Protecting the Church’s Money

1024x1024“If you are at a church that collects money, someone is stealing.” That is how a guest speaker in my Family and Church Financial Stewardship class opened his lecture on protecting the church’s money. My students were dumbfounded as he recounted a few stories ranging from stealing quarters out of a drink machine to embezzlement. Honestly, the first time I heard him give this lecture several years ago, I was surprised myself. Unfortunately, I am not surprised any more.

Just this week a former minister at Houston’s First Baptist Church was indicted for embezzling over $800,000 from the church between 2011 and 2017. News outlets report that he spent the money on family vacations, groceries, and a doctoral degree from a Bible college.[1]

Why would anyone do this?

This is a difficult question to answer. On some level, we can probably start by looking to the Tenth Commandment. In Exodus 20:17 we read, “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife or his male servant or his female servant or his ox or his donkey or anything that belongs to your neighbor.” Most people do not wake up in the morning plotting how they can steal money from the church. It starts as a problem with the heart, coveting what they do not have and contemplating how to use someone else’s resources to attain it. The desire starts small but blossoms into an uncontrollable passion to take what is not your own.

James describes the progression of sin this way: “But each one is tempted when he is carried away and enticed by his own lust. Then when lust has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and when sin is accomplished, it brings forth death” (James 1:14-15). Temptation leads to lust. Lust conceives sin. Sin brings forth death. That is why we must examine our hearts. We often allow something to grow and fester in our hearts that ultimately leads to sin and death. We need to stop it at the heart level.

How can we protect the church’s money?

This is a central question of the class I mentioned earlier. I think we all want to believe that everyone who handles the church’s money can be trusted implicitly. However, if that were true, tragic situations like the one in Houston would never happen. Here are a few principles that will help prevent such situations.

  1. Evaluate the character of those who handle the church’s money. When it comes to ministers, we see a very explicit character trait related to money. As part of his list of qualifications for pastors, Paul states, “An overseer, then, must be above reproach, . . . free from the love of money” (1 Tim 3:2, 3). Paul gives further instructions to Timothy later in the same epistle. He states, “But those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a snare and many foolish and harmful desires which plunge men into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all sorts of evil, and some by longing for it have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs” (1 Tim 6:9-10). The evaluation of character needs to be an ongoing process. At the same time, we cannot make simple assumptions about someone’s character. Just because someone is wealthy does not mean he loves money. Conversely, just because someone lives modestly does not mean she is free from the love of money. We need to begin by evaluating our own hearts and then judge the character of those with access to the church’s monetary resources. Using people of good character to handle the church’s resources is a good place to start.
  2. Build accountability into the money collection process. This principle assumes that your church has a process for collecting, counting, and depositing money. Even with many churches collecting a significant portion of their budget online, there still needs to be a process for handling cash and checks for any number of transactions and gifts. Building accountability into the system includes having more than one person handle the money at all times. No single person should be responsible for collecting or counting the money. This is unwise on the part of the church and the one collecting or counting the money. Just a few weeks ago, I was tasked with collecting money at church for some choir shirts. I collected the money in a very public place and then had someone else help me count the money. Then we both signed a paper with the amount of money we collected divided up by the denomination of bills. Such a process protects the church’s money and the reputation of the individuals collecting the money.
  3. Limit access to the church’s money. While your church certainly needs multiple people collecting and counting the money, you do not want everyone involved in the process. Limiting access to the church’s money includes have a designated group of people who rotate through the collection and counting process. In addition, limiting access means there are only certain people who can write checks or use a church credit card. While it may seem easy to pass out a credit card to everyone who might need one, this opens the door to unauthorized transactions. I admit that having to get reimbursed for an authorized expense can be frustrating, but I can also attest that I am very intentional about making sure that the transaction is authorized in advance and that I submit a receipt in a timely fashion when my money is tied up in the process.
  4. Conduct a regular audit. Depending on the size of your church, the complexity of an audit will differ. However, every church needs to perform an audit, preferably by an outside firm, on a regular basis. This appears to be how the situation at Houston’s First Baptist Church was discovered. The church released a statement saying that it discovered “a limited set of suspicious financial activity.” This activity led to a full investigation that uncovered “multiple deceptive and difficult-to-detect techniques” used to embezzle missions funds from the church. Having a firm not connected to the church perform an audit will ensure objectivity if suspicious activity is discovered.

