What is Transparency?

As a pastor and leader in other organizations, I have heard the following complaint too many times to count: “You all need to be more transparent.” For example, a congregation I served created an endowment. It wasn’t long before some members, at a congregational meeting, said, “We need more transparency around the endowment.  How is it invested? Who makes the investment decisions? Can I see the current list of investments?” My first action the following Monday was to print out a copy of each and every investment in our endowment, place it in a folder, and put the folder in the front office.  I sent a message to all members explaining that the investments were listed in a folder that they could examine at any time in the church’s office.

You know the rest.  Not one person checked the folder. However, creating and placing the folder in a public place did stop the regular comments about the need for more transparency about the endowment. People didn’t want to see the information. But they wanted to know that they could see the information if need be. The availability of information was a form of transparency in and of itself.

In some instances, such as this example, the request for more information is absolutely reasonable. Too many people have been hoodwinked by politicians, pastors, boards of directors and others for us to expect them to trust us automatically. The malevolent actions of some leaders and managers have created a permanent cloud of suspicion that hangs over the head of every leader and organization. The lack of trust isn’t about us personally (usually).  It is much more pervasive.  The lack of trust is directed at everyone and everything.

The only way to deal with this type of mistrust is to make available/transparent as much information as is possible. Apart from personnel matters, I can think of little in the life of a congregation that shouldn’t be available to any and all members.  Indeed, most of our information can be made available to the general public on a website without harming anything or anyone.

However, even when we lay all the information out there for people to see, some individuals will continue to say that we aren’t being sufficiently transparent. In such situations, it is easy to get very irritated with those demanding transparency. We want to say back in anger, “But we have made everything available. What else can I/we do?”

The last question is important to pose, although not in anger. When the demands for increased transparency appear, we need to ask those making the demands, “What do you want? What will make you content that this is a transparent organization?” We shouldn’t try to answer the question for them. Because, in too many instances, the person asking the question doesn’t have a clear understanding in her/his mind what transparency might look like. Let them struggle with what they want until they can articulate it.

Sometimes the demand for transparency masks another concern. Maybe they don’t like the direction in which the congregation is moving. Maybe they have a bone to pick with the pastor(s) or governing board. Whatever, continuing to try to please these folks with an unfocused idea of what constitutes transparency will fail. In other words, the demand for transparency has become, in some instances, a stalking horse for another agenda or concern. We can’t deal with the real concern until we get rid of the transparency stalking horse. So we need to ask folks to define what they want in the way of transparency.

To me, a transparent organization is one that supplies information before it is requested. As mentioned, there is some information about personnel that we may not be able to supply. Let’s explain why we can’t make such information public. Otherwise, let’s get information out where it can be easily accessed by those who need it. When we are truly transparent, we make it very hard for critics to use lack of institutional transparency as a rallying cry for their personal, non-transparent agendas.


About jwwimberly

I am a Presbyterian pastor who recently retired after thirty years of serving a congregation in the Foggy Bottom neighborhood of Washington, D.C. I am currently a Field Consultant for the Alban Institute as well as author of books dealing with management issues in congregations. I am a devoted potter, throwing pots on the wheel and teaching the wheel when my schedule allows. Finally, I consider Mexico my second homeland since we have a home in San Miguel de Allende, GTO, Mexico.
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