of accountability still stands.)
The lesson is, we need to do the right thing, but more than that, we need to be seen to be doing the right thing. The impression we give is just as important as the fact.
Christian workers, pastors, missionaries - we need to take notice of this, because the dangers that this issue can cause to us personally and to the ministries we are involved in are real and severe.
First, there is the danger to the reputation of the gospel. There are those who will want to tear Christians down at the slightest hint of us misusing the system. Opponents of the gospel would like nothing more than to highlight the moral, legal or personal failure of a Christian to further their cause. From time to time articles are written and fingers are pointed at the way churches and christian organisations use or misuse their tax status. Failures, or perceived failures in this area do not recommend the gospel.
Second, we have a responsibility to be good stewards of the money that has been given to us by our supporters and church members. In response to our requests, many people give sacrificially and generously, and it is our responsibility to ensure that our care in spending matches their care in giving, both in what we actually do, but also in the impression we give of how we do it. Because no matter how many audit reports and bank statements and scrutinised budgets are presented at the annual meeting, if the beneficiary of the donations is perceived to be wasting the funds, it will leave a bad taste in the mouth of the donor.
Let me share a personal example. I was recently on a multi-stop trip, a long one, paid for totally by generous donors to CMS Australia, the mission organisation that does a great job looking after us here in Mexico. I had been at a conference of theological educators - people like me who are directors of seminaries, leaders of training institutions etc. A group of us caught the bus to the airport and so we were checking in for our various flights together.
Two things happened which made me think carefully about this issue.
1. Earlier this year, a generous supporter gave me a one year membership to the Qantas Club. This means in some airports and with some airlines I can enjoy the benefits of their "VIP departure lounges" (basically free wifi, comfy chairs and snacks). It is really nice and it was generous of him to give it to me. He knows that I have a lot of trips and that small things like this make the experience a bit more comfortable. One of the benefits of this membership is that it allows me to skip the check-in line and use the business class desk.
So, off I went, checked in at the business class desk and met up with the group again later on.
A few of them said - wow - your organisation must be doing OK - you get to fly business! (said with not a particularly positive tone of voice!) So I explained the situation and their attitude immediately changed. What if I hadn't have had the opportunity to explain myself? I think their perception of "overseas funded missionaries" might not have been so good.
I know this because of the second thing that happened.
2. As I was leaving the check in line, a couple of others from the conference also went to the business counter to check in. And I couldn't help noticing that when they finished, they had boarding passes with those magic words "Business class" written on them.
What was my impression? Well, they must be doing alright to be able to waste money like that. What can't they fly economy like the rest of us? Are they better than us?
Wow - maybe they had used some points to upgrade? Maybe they had a sore back and had asked nicely? Maybe a generous person had given them a membership that gave them an upgrade? Who knows - but my reaction to what I saw was at the same time severe, jealous and judgemental.
For me, it reinforced the need to be seen to be doing the right thing as well as actually doing the right thing. Sure, maybe we need to work harder at educating our donors how we spend our money and being as open as we can about doing the right thing, but we also have a responsibility to be seen to be doing the right thing.
As world travel becomes easier, and as opportunities and invitations for travel become more frequent, here's a few things I've learnt along the way about doing the right thing, and making sure the impression you give is also that you are doing the right thing.
1. Make sure your accounting and reporting structure is accurate and externally audited - whether it is an official "government required" audit or just someone external who can check it for you. It is an insurance policy for you and for your organisation against any accusation of impropriety.
2. Don't not use the system for small transactions. If you are willing to fudge a bit on small amounts, the temptation is to change the definition of "small". When I'm travelling, I keep a small notebook with me and jot down all expenses, with receipts where possible. (I understand there are apps for that!)
3. You won't have the opportunity to explain your circumstances to everyone, so be humble and circumspect about it. Enjoy the opportunities you have, but don't brag about them.
4. If you must post "travel reports" on facebook, consider the impression you are giving. Inevitably, the photos at the beach, in the game park or at the national monuments are more interesting than your time in the library, giving the conference talk or meeting the pastor's group, so they'll end up dominating your postings. Think about the impression this gives.
5. Don't just give reports of your "extraordinary" activities. Talk about your day to day life with the same enthusiasm as the exciting bits.
6. Consider the way you talk about the people you are working with / serving alongside. In your excitement and enthusiasm, try not to come across as the saviour. Admit your difficulties and hardships, be honest about your homesickness, feelings of being out of your depth, loneliness. Real reflections help give the impression that you are working, not just having a fantastic holiday.
7. If you do have a holiday - be honest and open about it! Don't be a gospel tourist. Just be a tourist! Enjoy the opportunity to work, enjoy the opportunity to be a tourist, and do what you can to not confuse the two.