Pastoral Perspectives

Holy Embezzlement

    In the 1980s Jim Bakker, the televangelist whose “PTL Club” television empire was laid asunder by dual sex and money scandals and now out of prison, renounced the prosperity gospel he once preached. But churches, unfortunately, still provide fertile ground for scammers and con-artists. One philanthropist said: “Shun manipulation and run if you hear ‘God told me how to spend your money and don’t ask questions,’ In a Straits Times’ article dated September 2011, twenty-nine elders of the Yoido Full Gospel Church in Seoul asked prosecutors to investigate Reverend Cho Yong Gi and his eldest son Hee Jun for allegedly siphoning off donations worth 23 billion won (S$25 million). Rev Cho denied the allegations, calling it a smear campaign. In response to the ST report, CHC Management Board 2011-2012 released a statement to church members that Dr. Cho has served God faithfully and tirelessly over more than 50 years of ministry and the fruit of his labour for the kingdom of God is undeniable and as brothers and sisters in the faith, they should continue to uphold him with love and intercession during the period, praying that that situation would be resolved quickly as the Lord wills. At present, reliable sources in South Korea have indicated to us that these accusations remain as a civil complaint taken up against Dr. Cho. Let us trust in the due process of the law and bear in mind that any man is innocent until proven guilty.

            Many today would have heard about the news report of financial irregularities of at least $23 million from the charity’s funds were discovered. These funds were used with the purported intention to finance the secular music career of Ho Yeow Sun, the wife of Pastor Kong and co-founder of CHC, to connect with people. Such news can be discouraging to many Christians especially to those in CHC and can be ammunition for the devil to act.* According to a report by the Center for the Study of Global Christianity at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, of the $569 billion that will be donated to Christian causes world-wide this year, about 6% or $35 billion will be laundered, embezzled, or otherwise lost to “unscrupulous ministers living too high on the hog,”

            Sadly, churches are not immune from embezzlement, and fraud. It breaks my heart, and must have broken the heart of God even more, that some pastors and church leaders would steal from their church, and the Lord, and use those resources for their own gain. We all need to be faithful stewards of the resources God has entrusted to us.  It’s His money, and we will have to give an account of what we’ve done with it. Maybe some of us have questions at the back of our mind. Why would a pastor go against everything that he knows and teaches to be true, deliberately violating those truths, and then try to hide it to perpetuate his behavior?  Seriously! If you look at this question with a magnifying glass it is not as simple as the pastor just being greedy.  It goes much deeper than that.  In the business world and in the church the most common crime committed is embezzlement.

            The March issue of the Church Finance Today runs this article: How Do We Confront Suspected Embezzlement? Church leaders often are unsure how to address suspected cases of embezzlement. The suspected embezzler is almost always a trusted member or employee, and church leaders are reluctant to accuse such a person without irrefutable evidence of guilt. Seldom does such evidence exist. If the evidence clearly indicates that a particular member or employee has embezzled church funds, but this person denies any wrongdoing, inform him or her that the church may be forced to turn the matter over to the police for investigation and prosecution. If the suspected embezzler does not confess, or if embezzlement is suspected but it is not clear who is guilty, church leaders must consider turning the matter over to the police or local prosecutor. This is a very difficult decision, since it may result in the prosecution and incarceration of a member of the congregation.

            If the embezzler confesses, proceed with caution before you forgive and forget. It often is astonishing how quickly church members will rally in support of the embezzler once he or she confesses—no matter how much money was stolen from the church. This is especially true when the embezzler used the embezzled funds for a “noble” purpose, such as medical bills for a sick child. Remember, though, a serious crime has been committed. The embezzler has breached a sacred trust. Church leaders owe a fiduciary obligation to the church and are stewards of the church’s resources. Viewing the offender with mercy does not necessarily mean that the debt must be forgiven and a criminal act ignored. Churches are public charities that exist to serve religious purposes, and they are funded entirely out of charitable contributions from persons who justifiably assume that their contributions will be used to further the church’s mission. These purposes may not be served when a church forgives and ignores cases of embezzlement.

            The question left is: How to Protect Yourself from Church Embezzlement? What can pastors, Christians, and churches do to protect themselves from embezzlement and fraud? Here are some ideas from the Journal article:

1.             Don’t Give in to Greed – In your desire to get a good return on your money, don’t give into greed or the idea that someone has a secret investment trick or opportunity that no one else knows about. If someone tells you about an investment that sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

2.             Be Accountable – Pastors, churches and nonprofits should make regular financial reports available.  Some churches do it once a year at the annual congregational meeting, others provide it more frequently.  Some churches and ministries post their budget on their website.

3.             Work as a Team – One person should not have complete control over the organization’s money. Be sure there’s a finance committee or other team of people who are responsible for making sure the monies are being handled properly.

4.             Be Alert – If a church or ministry leader is not willing to answer your questions or is evasive, it could mean trouble. “Defensive or evasive behavior and an unwillingness to answer questions on the part of the minister or whoever is in charge of the church’s finances may indicate funds aren’t being used as the donor intended,” If this happens, you have a responsibility to take your concerns to the finance committee, deacons or elders.

Finally, my fellow Truewayans, do remember the words of the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 10:13 and to pray for your pastors and leaders that they will stay pure not just in the area of greed but also sex and pornography.

* Log on for a balance viewpoint.

Pastor Cheng Huat

July 1, 2012