Embezzlement: It CAN Happen to Us

Schlieve article

They were pillars of the community.  Active in their church and community service, Vickie and Jim were highly regarded by those who knew them.  She is employed as the town clerk and used to be one of my husband’s trusted employees.  And he was just sentenced for embezzling from both his church and the local Lion’s Club.

My husband and I sadly discussed the situation as we listened to a prominent Milwaukee talk radio personality discuss the case with sneering disdain.  What could have motivated Jim to sink to such a depth?, we pondered.  It quickly brought to mind Rick Warren’s statement in The Purpose Driven Life, “Given the right situation, you and I are capable of any sin.”*  I can recall really struggling with that statement when I first read the book.  Yet over the years, the more tragedies like Jim’s that I have seen, the more I have come to realize the truth of Pastor Warren’s statement.

Discussing this case with my husband stirred up in me the need to be ever-vigilant about the systems we put in place to circumvent situations like this.  The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel article on the theft notes that the church’s denomination was subsequently compelled to put stronger controls in place for all of its congregations as a result of this scandal.  I will be blunt in telling you that it has always made me incredibly uncomfortable when our board of directors occasionally trusts me without verification.  I want proof and witness to my conduct with our finances.  I never want anything to look the slightest bit untoward in our ministry.  Granted, we are a small organization with much more limited financial resources than either the church or service organization in the aforementioned case.  Still, the sacred trust people place in us as we work with those who are amongst society’s most vulnerable knows no monetary value.  God tells us clearly in Ephesians 5:3, “But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God’s holy people.” (NIV)  When we blow it in this area, it is next to impossible to gain that trust back from people or for our organization to recover its credibility.

I urge you, my colleagues and friends, to adopt best practices for the finances of your ministry.  Directors and Officers (D&O) Insurance is a good idea for your board to secure.  Be as transparent as possible.  Let the board of directors see bank statements, detailed credit card statements, and even the check book for your organization.  Annual audits are optimal, and additionally desirable with grantors and benefactors.  A person may be infinitely qualified and equally likable, but do not merely take their word for it when they put a spread sheet in front of you as evidence of the organizations financial position.  These documents can easily be manipulated and falsified.  “Trust but verify,” is an old Russian proverb popularized by Ronald Reagan in the 1980’s, and it is still sound practice with those who are handling our finances today.

*Warren, Rick, (2002) The Purpose Driven Life:  What On Earth Am I Hear For?, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, MI 49530, p. 135

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