When many of my friends who are not LDS heard that Michelle and I were going to Africa on a mission, they asked if we would be helping to build an orphanage during our “mission trip”, while many LDS friends assumed we would be deep in the jungle, traveling between small villages to share the gospel and strengthen local members. Both of those are extremely noble activities, and though we do travel on occasion to remote areas, we spend most of our time in a downtown office coordinating a team involved in Church financial audits. This note describes a bit of what we do, but much more importantly, why we do it.
One of the key challenges with auditing in a Church setting is getting the audit team and the local Church leaders we support to understand that we are on the same team; this is not a witch-hunt and we are not the enemy. Accomplishing this task requires a good understanding the role of auditing and effective teaching.
Here in the Africa West Area, Michelle and I team with a local man (who has a separate full-time job) as the auditors for the LDS Church in West Africa. We have a team of sixteen volunteer assistant area auditors, scattered across the seven countries we cover. They each have about six to ten local audit councils they coordinate, and collectively, we audit about 1,000 church congregations with a total membership of 250,000, twice a year. That all adds up to a lot of hours for a lot of auditors and a boatload of local congregation leaders that we have to work with for these audit reviews. Michelle and I are the only ones doing this full-time, and everyone involved on all sides of this process is a lay member of the Church. All volunteer work, no employees; period.
In brief, our role in auditing these congregations is to safeguard the sacred funds of the Church, as well as the souls of local priesthood leaders who handle those funds.
The notion of “protecting the funds of the Church” is straightforward and generally well understood in auditing circles. However, the rate of misused or abused Church funds (which the Church does not publish) would be the envy of any large corporation or government agency. Simply put, these bishops, branch presidents, stake presidents and their clerks who are put in charge of these funds are amazingly good, honest people. However, like everyone I have ever met, these people are human, though they have been called, set apart and charged with (among many other tasks), properly handling the “widow’s mite”; consecrated offerings made for the purpose of carrying out the Lord’s work.
That introduces the second part of our equation, “protecting the souls of the local Church leaders,” which sounds a bit draconian on its face. After all, if the level of the financial losses is really that low, why not invoke the typical corporate “materiality” threshold argument, write off some minor losses as “white noise” and save all the effort required for the audits?
The short answer is that, as noted, these funds represent sacred tithes and offerings made by faithful Church members, freely laid on the altar of the Lord they worship, to serve His purposes. This notion attaches a fairly steep obligation on the proper use of those funds. The Lord was rather forthright on this topic when he stated that he “cannot look upon sin with the least degree of allowance” (D&C 1:31). Willfully engaging in fraud and deception for personal gain while in a leadership position in the Lord’s Church is a slam-dunk way to drive away the Lord’s spirit, threatens that individual’s spiritual standing with the Lord, and, left unchecked, can potentially destroy not only that person’s own salvation, but, that of his family and posterity, as well as those who have placed their trust in him because of his perceived leadership role in the congregation and the community.
Accordingly, when we talk about a relative “materiality” threshold, the issue really isn’t about the money. The relevant materiality is neatly covered in the Lord’s statement to “remember the worth of souls is great in the sight of God.” (D&C 18:10)
With that as a backdrop, the challenge is how to communicate to an audit team and affected Church leaders that we are here to protect local leaders, avoid an adversarial relationship and create an atmosphere of collaboration?
I have learned, in large part from my wife, that the best approach to effectively communicate is to follow the Savior’s example and teach in a simplified manner, where your audience can quickly recognize and internalize the desired principle through the use of examples, parables or stories which illustrate the underlying principle using everyday occurrences in people’s lives, or stories that are familiar to your audience.
In a recent re-reading of the “war years” account in the later chapters of Book of Alma in the Book of Mormon, where Captain Moroni is charged with defending Nephite cities and lands against continually invading Lamanite armies, it occurred to me that this account is both familiar to my audience and a very apt metaphor which illustrates our role and responsibility as auditors.
