…the alleged embezzlement amounted to hundreds of thousands of dollars and that many mission offerings and pastor’s retirement payments for a 23-year period were unpaid.
The lament of church financial advisors and accountants is that they cannot get churches and pastors to pay attention to the fact that they are highly susceptible to having church money stolen by trusted members who are volunteer treasurers and secretaries.
The quote above ought to get the pastor’s attention.
I have to stifle the feeling that there’s something tawdry about glomming onto a church theft story that has been widely reported by both secular and denominational news outlets but the trigger for this one was that the church treasurer is accused of stealing money intended for the church pastor’s retirement account. The indictment alleged that the treasurer put some of the money into his own retirement account. Ouch!
Baptist Press Embezzlement ordeal leaves church ‘anxious to move on.’
The scenario is typical. The treasurer handled all the money, wrote and signed all the checks, received the bank statements, and made reports to the church. One guy does all – the recipe for the mess that resulted.
My CPA brother never ceases to remind me, usually with a wry grin, that the example often used for embezzlement is that of churches, those bastions of recondite, honest, followers of Christ. He usually follows that with the old 10-10-80 rule-of-thumb: 10% will steal from you all the time; 10 percent are scrupulously honest and will never steal, and 80% will steal if the circumstances are right. Research from LifeWay shows about 9% of churches having had funds embezzled.
But this particular case is close to me because the church, Antioch Baptist Church, is a rural congregation of about 70 on Sunday morning. That is the median size for all SBC churches. My first church, Antioch Baptist Church (in SC) was both that size and rural…and had a treasurer who handled all the finances.
So, what did your humble hacker and plodder blogger, the one who writes all these pieces on church financial practices, do about that?
Not a doggone thing. I was on Albert the Treasurers side from the moment he answered, “Whatever you think” to my question, “Albert, we don’t have a budget, so how much money do I have for convention expenses?
With that self-disclosure most of us recognize that standard practices are great until you run into established non-standard practices and powerful church people who might be offended if change is introduced.
In the case of the church treasurer doing it all the risks are sufficiently serious that the pastor as leader should take some steps to change the system.
How does the pastor go about this?
1. Take time to learn how things work. Who collects, counts, and deposits the offering? Who writes and signs checks? Who receives the bank statements? Who has access to financial records? If the same person does all this, someone needs to bring the subject up and work to correct it.
2. Compare records sent by your state convention or GuideStone to what is reported. Any pastor with a GS account receives regular reports of his account showing what has been deposited. He should check to see if what GS shows matches what the church report shows. State conventions send summary statements of what is received from a church. These would have revealed that there was a problem. If the sums do not match, and this was true for the case above, then questions should be asked and the matter corrected. It may be a mistake. It may indicate theft.
3. See if there are informed laypeople in the church with whom you can have private discussions. I understand the sensitivity of raising these questions. It’s perfectly natural for a new pastor to ask questions and familiarize himself with his new church. If the sensitivity level seems too elevated over the matter, find a trusted layperson with whom you can have confidential conversations.
4. Resistance to even modest changes in money handling may be an indicator that there is a problem. Someone has to see it through.
5. Involve non-church people. Associations and state conventions regularly have conferences and training on handling church funds. Get the treasurer or some church leaders to attend. The conference leaders will say what needs to be said and almost certainly share a couple of church embezzlement stories. Your church folks will pay attention.
6. It’s good practice to divide these tasks and to have an annual financial review. This protects those who handle money as well as the church and increases confidence in church leadership that donations are handled properly.
7. If you hit a brick wall, try and find a way around it. The church treasurer is a main source of irritation in many churches. Chances are the pastor is not the only person in the church who doesn’t like the present arrangement.
No pastor revels in administrative details. We would rather preach, teach, and minister. Nonetheless, it his job to see after the work of the church which means budgets, money handling and other secondary tasks.
Oh…the next big church embezzlement story is being written now, since hundreds of church secretaries, treasurers, and even staff members are most certainly stealing right now. Might be your church, your retirement account, your church’s mission money.