She fully intended to pay it all back. “Elizabeth” even tried to keep track of how much she was “borrowing” from the collection plate. Still, the treasurer of the small church flinched when her pastor laid the figure before her. Paying back that $54,000 would take her years.
During the 48 hours before the pastor and the finance committee chair confronted Elizabeth, the story unfolded of how the treasurer had moved from occasionally pocketing cash from the collection plate to paying her personal bills and those of her children with a church debit card no one else knew existed. The behavior had started as a very present help in an emotional time of need—she had experienced both a divorce and a death in her family—but had developed over a three-year period into serious embezzling.
How could so much money disappear unnoticed? What measures should have been in place? Never did any one behavior or incident cause concern, said the pastor. Instead, the church was the proverbial frog in the slowly simmering water, “suddenly” finding itself in dangerously hot water when the pastor himself intercepted the notice announcing the Internal Revenue Service's intent to levy penalties for failure to pay taxes. Evidently, Elizabeth had kept previous IRS correspondence to herself.
“We already had two counters in place for the offering, but we didn't realize she wasn't paying taxes, that she hadn't sent in special offerings, or that she was padding the statements to include expenses like clothing and cell phones for herself and her children,” said the pastor. The good news is that the church's expenses dropped significantly when they no longer included the cost of Elizabeth's living expenses, he added wryly.
In a 1,000-member church just two hours away, a very different story unfolded, demonstrating that sometimes all the safeguards in the world can be sidestepped with the right creativity. At this church, administrative assistant “Joan” bilked church members of thousands of dollars in donations with heart-rending but ficticious stories of her own cancer treatments, a dying son, and an injured spouse in the military.
Tragically, according to the pastor, this quite competent employee of three years appeared to believe the tales she had so artfully been weaving, and again, the crisis simmered but did not boil over for some years. While some of Joan's behaviors seemed odd, the pastor said, the stories never exceeded a reasonable margin of feasibility. If Joan didn't have family pictures on her desk, co-workers thought perhaps she wanted to keep her work area looking professional, or perhaps there hadn't been time for any recent photos. When the pastor of the church asked to visit the hospitalized child, Joan would demure and explain that too many visitors were upsetting, and then describe all of the food and cards and balloons sent by family and friends. The pastor did not press the issue because Joan had her own pastor at the church she attended in another denomination.
No money changed hands, though, until after about three years when Joan shared that one of the children was in a coma after a massive seizure, the father was coming back from Iraq, and the child was placed in an extended care facility. At work each day, Joan would relate her daily commute three hours each way to keep the nearly constant vigil at night.
At this point, concerned church members began giving her grocery gift cards, gas cards, and cash as they prayed for the young boy. One United Methodist Women's group gave hundreds of dollars, and the staff took up a collection. Finally, the story took an ominous turn when the announcement came that life support would be withdrawn. Every church in the district prayed and then rejoiced when the child miraculously awakened. The story seemed fantastic and yet so hopeful and welcome, explained the pastor.
In retrospect, the pastor explains, had the church members, many of whom were military, and other staff compared notes, alarms might have been raised. Still, the church embraced this woman of constant sorrow, and grieved with her when, most recently, the word came that her husband, once again deployed to combat, had been injured and she and the children were flying immediately to Germany to say goodbye to him. With that announcement came a massive outpouring of money. Said the pastor, “One soldier came up in tears asking if he could do 'anything, anything.' (Joan's) stories had always been so consistent and she often sent out beautiful e-mails relating a response of faith. She even shared beautiful prayers lifted up by other children, and I used one in a sermon with her blessing.”
The military connection was what broke the story for the church: one member called the home of the soldier Joan had supposedly married and another woman answered. Quickly, the story fell apart as Joan's pastor was contacted, and it was learned that she was not married, and, in fact, still lived with her parents. She had no children and no soldier husband dying in a military hospital.
For both churches, when the fraud became apparent, the immediate focus was on repairing relationships, restoring trust, and allowing the offender to make things right. Just as restoring community was the goal of biblical laws that called for guilt offerings (Leviticus 6:6-7), the focus of each church's response was on allowing relationships to be repaired. In the Book of Discipline, we read of the same desires when we say that, “Through God's transforming power, restorative justice seeks to repair the damage, right the wrong, and bring healing to all involved, including the victim, the offender, the families, and the community.” In the first church, for example, Elizabeth was allowed to make restitution so that relationships between her, the church, and God might be repaired.
The response from the second church focused immediately on the counseling needs for Joan. Not only did the pastor consult a counselor to determine what disorders might cause this kind of delusion and how might such a person be approached gently and safely, he also had the counselor present when Joan was confronted, and the church offered to pay for counseling.
Acting on advice from the conference leadership, the pastor at the first church simply asked Elizabeth to pay the money back. The reasoning was not only pastoral and restorative but also practical, he said, because insurance would only have covered a portion. “As it turned out, she took out a loan and brought the money to me within a few days. In addition, we have been able to get her to pay for IRS penalties incurred while she was here,” he explained. Had the church chosen to prosecute, not only would they have recovered less of the money, but the damage to the church from a protracted and public trial would have been much greater and healing would have been more complicated, he said.
Both churches learned how quickly congregational trust can be threatened and how slowly the recovery proceeds. Restoring the trust of the congregations in the first church will take time, said the pastor, especially since the treasurer had family members attending the church. A meeting just days after the problem was discovered provided a forum for members to vent and ask questions. In the second church, a statement from the bishop regarding stewardship helped members who felt betrayed. In addition, the pastor preached the next week on giving, explaining, she said, “That we aren't giving to the church, we are giving to God through the church. When you give, you have done your part. We are to be faithful and give and then trust. Who knows how God might be using what we give?” Afterwards, the church offered to reimburse any members; there were few takers.
Today the first church has implemented recommended safety measures. “If you write the checks, for example,” said the pastor, “you can't open or even receive the bank statements.” The pastor today recognizes his part in not supervising Elizabeth properly; he also can speak eloquently, however, to the thorny issues facing pastors of small churches where, for example, the treasurer has served for nearly two decades and her family members count the money. “We need to be willing to ask the hard questions but we also need more backing from our cabinets,” he said, “so pastors can make the necessary changes to keep funds safe without alienating half of our church members.”
For the second church, preventing a recurrence would be tougher, the pastor said. The employee did her job well and never asked for money. The greatest difficulties echo those of colleges with violent students: how can staff express concerns without violating privacy?
Neither pastor consciously referred to the Social Principles when embezzlement or, in the Joan's case, fraud, threatened the finances and the trust of the church. Nevertheless, the advice they received from the annual conference and their pastoral care impulses fell in line with our Social Principles on restorative rather than punitive justice, allowing restitution and repairing the damage. Both pastors agree: punishment could not be the answer for these churches when they became the victims. Rather, the ultimate goal was healing and restoring of relationships.
Jodi McCullah is a commissioned elder in the Tennessee Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church and Director of the Wesley Foundation at Austin Peay State University in Clarksville, Tennessee.