Sunday, July 20, 2014

You cannot afford to trust your church secretary

If you are the pastor or a church leader and your church secretary handles the church's money, makes deposits, pays bills, has some degree of control over invoices, payments, or church credit cards you cannot trust him or her. Better put, you should not act as if you trust him or her and would be foolish and negligent to do so.

Former church secretary indicted for theft.

This is a sad story on several levels. The lifelong member of an Alabama Baptist church who was the church secretary and who had control over the church's credit card is alleged to have stolen $129,000 from the church over the past 33 months. The amount of theft might be greater, since the statute of limitations on such crimes only goes back to 2011. Authorities are reported to have said that the fraudulent charges may go back another four years to 2007. From July 2011 through April 2014 the secretary made 2,200 transactions on the credit card many of which were determined to be fraudulent. That number of transactions is about three every single working day. The secretary, a mother, grandmother, and widow apparently used the card to pay her personal bills - utilities, gas, travel, etc.

There's no mystery about trusted people stealing - happens all the time. If the opportunity is present Christians who are otherwise perfectly respectable followers of Christ, beloved friends and family, valuable church members and servants of the Lord will shamelessly steal from the church. Apparently, the woman had absolutely no accountability for the credit card. The pastor, deacons, finance committee all of whom are to be held secondarily responsible for the loss, failed the church by not having sufficient financial controls in place. The woman merely shifted around some budget figures to cover herself but every credit card transaction has a record and appears on some statement. Evidently, no one checked the statement, ever, to verify the transactions were for church business. A handful of questionable transactions might be buried in a statement that wasn't checked too closely, but thousands? Utter failure on the part of church leadership.

To its credit, the pastor and leaders of the church decided to press charges. The woman was stealing from every church member who worked hard to earn money part of which they gave to the Lord's work through the church. Whatever sympathy one might have for the alleged thief should be tempered with the sober thought that hardly a day passed when she didn't deliberately steal from her friends, family, and neighbors.

Most SBC churches probably do not have a business credit card for the church. Those that do should have regular audits no matter how trusted the church financial secretary is or how long they have been around. A sensible financial secretary would insist on regular audits of some sort. This isn't brain surgery.

Money is important. There are around 46,000 SBC churches which handle tens of billions of contributions. In the great majority of these churches employ only one clergy staff, the pastor. It is his job to see to it that there are sufficient and proper money handling policies and procedures. The church involved in this case, depressingly similar to many others, was a large, multiple staff church. It is shocking that such a church failed to have control over its finances.

There are this very Lord's Day probably dozens if not hundreds of SBC churches where some trusted individual is stealing from the church. This sort of thing is so common I don't even look to blog about a case of such theft unless it gets into six figures.

Hey you, Spurgeon! You might spend less time preaching on stealing from God, the standard approach to preaching on tithing, and more time ensuring that proper financial controls are in place. It's your responsibility.

Need more?

Woman steals $130,000 from Baptist association (Nice round figure, $130,000, and in Alabama also.)


Anonymous said...

A better headline, notwithstanding the illustration, is trust no one, not the pastor, not the secretary, not the head of deacons with money. Do. Not. Trust. Them. Or. Anyone. A financial system without redundancy is an open invitation for abuse. And church leadership, professional or lay, that does not understand this is incompetent concerning leadership. Develop a process that you can trust; it will not be infallible, but it has a better chance of being reliable.

Tom Parker said...


If this is as big a problem as you say it is and I do not doubt you why is the SBC not acting immediately to do something?

William Thornton said...

Tom, what the SBC could do is publicize these cases but they (state conventions, Baptist Press) seldom do because it looks bad. Beyond that they have no power to do anything relative to a local church.

You will not that almost all of the cases I occasionally cover come from ABP stories, never BP.

William Thornton said...

I take your point that the pastor and others are possible thieves in the same way as the secretary. Internal controls are a must.

Scott said...

Most state conventions offer seminars and workshops on church financial security. Oddly enough, I received a card about one here in Alabama recently.

William Thornton said...

Indeed, my state and I'd guess all states have these things. No one has to pay attention and leaders presume that their finances are properly handled.

Peter Reilly said...

As Ronald Reagan said - "Trust, but verify"