National Lutheran News

Can you be confident your Sunday offerings are safe?

Church members don’t want to think about the mishandling of their contributions, but should

On any given Sunday in most Lutheran congregations, the offerings that
members contribute are handled with integrity and care. And that’s as it
should be. But there have been cases when monies given by worshipers have
been mishandled, misdirected or even outright stolen.

How could this happen in a faith community? Lutheran theology has an
answer, It’s a Latin phrase: simul justus et peccator. It means something like,
“Redeemed Christians, all who are baptized, are righteous, even saintly,
because of God’s action for us through Christ. But simultaneously, redeemed
Christians remain caught in sin, inclined to do evil, not good.” This is one of
the great paradoxes of human existence. Still, any Lutheran who thinks about
it for about ten seconds realizes the truth of this insight, first propounded by
Martin Luther.

Given the reality of human sinfulness, even in the midst of Sunday worship, it
should not surprise us that money we give to God through the church can be
misdirected. But the fact that it sometimes happens can still be distressing.
Just how bad can it get? It’s not just congregations that experience financial
malfeasance. Judicatories, those geographic regions that unite local
congregations, face the same threat. Some recent examples, while not typical
across Lutheranism, are both dramatic and instructive.

* In December 1995, the treasurer of the ELCA’s New England Synod resigned
under a cloud. Nine months later he was arrested, charged with embezzling
$800,000 in synod funds. The synod’s bishop, Robert Isaksen, explained
afterwards that changes had been made in the synod’s money management
methods, but by then the horse was out of the barn.

* In June 2005, the Detroit News reported on the sentencing of the 45-year-
old former church treasurer of Christ the King Lutheran Church in Grosse
Pointe, Michigan. The mother of five went to prison for at least five years for
stealing more than $700,000 from the congregation. She explained she did it
when she began falling behind on her mortgage payments and faced
foreclosure.

* In March 2008, the former treasurer of the ELCA’s Lower Susquehanna
Synod, based in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, was charged with misappropriating
more than $1 million in church funds. The Harrisburg Patriot-News quoted
sources who said the treasurer had used the money to purchase classic cars
for his personal collection.

* Closer to home, the treasurer of Cross Evangelical Lutheran Church, a WELS
congregation in Rockford, Minnesota, was indicted for embezzling more than
$240,000 from his congregation. The 36-year-old church official was
accused of depositing Sunday offerings into his personal bank account.
KARE-11 TV reported that investigators believed the former treasurer had
used much of the money to purchase for his new $600,000 home, pay credit
card bills, and buy jewelry and season tickets to sporting events.

* There have been other cases. Glenndy Ose, a member of the bishop’s staff
in the Minneapolis Area Synod office, told Metro Lutheran that a
congregation in the Southwestern Minnesota Synod had gone through the
heartache of embezzlement from within, and that the synod bookkeeper in
the Northwestern Minnesota Synod had also been accused of mishandling
synod funds.

Even though such stories are rare, they are troubling. How can a congregation
— or a judicatory — protect itself from financial misadventure? There are
guidelines that all judicatories strongly recommend local parishes should
follow. They include:

* Have two or more people count the money together. They should not be
relatives, certainly not members of the same nuclear family.

* The two or more counters should check each other’s figures and agree on
the totals.

* The counted funds should be taken to the bank promptly. Most
congregations have a drop-bag system which enables them to deposit funds
in their commercial bank using a drawer available to the exterior of the bank
building, operable even when the facility is closed (hence, by early Sunday
afternoon). Why an early bank deposit? It guarantees the funds, once
counted, don’t sit in the church building where mischief can occur before the
deposit is actually made.

* An annual review of the books needs to be made, by someone independent
of those involved in counting or otherwise handling the money.

* An outside annual audit of the congregation’s books is strongly
encouraged. This guarantees that if, heaven forbid, mischief has been taking
place, it won’t continue for longer than one annual cycle.

Almost all congregations carry insurance against embezzlement. Ose, in the
Minneapolis Area Synod office, also suggests taking advantage of a program
provided by Thrivent Financial for Lutherans. “I’m not getting a commission
from Thrivent for saying this,” she said, laughing. “I just think it’s good sense
for congregations. Using the ‘Simply Giving’ program, members can have
their contributions deducted from their bank accounts and credited to their
congregation. It costs nothing; Thrivent doesn’t collect a fee; and the
congregation gets a more stable flow of income. And, obviously, nobody can
‘fiddle with the funds’ the way they could if they went in and out of the
Sunday offering plate.”

One example of a congregation that handles its money carefully and
responsibly is Christ Church Lutheran in south Minneapolis. Pastor Kristine
Carlson told Metro Lutheran, “This congregation has a good system. We have
a set of counting teams. They work in pairs. My goal is never to have
someone alone with the money. It’s always counted right after worship and
put in the safe. A record of what’s been received and recorded goes to the
pastor.”

Christ Church mirrors most Lutheran congregations and their counting
practices. For those few parishes where an incident may just be waiting to
happen, a call to the district or synod office would be a smart step to take.
Ask for suggested guidelines. And then follow them scrupulously.