AUTOPSY OF A CHURCH EMBEZZLER

Most church embezzler’s go unreported in courts and media. The exceptions are when church embezzlers are charged publicly by law enforcement or sued by the victim. A recent report of a church embezzler charged by law enforcement for stealing a quarter million dollars over a decade reminded me of the invisibility of this topic. Called upon to investigate church embezzlers more than I ever wanted, that experience led me to the following observations.

Lawsuits against embezzlers are rarely successful or cost-effective. Also, lawsuits keep the wound open and usually reveal lapses in internal financial processes with which church leadership may wish to avoid public confrontation.

Church embezzlers can often be “profiled” in a sense.

1) Church embezzlers are often long-time members or employees that have ingratiated themselves into the trust of church leaders. Month after month and year after year they process financial information that after a time looks routine. Even well-made financial processes are over the years subject to entropy: as trust increases oversight diminishes. Eventually, there comes a time when the embezzler was trusted with small things that became large things.

2) Church embezzlers have either no financial oversight or audit oversight. This systems failure develops as trust increases. Also, financial oversight discipline is hard to maintain over time in volunteer organizations. Professional pastors rarely have the training or the discipline to remain focused on financial oversight discipline year after year and decade after decade.

3) Church embezzlers begin to look at compensation paid to church co-workers, the financial success or wealth of other church members, or their own financial problems and rationalize about the lack of financial justice. They become increasingly self-centered and this is accelerated if the church is imposing on the employed embezzler an involuntary vow of poverty or the embezzler believes it be so.

4) When the trust of the church embezzler reaches a threshold sufficient for the church embezzler to bypass, discontinue or override financial oversight, and this is combined with the rationalization of financial injustice, the church embezzler will often take a small step. A personal expense, usually a small one, will find itself among other church expenses and paid. Offering cash might not all be counted.

5) Bypassed financial oversight, bypassed by stealth or by disuse, does not react to the small defalcation. Another follows. In this manner the defalcations mount and get larger but the very slight trimming of the financial results of the church are not noticed by sleeping financial oversight systems.

6) The church embezzler’s personal justification based on perceived financial injustice, even if includes the firm conviction that all will be repaid in some future circumstance that never seems to arrive, flowers into self-confidence that the pilfering will not be detected. The pilfering slowly over time grows into larger and larger defalcations. That is the reason the amounts stolen often reach six figures.

7) At some point, financial oversight discipline accidently reasserts itself through an event the emboldened embezzler in arrogance thought would neve be noticed. Usually, the event is precipitated by double dipping by the embezzler. There are several examples. Payroll taxes may no longer match the amounts actually paid in payroll. Unpaid or slow paid routine church bills may accumulate or trigger a complaint by a vendor. In smaller churches the leadership may notice a decline in reported giving that does not match the routine giving of the main supporters. Church tax reports to members may not match the amounts deposited in church bank accounts.

Church financial oversight discipline in larger churches and para-church organizations should not be maintained by volunteers but should be designed and occasionally reviewed by a Certified Public Accountant that is not a church member. A review by the CPA annually might be enough surveillance but periodic audits might be needed. Gifts and offerings should be handled, counted and deposited using the “buddy system” where no less than “two or more are gathered.” The two gathered should not be a married couple. Giving records and bank records should be periodically reconciled. Bank account access should be strictly controlled and reviewed for accountability.

Six figure losses to embezzlers reported in the news media, especially after a public criminal charge, will depress giving and destroy the trust of members in pastors and church leaders. Members will remember building repairs deferred or not done, ministries not funded, and the sense of financial injustice may creep into a church. Financial oversight discipline is not optional. Pastors and church leaders in their arrogance may assume they have complete financial control while blind to their own ignorance of financial oversight in the digital banking age.

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