Tag: church finances


Churches may exist in the spiritual world and secular world but their money and property tend to exist in the secular world more so than in the spiritual. Therefore, a court will avoid spiritual issues pursuant to the Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine of the First Amendment but may conclude it has jurisdiction over money and property.

In Beyene, et al v Tekle, et al, Slip Op. (Wash. App. 2019), the decision of the trial court abstaining on Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine grounds was revered because the appellate court believed there were questions of fact regarding jurisdictional issues. The current chairman of the church testified it was hierarchical and led by its denominational authority while a priest of many years testified it was congregational and led by its priests and deacons. Apparently, the governing documents were not clear. The priest, a former church treasurer, and a founding member testified the financial allegations raised by the Plaintiff against former board members of financial misconduct were not ecclesiastical but were secular and corporate. The trial court on remand was ordered to weigh the jurisdictional facts and determine if the claims presented were, indeed, secular or ecclesiastical.

In all probability the purpose for which money is collected and spent will be ecclesiastical unless it can be proven the money was embezzled or spent for transparently improper purposes. Spending on personal expenses that are not documented reimbursements will remain more or less easily identified as improper but spending on “improper” purposes will not always be. What was improper a decade ago may not be improper next week or next century.


During 35 years in private practice, one law school lesson was demonstrated true over and over. Wrongdoers are usually “gone, dead or insolvent.” In the case of church embezzlers, usually two out of the three. Charity and church embezzlers usually flourish when trust and faith supplant business common sense altogether. Embezzlers can make a church, charity or business look like a failure when in fact it was at least marginally successful if not completely successful.

In Agape Family Worship Center, Inc. v Gridiron, Order Granting in Part and Denying in Part Plaintiff’s Motion for Summary Judgment (USDC, CD Cal. 2018), Agape was (and probably still is) a large non-denominational church that allowed Gridiron to ascend from assistant to the position of Chief Financial Officer (“CFO”) in fact if not in name. Gridiron was permitted to hire a bookkeeper and Gridiron recommended that Agape stop hiring third party auditors. Trust and faith supplanted business common sense altogether. From 2008 to 2014 Gridiron diverted checks and cash in the amount of $4,815,963 to feed a gambling addiction. Most charities and churches are so embarrassed when confronted with such a situation, if they survive it financially, they remove the wrongdoer from employment or position of trust and quietly separate that person altogether. Some use the word “excommunication” and some do not. But, Agape did not do only that. Agape also did not simply call local law enforcement. In small towns (and in some big ones) local law enforcement is not equipped to handle financial crimes. Agape notified the Federal Bureau of Investigation and, so it seems, the FBI engaged the criminal division of the Internal Revenue Service. Gridiron was charged with wire fraud and filing fraudulent tax returns. (Whatever other criticisms the IRS may deserve, almost no one handles financial crime as thoroughly once their attention has been obtained.) Gridiron was sentenced to 57 months in prison and ordered to pay restitution of $4,815,963. Agape also had some insurance coverage for the loss which was a second way Agape’s response was better than most. Agape or its subrogated insurance carriers, it is not stated in the opinion which, sued Gridiron for the amount stolen as well as punitive damages, treble damages, attorney’s fees spent chasing Gridiron in his bankruptcy as damages and attorney fees for the case. The Court granted summary judgment to Agape for the actual damages of $4,815,963 but denied relief as to punitive damages, treble damages, and a third of a million dollars in attorney fees. While the intricacies of the denials is outside the scope of this report, it is interesting to note the Court concluded punitive damages was too much punishment when added to the prison time. It seems likely Gridiron was judgment proof but such a judgment might have had other purposes. One such purpose might have been to allay doubts about whether some or all of the money was recoverable, i.e., church leadership may have needed the judgment for internal political purposes, especially if church leadership needed to regain trust with the giving members or avoid their own lawsuits.

If a full blown annual audit is too expensive, then at least an annual review makes sense if entrusted to a hired, non-member, Certified Public Accountant. Alternatively, auditing one month of a year, randomly chosen, might be enough to dissuade a thief. Offerings should be counted and deposited by a rotating leadership of no less than two leaders not related by blood or marriage that also leave a written record for each collection counted. Check writing, credit cards and wire transfer authority should be structured for security and not just convenience. No single church leader, including the pastor, should have non-transparent uninspected financial control. Financial controls should be reviewed periodically by a Certified Public Accountant because what may be appropriate for a start up charity or church might have been outgrown. Once trust is lost, it is very hard to ever get again.