In the scriptural account, the enemy of Nephite nation is the Lamanite armies, but it is important to note, that in this instance, those armies are actually led by Amalickiah, a Nephite defector, and the Book of Mormon notes that Amalickiah used “fraud and deceit” (Alma 48:7) to secure his position as the Lamanite King and lead the Lamanite armies in an extended series of battles against the Nephites. To apply the principles from this familiar Book of Mormon account, ”fraud and deceit” become the true enemies which threaten the Nephite people. The Nephites, in this case, represent the Lord’s Church, His people and His leaders.
In contrast to the aggressive, deceitful King Amalickiah, Captain Moroni, the designated leader of the Nephite armies, desires only to “defend his people… his country, and his religion” (48:13) and glories in “preserving his people… and resisting iniquity” (48:16).
Likening this account to our situation, our collective task as the appointed Church audit team is to protect and defend the Church and its leaders from the evils of fraud and deceit. We accomplish this task using many of the same techniques that Moroni used.
The Book of Alma notes that while the enemy is preparing to attack the Nephites, Moroni “had been preparing the minds of the people to be faithful unto the Lord.” (48:7)
In our case, part of our role as auditors is to train priesthood leaders, specifically members of Stake Audit Committees and newly called Stake and District Presidents, on the principles of sound financial recordkeeping to help them understand, recognize and avoid fraud and deception.
In addition to teaching and exhorting, Moroni and his team undertook a series of activities designed to shield the Nephites from the enemy, “erecting forts… throwing up banks of earth round about… and building walls of stone” (48:8) to encircle the cities and protect the borders of the Nephite lands, strategically placing his strongest resources in areas having the weakest fortifications (48:9). He later augments these fortifications with works of timbers atop the embankments, and a tall and strong frame of pickets atop the timbers. (50:3-4)
In our situation, the Church has likewise implemented a robust series of financial controls and established the worldwide audit program, specifically designed to shield the Church and its leaders from the influence of fraud and deception in dealing with handling finances.
The Book of Alma notes that even following his victories, during periods of relative calm, Captain Moroni didn’t let down his guard and rely solely on his well-designed defensive structures, but he “did not stop making preparations” (50:1). Through his ongoing faith and inspired works, Moroni “altered the management of affairs” (49:11) in a way that increased the safety he provided his people, and that added security “did increase daily because of the assurance of protection which his works did bring forth unto them” (50:12).
Finally, Moroni appointed and relied on a valiant team of men who could be trusted to provide inspired leadership and manage the defenses across the various quarters of the land. Moroni and this gallant leadership team frequently counseled together and exchanged timely epistles to report on the progress, triumphs and challenges in their designated sectors, to strengthen each other’s faith and to coordinate resources and activities.
Because of Moroni’s constant vigilance of the defenses he had installed to protect against fraud and deceit, the ongoing training on the principles of righteousness and timely communication and coordination, the Book of Alma records that “the Nephites had all power over their enemies” (49:23) and, despite a living in a state of never-ending attacks by their enemies, “there never was a happier time among the people of Nephi… than in the days of Moroni.” (50:23)
Like Moroni and his chief captains, our West Africa Area Audit team is tasked with creating places of security to protect our priesthood leaders and the consecrated Church funds they are entrusted with. We accomplish that goal through timely submission of quality audits, swift resolution of identified exceptions, prompt training of priesthood leaders, consistent, on-time reporting and ongoing analysis of current and emerging risk areas.
Stepping from the parable back into real life, my vision of this calling came into sharp focus from a conversation with my brother just before coming to Africa. He is serving as a stake president and said that he had just been through a heart-wrenching situation involving misuse of funds in one of the congregations under his care. Without divulging details, he said that he was singularly moved by conversation with a person in that ward, after the resolution of the situation. That person, we’ll call him “Mike”, was on the periphery of the investigated situation. Mike told my brother that the incident came to light because of an extremely effective stake auditor. While the leaders of that ward, including Mike, were initially leery of this reviewer, after everything was settled out, Mike acknowledged that the situation had gotten to the stage where he had almost rationalized participating in the scheme himself. His statement to his stake president was, “Thank you for sending that auditor to our ward. What he did saved my soul.”
My mission to Africa may not involve directly preaching the gospel or building shelters for orphans, but if I can do something that creates a secure place of refuge for the amazing leaders I have met in this area, and protects even one person like Mike from getting into something that could destroy him, that seems to be a pretty good way to save souls and that works for me.