These basic principles are not going to fix all the problems a church may have with protecting money, but they are a step on the right direction. Ultimately, we have to remember that no church is safe from having money stolen, but we need to take necessary measures to prevent it whenever possible.Family and Church Financial Stewardship Class

If you are interested in the class mentioned above, STWLD 3603: Family and Church Financial Stewardship will be offered in the spring 2019 semester both on campus and online. Current Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary students can register for the class with the Registrar’s Office. If you are not currently a student, contact the Admissions Office about applying to become a student.

[1] Samantha Ketterer, “Ex-minister accused of stealing $800K from Houston’s First Baptist Church,” The Houston Chronicle, December 11, 2018; David Roach, “Former Houston’s First minister admits embezzlement,” Baptist Press, December 11, 2018.

Why I Attend the Southern Baptist Convention Annual Meeting

I am preparing to go to Phoenix this weekend. Under any other circumstances, I really have no need to travel to the desert. The Texas Rangers are not playing the Arizona Diamondbacks this summer. The NFL lock-out will probably prevent the Cowboys from playing the Cardinals. And I have never traveled to watch professional sports teams play anyway. If I want hot weather, all I have to do is step outside on a blistering summer day in Fort Worth (yes, I’ve heard that Phoenix is a dry heat—dry like an oven). The reason I am going to Phoenix is for the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention.

Earlier today I received a phone call from a vendor who specializes in marketing to religious groups. She wanted to schedule a time to talk in more detail about the “greatest marketing idea ever” that could help the Riley Center, and she preferred to do so next week. I told her that next week was not an option because I would be in Phoenix for the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention. She replied, “I would like to go to that one day. It sounds like fun.” I retorted, “It’s basically one long business meeting. I don’t know if I would call it fun. But I enjoy it anyway.” After hanging up the phone, my response to the vendor made me start thinking about why I attend the SBC annual meeting each year. I didn’t grow up in the home of a pastor who planned family vacations each year around the location of the meeting (don’t laugh, there’s a good reason why the Orlando convention last year was one of the better attended conventions in years). I had never been to the meeting prior to the Nashville convention in 2005. I missed the 2006 convention in Greensboro and have been to everyone since then. I don’t serve on a board or committee whose attendance is required. So why do I go? Here are a few reasons.

1) Fellowship

This is an easy one. I enjoy the fellowship at the SBC Annual Meeting. I have received all of my post-secondary education at Baptist schools. For fourteen years, I attended Baptist institutions of higher learning. I sat in classes with fellow students who now pastor churches, serve denominational entities, or simply have an interest in attending the convention. Each year, I have standing lunch/dinner/dessert appointments with classmates from college or seminary. I look forward to those times each year.

In addition, I have served as an administrator and professor at Southwestern Seminary for over four years. It was probably last year that I had my first run-in with former students. I have officially taught long enough here that my students see me and come tell me what they are doing in ministry since graduating from SWBTS. The funny thing about that is I still do the same with some of my former professors at Mississippi College and Southeastern Seminary.

Even though I am on the low end of the age scale at the annual meeting (I turn 33 on the final day of the convention), I find the fellowship with both the younger and older pastors, students, messengers, etc to be a motivating factor for wanting to attend. Contrary to popular opinion, the annual meeting is not simply composed of “gray-hairs.” There are those of us younger folks who like to attend as well.

2) Encouragement

The next reason to come to the annual meeting is the encouragement I receive. This comes in a few different forms. The first is related to the fellowship mentioned above. I am encouraged to hear what my friends, classmates, and students are doing and how God is using them. I typically come away from those conversations energized.

