Getting the Water to the End of the Row

On our second full day in Africa, Michelle and I attended our first West Africa Area Audit Committee. This is a monthly hour-long meeting chaired by Elder Vinson, the First Counselor in the Area Presidency.  It consists of him, the two of us, Brother Sowah (the resident Area Auditor), the Area Director of Temporal Affairs (kind of the Presiding Bishop over West Africa), the Area Controller and two members of his staff.  The purpose is to get them up to speed on audit results, investigations and financial risks across the area and jointly develop plans “fix everything.”  Elder Vinson said we had a free pass for the first meeting, but hereafter, the meeting is ours to organize and run.  At the end of that meeting, he asked us to bring a proposal to the next meeting on any added resources needed, such as another missionary couple to help us in the office, or wherever we felt they should be located.

After a few quick field trips and conversations, it became obvious that we didn’t need someone else at headquarters in Accra to pontificate and plan.  The challenge is out in the field where there are hundreds of dispersed ward and branch leaders who simply do not understand and/or properly carry out basic financial record-keeping.  This creates an environment loaded with financial risk and occasionally leads to good people doing things they shouldn’t.  Our audit team does a routine semi-annual review of each ward and branch and often uncover systemic problems caused by a lack of understanding and follow-through of basic record-keeping principles.  It turns out that many remote branch presidents are subsistence farmers or tradesmen who have never used a budget because they live day-to-day, if not meal to meal, operate on a cash basis and have never maintained any records.  And they are now responsible for collecting and distributing Church funds within their congregations.

It turns out that this model works pretty well here with most other denominations because whatever the pastor collects is essentially what he has available for his own personal well-being and congregation needs and he reports to some variant of a local board of aldermen.  It is quite a different story where the bishop or branch president collects tithes and offerings, remits them electronically to the Church, and the Church issues him a checkbook that draws on the general Church account, gives him an operating budget based on self-reported attendance figures, a series of general guidelines and the charge to oversee spending for all congregation programs, and to provide for the emergency necessities of the poor and needy in his congregation.

That is a steep ask for any lay church leader, but even more daunting when you layer West Africa’s unique challenges, such as:

  • High growth rates, which creates a constant need for new leaders to care for newly formed congregations, straining the already limited base of experienced priesthood leadership with financial skills who might be able to train them.
  • Difficulty of financial documentation in a primarily cash society.
  • Limited banking services in rural areas. Branch leaders must often take a thirty-plus minute bus or taxi each week to take collected money to the nearest bank, where they may well wait in line two hours to simply make a deposit.
  • Member demographics. Many congregations are widely dispersed and rural, members have limited mobility and income, which hampers interactions with, and training for leaders of the dispersed units.
  • A challenging culture where people often assume they are entitled to a portion of any funds that pass through their hands. West African nations have a well-deserved spot atop the worldwide corruption index.

MLSIn our role as Area Auditors, we use the Church’s worldwide hierarchical Area Auditing model (at right, in red), relying on a 3-stage training and auditing process, where the Area Auditor trains the Assistant Area Auditors, who train Stake and District Audit Councils, which are then responsible for ensuring that all leaders in the local units are properly trained on financial processes, administering semi-annual audits and ensuring resolution of all noted audit exceptions.  We also have a local finance organization which strives to provide general finance training once every other year to units across the region.  The red line gets noticeably lighter the further you move down the pyramid, reflecting the daunting training and oversight challenges, increasing risks the most where they are hardest to deal with.  It’s the age-old farming problem of getting the water to the end of the row.

So the question I was facing was, recognizing the difficulty in getting senior missionaries in the field, let alone in Africa, how can you justify asking for enough senior missionary couples to scatter around the base of the pyramid, and how would you use them, given that the hierarchical Area Audit program structure is not a variable we can play with.

Then it hit me: we don’t even have to ask Salt Lake for any more missionaries, at least for the present.  Within Ghana, I was aware of three great senior missionary couples assigned to provide Member and Leader Support (MLS) out in the most remote districts where the financial risks and challenges are steepest.

I teamed with a member of the Controllers’ office and we got the green light from a couple of the local mission presidents for us to train and use their senior couples to help out with a trial program.  I sketched the program overview out, layering in the green supplemental support channel shown above and pitched it to Elder Vinson at our October council meeting.  He said it sounds perfect; now go do it.

So we streamlined an existing Financial Checklist into an easy-to-follow, ten-step list that branches should follow each week to avoid the lion’s share of problems we have seen in audits.  We pulled in the three couples from those areas and gave them a few hours of background on what we are hoping for and suggested ways to use the checklist with local branch leaders in their districts.  Essentially, they provide fundamental, hands-on training in the districts where they are already working, assessing how well the branch leaders and clerks understand and are following the checklist.  Where improvements are needed, they work with each unit over a period of weeks during the weekly processing of financials to help them understand and practice carrying out each of the steps until they can consistently do it on their own.

Earlier this month, we took two of the couples out for live reviews with all the branches in one district, had them watch the review for one branch, then turned them loose (with oversight) to review and train the rest of the branches. It worked beautifully.  The couples loved getting involved with the leaders in this aspect, and did a wonderful job of building trust and helping them understand the basics.  Because these are trusted, familiar faces and completely separate from the audits, the leaders warmed up immediately to them and everyone walked out feeling this would really make a difference.

We have since gotten more Ghana mission presidents and those in Liberia and Sierra Leone on-board and will go train their senior missionaries who will start arriving early next year.  One of the mission presidents was skeptical whether one of his couples would work out because “the brother was called as a Humanitarian Missionary and has little experience outside of welding.”  Once I got the chance to talk with the couple, he mentioned that he had been in a branch presidency in Zimbabwe on their prior mission, knew exactly what issues they were facing, and was thrilled to have a plan and some tools to help other branch leaders.

We still have to figure what we will do in Nigeria where over half of our congregations are located because we have practically no senior missionaries there due to safety concerns.  But for now, we have a program that is working great in a lot of areas where we just had struggles before.  We came up with a novel way to get the knowledge out to remote areas, we are using existing resources and we are still operating under the Church-approved audit guidelines and structures.

When Elder Bednar was here a couple of months ago, he made the statement that Africa is a laboratory for the Church.  The brethren understand that there are unique situations here and the standard Wasatch Front solutions are not always the right answer.  They are very open to trying some novel, outside-the-box approaches to accomplish the Lord’s work here.  It’s a ton of fun to be here tinkering in the lab, and especially to see how well things flourish and grow when the water gets all the way to the end of the row.

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