The winsome lady moved to town, joined a small but established SBC church and immediately became active in church life, particularly a women’s Bible study with a number of older ladies. She was a successful investor and realtor. After ingratiating herself with the group she offered to help some of them earn extra income by partnering with her in some real estate deals. She was an expert in flipping houses and had done quite a bit in a distant state and was happy to share her expertise.
One could guess that this is a tale that ends badly, and it did. The nice lady was a habitual liar, was not a realtor, and was not an expert in real estate investments. She was a thief and a fraud and bilked a handful of people out of more than half a million dollars, most of them elderly citizens, some fellow church members. In time the schemes were exposed and she was arrested. Even then she piled lies upon lies. She has been sentenced to several years in prison with a court order to provide restitution. Fat chance of that. The money is gone.
This is not a unique story. Sadly, it is typical though thankfully rare. This one had the extra hook in that a church was involved that I am familiar with and which I have attended. I am curious if the pastor or church staff was aware of the woman’s activity or if they had any suspicions about her.
Most Southern Baptist churches are of the size where the pastor knows and relates to every member and where every member knows, at least casually, the other members. Any new member that is personable, charming, and eager to be involved in the life of the congregation is welcomed and celebrated. Unfortunately, churches and church folks are well-known to be easy targets for pedophiles, con artists, and the like. Elderly church members are prime targets. Church folks are trusting and have likely been taught by their pastor over the years to be accepting of new members, to take them into their social circles, Bible studies and fellowships. Sadly, and at a considerable cost, this was the case with the thieving fake realtor.
How can the pastor and staff help members avoid such things? Others are experts in this area but I offer a few guidelines:
If you see something, do something.
The pastor of an average-sized church is in a unique position relative to a group of people. In his routine of visiting and building relationships with members, he will likely spend more time with the older members simply because they are more faithful and more accessible. If in the course of visits and conversations he learns of behavior by a new member that raises questions or doesn’t sound quite right, he ought to know enough to be wary. If he sees or hears enough to be suspicious he should at least take some initial steps to learn more.
The internet makes it simple to research people. The clever con artist can work around this but the fake real estate lady had a considerable past that was public record. No one bothered to check. While we pastors don’t want to alienate any new, active member particularly if the member looks like a good-giving member, simple inquiries might be prudent. We all have enough jobs already. If the pastor is too busy maybe there is someone he could trust to make discrete checks.
I am told by close family members that I am overly suspicious and skeptical, to which I unapologetically plead guilty. I’ll check the sex offender list or try and do a background check on any new member where the atmospherics seem a bit amiss. Such doesn’t happen often but it has happened.
If your instincts prompt you, don’t ignore them. The Lord may be the source. Do something.
If you know something, say something.
On occasion I have contacted a son, daughter, or other close relative about their elderly parent or relative. More common than scams like the above are sweepstakes scams and even relentless, targeted appeals from political or other groups for donations. Most of the time it was sufficient that other family knew something. In some cases it is best that a third party be involved. I once had a relative whom I discovered was squandering considerable sums on fraudulent sweepstakes. After my personal appeals to him were rejected I tried to enlist as allies other relatives, his pastor, his Sunday School teacher, and the social worker at his retirement home. Nothing helped until the appropriate state office was contacted by his bank.
If you suspect something, create some accountability before you do anything.
Over the years, I’ve run into fraud like the case above, families stealing from relatives, funny business with the execution of wills and granting of power-of-attorney rights and the like. Even in mildly suspicious cases it is wise to find one or more laypeople and share your concerns with them prior to taking any action. Perhaps they will have some sound counsel or already know the situation. No matter what, you have created a layer of protection and accountability for yourself.
If you are in a position to help, be cautious about formal solutions where you are involved.
In a few family situations I have been called upon to handle the affairs of various relatives. Where it has been possible and appropriate, I have asked for someone else to be formally involved with me. Circumstances vary widely.
Southern Baptist clergy have no formal code of ministerial ethics or conduct but I’m guessing that if we did, there would be prohibition against the minister accepting formal, legal standing with a church member or their estate. Even if the motives are genuine and the benefits nil for the minister, chances are he will create suspicions and such will be harmful to his reputation. The classic elder abuse is the close friend (such could be the minister) who is devoted to an elderly member in the nursing home and ends up beneficiary in the individual’s will.
Many people know much more than I do. Perhaps some will supplement my suggestions. It seems certain, though, that few pastors will not encounter a number of these situations during their ministry.
Best I can recall, this is yet another subject not covered in seminary.