Another form of encouragement is found in the sermons that are preached during the pastors’ conference and as part of the convention. Typically, this is an opportunity to listen to some of the greatest preachers in the Southern Baptist Convention. Now my standards are pretty high since I was privileged to hear Adrian Rogers preach multiple times a week growing up. Certainly, the preaching does not always live up to his standard, but rarely am I disappointed. Most people bring their “A-game” to the Southern Baptist Convention.

The last form of encouragement comes from various reports. Yes, you can be encouraged by listening to reports that take up the majority of the time at the convention. Listening for the nuggets about what God is doing in different places gives me encouragement that we are trying to reach the world for Christ.

3) Conviction

It is hard to attend a meeting full of pastors, professors, and others interested in the life of the church without stepping back and evaluating your own spiritual maturity and commitment to serving God. It sometimes feels like Joshua addressing the people of Israel in Josh 24. In v. 14, he tells the people, “Now, therefore, fear the Lord and serve Him in sincerity and truth; and put away the gods which your fathers served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord.” The people express their agreement to Joshua’s challenge, and then he responds in v. 19-20, “You will not be able to serve the Lord, for He is a holy God. He is a jealous God; He will not forgive your transgression or your sins. If you forsake the Lord and serve foreign gods, then He will turn and do you harm and consume you after He has done good to you.” So what’s the deal? Why challenge them if they can’t do it? They could not serve God on their own. I think the same holds true for us. We cannot serve God effectively in our own power. We must depend upon the Holy Spirit working in and through us. The conviction I receive at the convention is much the same. I hear how God is using others, and I begin to ask why I don’t see the same in my life. Upon reflection I am then convicted that perhaps I am trying to serve God in my own power. This is a helpful reminder each year.

4) Relevance

I don’t really care what people say, the Southern Baptist Convention is still relevant. Any student of Baptist history will see that the SBC has changed, adjusted, and morphed through the last 166 years. We don’t look the same. We don’t act the same. But we do have the same message—the unchanging message of the gospel built upon the inerrant, infallible Word of God. The gospel message never loses relevancy.

The question for the Southern Baptist Convention this year (and every year) is: Are we effectively communicating that gospel message to the world? The baptism numbers in the Annual Church Profile seem to suggest the answer is no. Of course, numbers are numbers—they can say lots of things. However, the future of the Southern Baptist Convention and the church is dependent upon the proclamation of the gospel (Rom 10:14-15).

How will we best utilize our collective resources to proclaim the gospel? Those decisions will be made at the annual meeting of the SBC. And that is why I attend. I hope to see you there. If not this year, hopefully we will meet at one in the future.

Image credit.

Old Fashioned Revivals–Yes, Some Churches Still Have Them

When I think about revivals at a church, I have memories of sitting at the Agricenter in eastern Shelby County listening to gospel music and hearing an evangelist preach. Usually, there were themed nights for youth (always included a Christian band), children (generally had a puppet show), and senior adults (most likely with a gospel quartet). The Agricenter was dusty and better suited for Tennessee Walking Horse competitions that church services. However, the church where I grew up generally had a revival like that at least once a year.

For the most part, the contemporary church has jettisoned the old fashioned revival as out-of-date and less than useful. However, there are still churches that hold them every year. The problem is that the group of circuit-riding revival preachers has dwindled, providing one more reason for churches not to hold revivals.

During spring break, scores of students from Southwestern Seminary will be scattered across North America preaching 4-day revivals at churches in all different types of settings. Some are in urban, metropolitan areas. Others are in rural, pioneer states. No matter where the church is located, these revivals provide the opportunity for students to preach God’s Word and see Him move in people’s lives.

Even though I am not a student, I also have the opportunity to preach one of these revivals. I will be traveling to Herrin, Illinois to preach at First Baptist Church. I pray this will be a great time for the church, the staff, and myself.

