Just sign these blank checks…

Just sign these blank checks…

February 25, 2019 Blog Cases 0

As a Fraud Examiner I read reports of church fraud happening all over the world. I confess, it’s somewhat distant: I see the wreckage and grieve the loss, but I move on pretty quickly.

This case hit me every day.

I would drive through a small town in the hills of Virginia on the way to work. Every day I would pass a sign that invited me to Christmas services at a church just off the main road. But the sign was still up long after Christmas. For more than a year.

padlocked churchTurns out the pastor hasn’t been seen for some time. After pressuring the church to take out nearly $500,000 in loans, he cleaned out the bank accounts, and hit the road. The church couldn’t make their mortgage payments and they had to give the property back to the bank. The doors remain chained shut today.

This pastor ran a top-down empire, insisting that he be the one in charge of all financial dealings. Receipts were not saved, and accountability was missing. Notably, he would pressure the trustees into signing blank checks “so we can pay the utilities.” But then he made out the checks to himself. After he left, the trustees closed the accounts. The building fund account should have had hundreds of thousands of dollars. It was overdrawn by $5.77. Link

Analysis

Giving one person the reins is a risky choice  – the heart is deceitful, and people can go sour. Here, with the pastor as the only one in charge, the stage was set for misconduct. The church DID  have trustees. But they were evidently cowed by the pastor and didn’t provide the necessary oversight. Unfortunately, this is pretty common among churches today. It’s explained away by the noble sounding, “we trust our pastor.”

“We didn’t have any checks and balances out there,” said one of the trustees. “We were all too stupid for that.”

But we should trust our pastor to be human, and thus open to temptation. Regardless of how much respect we have for him, the kind and respectful thing to do is be to protect him. We should build procedures around him such that even if he WANTED to steal from the church, he wouldn’t be able to!  Had the trustees removed temptation from this pastor, the church might be there today. What about honorable pastors? Such procedures protect their reputation from any false accusations.

Here, the trustees foolishly signed blank checks [pro tip: don’t do that]. And they didn’t inspect the bank statements every month. Had they done so they might have caught him right away. They would have had the possibility of winning back their brother. Take-home lesson? Tightening up the church financial procedures can be inconvenient and painful. But that pain is a LOT less than the pain of losing the church altogether. And of losing a brother.