Faith leaders or religious institutions are often held to high standards of morals and ethics with the assumption that they operate from religious principles. Unfortunately, people often fall short of assumptions and expectations or communities shy from asking these actors to be transparent for accountability’s sake. In an environment where corruption is rampant (Transparency International (2014) scores Kenya at 25/100, ranking 145 out of 175 countries), religious leaders face similar social pressure found in other sectors of society.
On my recent trip to Kenya, a journalist expose reported coached testimonies, fake healing, and outright extortion at Salvation Healing Ministry Church in Nairobi. This story came up repeatedly in my interactions with Kenyans but also in a sermon at a church I attended. As I followed the story in the news, I also learned that the Kenyan attorney general hoped to curtail future scandals by tightening regulation of religious organizations.
In my conversations, I asked people if this incident changed their perceptions or trust of how churches receive and manage money (offerings). In response, one Kenyan told me that he had been in church services where the preacher would tell the congregation, “God gave me a vision…that I should have a fancy car.” Trying to convince the people it was ordained by God, the preacher asked members to give more money to fund and fulfill this vision. In response, the man I was speaking with said that he stood and crassly countered, “God didn’t give me that same vision, so why give you the money?” He was escorted out of the service.
I also attended a worship service where I heard a sermon titled “The Grace of Giving.” The pastor began by emphasizing that not all pastors are like Kanyari of Salvation Healing Ministry Church. He instructed parishioners that a desire to give should come from the heart, and if God— through prayer—calls on a person to give, that person should seek divine confirmation. He had several stories to illustrate this point, including a husband receiving a vision one day and the wife hearing the same thing from God the next day. To conclude, the pastor, citing Matthew 6:3, encouraged people to give boldly and generously but without pride.
As Kenya grows into a middle-income country, “prosperity gospel” is flourishing and brings hope to those seeking to climb out of poverty. Someone I met joked that on Sundays, you can find the most expensive cars in Nairobi in church parking lots. They described church leaders proudly flaunting their material wealth as proof of God’s blessing. This mentality may underscore the earlier story of a preacher prophesying of God delivering to him a Mercedes Benz.
Only one Kenyan responded saying that faithful followers should give money to the church without concern of how it is used. He or she should give with full faith, so that once dropped in the offering plate or purse, it is God’s money and one should trust it will be used for God’s work.
A few days after the Kenya attorney general met with the Inter-Religious Council of Kenya (IRCK), Kenya Episcopal Conference (KEC), National Council of Churches of Kenya (NCCK), Hindu Council of Kenya (HCK) and Supreme Council of Kenya Muslims (SUPKEM), I was told that most who attended urged the government not to tighten regulation of religious organizations. It seemed they thought it would be nearly impossible to discern the motives of emerging faith communities, and also add layers of bureaucracy. But the question remains: who should be responsible for ensuring accountability of religious leaders and institutions? If not the government, then faith community members or a religious institution (if one exists)? Or is God left to be the only witness and judge?
In an environment of devolution, Kenyans are tired of corruption but struggling with how to minimize it. Will local level governance result in greater transparency and accountability? The culture of corruption is not exclusive to the public sector. Religious ethics has the potential to teach values and call for fiscal accountability across sectors: indeed, several faith-inspired actors are trying. However, lack of coordination or sporadic interventions have yet to transform the culture or prevent new “divinely inspired” actors from taking advantage of those seeking spiritual guidance.