As with all of the revival services taking place next week, I pray that God will call people to repentance and into a relationship with Himself. In keeping with the theme the seminary has chosen for next week, I pray that God would revive the people of this nation and that many would come to Christ.

Is This a Church Plant?

During my lunch, I got on Twitter to see the latest updates on all the people I follow—many of whom I really don’t know. At the top of the Twitter feed was the following tweet:

PastorMark Mark Driscoll

Planning @MarsHillOC campus launch. Need facility in Costa Mesa, Irvine, Tustin, or Orange. If your church needs a pastor let me know

Since the tweet appeared to be cut off, I went to Driscoll’s Facebook page to see if there was more information. The status update read as follows:

Planning Mars Hill Church | Orange County campus launch. Need a facility in Costa Mesa, Irvine, Tustin, or Orange. If your church needs a pastor let me know. Denominations are welcome for partnership too.

I haven’t dealt with the multi-site church issue on my blog up to this point, and I really don’t have time to address it in this post. For a good discussion of that issue, I would suggest that you pick up Franchising McChurch by Thomas White and John Mark Yeats. In a nutshell, I don’t believe that a church with a “video pastor” streamed in from some location in another city, state, or even country really meets the expectations for the New Testament concept of a local body of believers gathering together to be discipled and to disciple others under the leadership of their pastor. Anyway, that is another discussion for another day.

What I want to address is the third sentence in the tweet/status update. Driscoll states, “If your church needs a pastor let me know.” In essence it seems that Driscoll is calling out to any pastor-less churches in Orange County, California so that Mars Hill can come in and take leadership of the church and essentially make Driscoll their pastor. I would like to give Driscoll the benefit of the doubt on this one, but I really don’t know any other way to take that statement.

Driscoll is not alone in this approach to “church planting.” There are several churches across Texas and the rest of the US of which I am aware that are basically doing the same thing. Some have even expanded to international locations. All of this begs the question: Is this a church plant?

When Paul planted churches in the book of Acts, he physically planted himself in a town or city and shared the gospel with the locals. As the number of new Christians grew, they would gather together for teaching and discipleship on a regular basis (usually on the first day of the week to commemorate Christ’s resurrection, but often throughout the week as well). Paul would spend a few weeks to a couple of years in a place. At his departure (and perhaps before), another person would step in as the pastor of the church and shepherd them to life in godliness.

Of course, Paul did not have the technological capabilities to stream himself into these churches live each Sunday. However, Paul did not seem in the least bit concerned that the pastor of a church he planted may not have his gift of eloquence. He did not seem concerned that the pastor did not have his years of training in the law under Gamaliel. His concern was that the pastor “be above reproach, the husband of one wife, temperate, prudent, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not addicted to wine or pugnacious, but gentle, peaceable, free from the love of money. He must be one who manages his own household well, keeping his children under control with all dignity (but if a man does not know how to manage his own household, how will he take care of the church of God?), and not a new convert, so that he will not become conceited and fall into the condemnation incurred by the devil. And he must have a good reputation with those outside the church” (1 Tim 3:2–7).

Church planting is not taking on the congregation of a pastor-less church in order to be piped in by video to be the non-resident preacher. Church planting is actually investing your life in the lives of people through personal relationships. Therefore, this is not church planting. At best, it might be considered church revitalization. However, a church without a pastor needs a pastor, not a video sermon. Paul didn’t send weekly letters to all his church plants to be read to the congregation. Pastors taught the people in person.

Before closing, I will give one defense of what I have seen as the typical practice of Mars Hill. It appears that they generally place a “campus pastor” at the location to give some type of leadership, but the teaching comes from Driscoll. This model is better than some of the multi-site movements, but it still lacks in faithfulness to the biblical model of the church. Raise up men to become the pastor/elder/teacher for the church. Support these churches financially. Let them flourish in their own context. This is the biblical model.

Is the Virigin Birth Important?

