“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.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
 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.