Friday, December 13, 2013

Stealing from the church, your church

Dear pastor, please rouse yourself from plumbing the depths of the hypostatic union and from filling your mind with other highly spiritual thoughts and give some attention to the grimy, mundane matter of church business.

There's a good chance that one of you leads a church where a trusted administrative assistant, financial secretary, or bookeeper is stealing your church, God's church, blind.

The details of this recent story are depressingly consistent with most all of the others that are regularly reported. A trusted church employee is caught stealing funds from the church, hundreds of thousands of dollars, over many years.

In the case linked above the amount was estimated at $300,000 over a period of years. The church bookkeeper is reported to have used numerous methods to steal. One report says that she would simply transfer money from the church's bank account to an account of a family member.

Banks keep up with these things, you know. Any movement into or out of a bank account has a trail. How about you initiating a simple audit and have either an accountant  or even members of a church finance committee sniff around, check bank transfers, scrutinize checks that are written, and reconcile bank deposit slips with actual deposits. 

If your church were to be a victim of such embezzlement I doubt that you would be held responsible by the congregation. But you are the leader. If you church is like most SBC churches you are the only full time staff member. You may not like it but it is part of your job to see that proper internal controls are put in place that would avoid theft like the one featured above.

Chances are, someone who reads this blog is in a church where someone is stealing from you. It is that widespread. Most of the time the thief is not all that sophisticated and it would not take much to catch him or her. 

I used to have a member of my church who was the manager of a large toy store. He told me that every year during the Christmas buying season, he would be able to find an employee, perhaps a cashier, stock person, or other employee, who was stealing. He would work with police to gather evidence and then arrange for them to come during store hours and arrest the employee publicly , perp walk and all,  so that all other employees would see and know. This was a pretty strong deterrent.

In the same way, a church employee caught stealing should be prosecuted and punished. You can handle forgiveness any way you choose, just make restitution a part of the process.

People in your church work hard and give generously. You owe it to them to take the steps necessary to ensure that it is not easy to just steal their money and God's money. Alas, when pastors address the matter of stealing from the church, they usually have a sermon on tithing in mind. You can do both, my friend.

Get with it. Now would be a good time to start.


Peter Reilly CPA said...

Get one member of the congregation who has no ability to affect any transactions to get the bank statement unopened (you need to vary that somewhat if you are electronic) and look at each of the transactions and ask questions about them.

That is a relatively easy control to implement. You need somebody thick skinned and a bit obnoxious.

The other thing is that sometimes it is the preacher who is doing the stealing or not distinguishing between what is his (or hers in more liberal polities) and the church's. Congregational leadership needs to take some responsibility.

William Thornton said...

Thanks, Peter. Most of my colleagues have several pushy and obnoxious members to choose from.