Last week the Huffington Post included an article on their website by Rita Nakashima Brock on “The Importance of Mary’s Virginity.” The timing was certainly critical as we are fully absorbed in the Christmas season. The message of the article is biting as Dr. Brock attempts to discredit the traditional teaching of the virgin birth as found in Matthew 1. However, she does not hope to do so in order to purge the virgin birth from Christianity. In fact, she states to the contrary:

“Actually, it is quite possible as a Christian to believe Jesus had a biological father and believe the story of the virgin conception says something important. It all depends on what you think ‘virgin’ means.”

For Dr. Brock, Mary’s virginity has nothing to do with biology; instead, she writes:

“I think the most significant meaning of Mary’s virginity is Christian resistance to the oppression of the Roman Empire.”

So the question remains, is the virgin birth (in the traditional sense) really all that important? Let me suggest a few passing misinterpretations and obvious oversights from Dr. Brock’s article, then I’ll hit the heart of the matter.

First, Dr. Brock approaches the issue of the virgin birth with an all-encompassing feminist theology. She describes the ancient pater familias where the father ruled over the family (and by extension, in her words, the emperor served as the “ruling father of the empire”), and claims that Mary was not the typical virgin under that type of system. By being different from that system through the apparent lack of a father’s influence, Brock believes:

“We might describe the story of Mary as a powerful rejection of patriarchal family systems and imperial powers that oppress everyone subject to them.”

Her theology is akin to liberationist theology in the concept that Mary is liberating the woman from oppressive patriarchal rule. In doing so, she is essentially deifying Mary as the Messiah/Anointed One/Christ/Deliverer for oppressed individuals. Wrong? Certainly. Heresy? No doubt?

Second, she totally misses the boat on Joseph. Brock states:

“Mary’s husband Joseph obviously serves her, not the other way around.”

However, according to Matthew’s account, Joseph was about to divorce Mary. In essence, he would have exercised his “patriarchal” duty by kicking her to the curb of ancient society—an unwed mother. Yes, Joseph serves her, but not in the way that Dr. Brock perceives. Joseph is not a subject serving a master—he is a righteous man lovingly protecting his betrothed wife from shame and embarrassment.

Third, she totally makes up the argument about Mary’s father not being involved. Brock notes:

“Mary was definitely not a virgin of this type — her father plays no part in her story. She is independent of a father’s rule, and by implication, of the father-in-chief, the emperor.”

Scripture tells nothing of Mary’s father. Silence in Scripture is not a license to make up stories and turn Mary into a 21st century independent feminist Messiah.

Here are a few things Brock got right. Roman emperors did demand to be worshiped as gods. It is debatable when exactly that started. It is reported that Julius Caesar allowed himself to be worshiped and Augustus permitted it only outside Rome. Caligula demanded it. How did this play out in first century Judea? Who knows?!

She also gets right how the Catholic Church elevated Mary to the status of “Mother of God.” This is an unfortunate elevation in the history of the church because Mary herself is worshiped as a god in many Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches. The iconography of the Middle Ages deifying Mary is certainly heretical.

So what is the point of the virgin birth? It is more than just a story that resonates with feminist-liberation theology. The virgin birth is an essential element of Christian theology. It goes back to the doctrine of original sin.[1] If you hold to a natural headship view of original sin, then the sin nature is passed down to each subsequent generation by procreation (and directly related to the father’s role in said procreation). The only way to bypass a sinful nature in man is to bypass the natural procreative process and have conception take place by means of the Holy Spirit. Therefore, if Jesus was merely another child born to Mary, albeit is seemingly conceived with the help of a visitor to a temple prostitute, then Jesus was not free of a sin nature.[2] If Jesus was not free from sin—for all people born with a sin nature sin (Rom 5:12)—then we do not have a perfect Savior who can atone for our sins. He is just a good guy who had some interesting things to say and died way too young.

Dr. Brock got it wrong—dead wrong. The literal virgin birth is absolutely essential to Christianity. Without it, we are most to be pitied (1 Cor 15:19).

