All Too Common and Totally Preventable

The headline was in today’s newspaper: Church Treasurer Charged in Theft: volunteer accused of pilfering $18,000. The story went on to tell of the story of a St. Paul man who’s been accused of stealing nearly $18,000 from the weekly collections of a Christian church. Imagine the distress of the church leaders — the betrayal of trust — the difficulty the church will have now that the money is gone. And the question they all must be asking themselves is “How could this happen!?!?”

Well, of course, we can guess how it happened. One person was put in charge of counting the money in the Sunday collection plate, and of taking the money to the bank, and of depositing the money, and of writing checks from the church’s account, and of signing those checks.  How many red flags do you see in that sentence?? The newspaper report says that over several months, the treasurer wrote a number of checks payable to “cash” and cashed them himself. Since the treasurer would have been the person receiving the bank statements, there was no one to sound the alarm. Again, red flags!

A congregation needs to be able to trust the people it empowers to act on its behalf. Safeguards need to be put into place so that temptation is minimized. Safeguards not only protect the assets; they also protect the volunteers from false accusations of misdeeds.

The Sunday offering should be counted by two people who are not related to one another. One of them could prepare the deposit slip, and the other could take the money to the bank if this is not a staff responsibility. If the church has staff doing financial work, the staff can check the deposit slip against what’s actually in the envelope handed over from the volunteers. The volunteers counting the money and taking the money to the bank should be someone other than the treasurer. The treasurer can check copies of the deposit slips against the deposit receipts and against the bank statement which comes back at the end of the month. Multiple checks and balances will go a long way to ensuring security for the assets.

If your congregation has someone who knows about good accounting and money handling practices, ask that person to go over your practices and give you advice on improving them.  www.amazon.com  lists several books available to assist congregations with accounting systems and cash control. One that I particularly like is Richard J. Vargo’s book Effective Church Accounting [now out of print]. Vargo lists 50 internal controls for churches.

The bottom line is this — leaders need to ensure that congregation members can trust that the money they give to the church will be used wisely, and that includes setting up safety policies and practices for handling it. Without those assurances, why should they give?

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6 Responses to “All Too Common and Totally Preventable”

  1. h sofia Says:

    That’s just ridiculous. I can’t believe one person was in charge of everything. It’s not even just about not trusting someone; it’s about not putting them in a position where they can be so tempted. Ridiculous.

  2. nheege Says:

    You’re right. They weren’t paying attention or they just didn’t know how to put the controls in place so this couldn’t happen.

  3. jacqueline Says:

    This just happened in my town too. It was at the MCC church that rents from our UU church. The sad thing is it is a small town and if we had only known someone needed help I like to think we would have done something. She was fined and has to pay the church back something like $30,000. Terrible.

  4. nheege Says:

    Yes, Jacqueline. And churches are sometimes reluctant to prosecute a church member or a staff member for stealing. Church leadership can be conflicted over their desire to be pastoral [depending on the “reason” for the theft] and their desire to see justice done [and the assets restored, if that’s possible]. Better to put proper safeguards in place so that you never have to deal with this kind of situation.

  5. Roger Jones Says:

    Thanks for bringing this up, Nancy.
    The elderly mother of a high school classmate (and the mother-in-law of a family to whom I’m close in my midwestern home town) was sentenced recently for stealing from her Methodist church.
    Of course, I trust all the treasurers of the churches I have served, but as with so many things this is about appropriate processes, both to protect volunteers from unfair accusations, to give confidence to members and prospective members that the church follows standard internal controls, and to make sure that other volunteers know how much work is involved in financial administration in church. Too often what the treasurer does is a mystery to people, and we are comfortable letting it stay that way for years. But it’s not good financial policy, it’s unfair to the volunteers, and it makes the transition to new treasurers very difficult. Ideally, I think, one of the additional financial volunteers is being groomed to step in when the treasurer is indisposed, or to step up when the treasurer’s term ends.

  6. nheege Says:

    Yes, Roger, I agree with all that you’ve said. Grooming our own replacements is a valuable service that volunteers can give to our congregations.

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