Transparency Matters

Like all buzz words, transparency can be overused. I understand why a colleague said recently, “I am so tired of the word ‘transparency.’”

And yet it contains seminal truth about healthy organizations.

Consultants are fond of saying. “People tend to support what they helped to create.” If people feel included in the discussion, they tend to trust its outcome. Surprise announcements, no matter how skillfully made, tend to breed distrust.

As another saying has it, “Tell it all, and tell it promptly.” When people feel fully informed, even bad news loses its toxicity. When they feel selectively informed, on the other hand, and therefore feel “gamed” and manipulated, even good news can become toxic.

Congregants can sense when leaders are “managing the news,” doling out only the information that serves leaders’ purposes, hiding information that might embarrass leaders or reveal shortcomings. Once such awareness settles in, it doesn’t matter what leaders say. They won’t be believed. Listen to any church budget discussion and its undertone of suspicion.

The principle of transparency is simple: except for pastoral confidences, be open and disclosive. Take the initiative in providing information. Make sure it’s information, not a sales job. Don’t hesitate to report difficult news. It’s their congregation, they have a right to know and an obligation to accept accountability.

Leaders need to share their doubts, uncertainties, and questions. Not only will that enable constituents to connect with their leaders, but it will invite broad participation in seeking answers and direction.

People appreciate discretion, knowing that their pastoral needs won’t be broadcast, knowing that staff won’t turn internal issues into public taking of sides. But the realm of discretion is probably smaller than most leaders realize. People care deeply about their churches. They are eager to know its projects, plans, inner workings, financial issues, decisions needing to be made, and data suggesting course corrections.

The wise and strong leader operates in the public eye.


Tom Ehrich is a writer, church consultant and Episcopal priest based in New York. He is the author of “Just Wondering, Jesus,” and the founder of the Church Wellness Project