We have reported on this type of tar baby before.  In these situations, a public funding program to accomplish a governmental purpose attracts a variety of public and private participants.  We reported in 2017 on a United State Supreme Court opinion regarding Trinity Lutheran Church v Comer, 137 S. Ct. 2012 (2017) regarding a program that paid for rubber surfacing on concrete play “ground” surfaces and a subsequent decision in Taylor v Town of Cabot, 2017 VT 92 in which a town granted money for restoration of a historic church building.  In the Vermont Taylor opinion, the case was remanded to the trial court and a risk the church ran in the case was that the church might have to refund the grant money.  In Comer, the church prevailed so that the playground upgrade need not be repaid by the church.

In Caplan v Town of Acton, Slip Op. (Mass. 2018), taxpayer protesters sued town because a church received two grants.  The appellate court split the difference, to a point.  One grant was for payment of an architect to draw up a “Master Plan” for restoration of the church building and two outlier buildings.  The main church sanctuary building was built in 1846.  The Town of Acton was founded in 1735 and the church formed part of the town square.  The other grant was to repair stain glass windows first installed in 1898.  In order to obtain the money, the church had to convey a “historic preservation restriction” on the buildings, the money could only be obtained in reimbursement on invoices for work consistent with the preservation proposed in the church’s applications for the grants.  The court remanded the “Master Plan” grant for further consideration and barred the grant for the stain glass windows.  The total value of both grants was less than $110,000, a little over $50,000 each.

The opinion is valuable for its historic review of the reason Massachusetts amended its Constitution in the Nineteenth Century by adding an “anti-aid amendment.”  The court reported that in the Nineteenth Century the pressure to provide public resources to churches caused “fear” the public coffers would be drained by competing churches and denominations.

But, historic preservation is almost too expensive for private resources to unilaterally achieve because private capital usually must chase profit.  Profit is obtained not through preservation but through maximizing return on capital.  Thus, the government purpose of preservation might be thwarted because part of the history to be preserved, which was built before several states in the union became states and is very expensive to keep, included a church.  There might be a hidden lesson in this opinion, too.  The “historic preservation restriction” might be more costly in the long run than the church presently anticipates because taking the government’s money is always risky.


There may not be any housing tax exemption for pastors.  Such an exemption has existed since 1954.  Most pastors lived at the “parsonage” owned and provided by the church.  As churches became more affluent, the involuntary vow of poverty became less appealing.  Pastors wanted to build up equity and own their own home.  The parsonage began to slip into history.  To aid pastors in acquiring a home churches turned to the “housing allowance.”  The “housing allowance” began to form a significant part of the compensation of pastors.  The allowance allowed the minister to buy a home near enough to the church to allow rapid access to the church but not owned by the church.  The “housing allowance” was not included in taxable income.  The “housing allowance” will remain a viable tax exemption for anyone, including pastors, that are required to live at a certain place by their employer just like any other secular employee.  But, the “housing allowance” may not continue in the absence of the employer’s mandate if this decision stands.

In Gaylor v Mnuchin, Opinion and Order (WD Wis. 2017), 26 USC §107(2) has again by the same federal court been held to be in violation of the Establishment Clause.  The Court held that the statute discriminates against secular employees because they cannot qualify for the exemption.  The Court held the exemption does not have a secular purpose.  The argument that the statute was enacted to implement the constitutional entanglements clause was rejected.  The Court held the legislative history indicated the motive behind the statute was a preference for ministers over secular employees.  The Court noted that taxes have been held to be neutral and not a burden on free exercise of religion, otherwise every tax would have to be inapplicable to employees of religious organizations.  Housing allowances for pastors required to live on church grounds will not be effected because that is governed by a different section of the statute.  The opinion of the Court runs to 47 pages.

Tax preparers that try to apply this decision should be cautioned that the Court expressly omitted from its ruling the other sections of the statute.  Only 26 USC §107(2) is the subject of the decision.  The practical loss of the housing allowance will only occur in those situations in which the housing allowance is used to shelter part of the income of the pastor.  It will not be lost under this decision if the religious organization requires its pastor to live in a certain location or in a church owned parsonage.  Any housing allowance that would be permitted to a secular employer’s employee will still be allowed for a religious organization employee.

No doubt this decision will be appealed as it has been in the past.  Ultimately, the issue will be decided by a federal appellate court and possibly someday by the US Supreme Court.  Several if not many tax years will come and go before then.  Technically, the reach of this decision is not outside of the Western District of Wisconsin.  But, the IRS could chose to insist it be followed nationally.