[1] For a discussion on the various views of original sin, see Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1988), 648-56.

[2] Patterson describes it this way, “By the same token, the virgin conception of Jesus, the second Adam, is necessitated since if Jesus were born with a sinful nature, then He, too, would have been susceptible to sin. As the second Adam, with no sinful nature, He was able to confront temptation, triumph over the overtures of Satan, and remain a spotless, sinless sacrifice for Adam’s race.” Paige Patterson, “Total Depravity,” in Whosoever Will (edited by David L. Allen and Steve W. Lemke; Nashville: B&H Academic, 2010), 37-38.

Sharing in Ministry: Staying Connected to Your Home Church

Many seminary students have heard (and probably repeated) the jokes and comments based on Jesus’ words in Matthew 13:57 when he says, “A prophet is not without honor except in his hometown and in his own household.” The jokes and comments usually follow along the lines of no one will respect you in your home church if you ever return to preach or minister because they will always remember you as that bratty little kid who tormented the nursery workers. They will never be able to look past that time you dumped soap in the baptistery or short-sheeted the youth minister’s bed at youth camp. Now if you did some of those things as a child, it might not be a bad idea to go ahead and own up to them and apologize. It might clear the air a little.

The reality, however, is that seminary students and ministers alike can reap great benefits from staying connected to their home churches or the church that influenced them greatly during their time of preparation for future ministry. It is an overlooked relationship that ought to be restored.

This past Sunday, I had the joy, privilege, and honor of preaching at my home church, Bellevue Baptist Church in Cordova (Memphis), TN. As I told the congregation, it was a moment that I never dreamed would come. During the first 18 years of my life, I sat in the congregation listening to Adrian Rogers expound the Word of God faithfully week after week. The list of guest preachers to fill the pulpit for Dr. Rogers during those years was short and consisted of a who’s who list of Southern Baptist pulpiteers. The likes of Paige Patterson, John Phillips, Ken Whitten, and a few others were the only ones I ever heard pinch hit for Dr. Rogers. As unfitting as it may seem, my name now joins the list of those who have preached from that famed pulpit.

In recent years, the current pastor of Bellevue, Dr. Steve Gaines, has invested in a friendship with me that I did not deserve. I am sure that I am not the only former Bellevue member now in ministry somewhere else whom he has befriended. For that friendship, I am thankful. But more importantly, the connection back to the church where I first heard the gospel message is one that is more valuable than gold.

I am thankful for the investment of Bellevue Baptist Church in my life. They came alongside my parents and nurtured me spiritually. Although I believe it is the parents’ responsibility to lead their children spiritually, the church is an indispensable resource for equipping both parent and child.

In my limited experience as a seminary professor, I see that most students remain connected to their home churches for a brief time and then mostly lose touch. I don’t know if it is the fault of the student or the church, but I encourage both the student and the church to work at keeping the lines of communication open. As the years go by and that student graduates, I believe it is essential for the church to understand how their ministry has expanded beyond the boundaries of their visible ministry in the community. As I told the church Sunday, Bellevue has a ministry in Fort Worth at Southwestern Seminary because so much of what I teach is based on the theology and ministry I learned growing up there.

Certainly, the average minister will probably never have the opportunity to serve in his home church as a pastor. However, I believe staying connected to the church of one’s youth and reporting to them the extent of their ministry through you is a very biblical concept. At the conclusion of both his first and second missionary journeys, Paul returned to Antioch presumably to report to the church what had been accomplished (Acts 14:26-28; 18:22-23). This was the church where Paul spent his formative years after conversion and that recognized God had set him aside for ministry. Paul made a point to return to Antioch and inform the church how their ministry had expanded through Asia Minor and Europe.

For those of us serving in ministry beyond the immediate contexts of those churches that sent us out, we need to stay connected. Let the church know how they have increased their ministry through the ones they have sent out into the fields. This is healthy for the minister and healthy for the churches.