Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Trust me, test me

One of the questions that I'm often asked is "Don't you trust me?" It's interesting that this question is not coming anymore from my children. They are older now and out on their own. Their "don't you trust me" was a common response when their mother or I were asking them about their plans for the evening. Possibly when we were inquiring who they would be spending time with or even if they had completed their homework and were prepared for the next day of school.

We smile when we remember these questions being asked because we know that as parents, this question of trust, while important, is not as important as other things. Important things like training, equipping and preparing for later responsibilities, careers and generally becoming an adult.

Unfortunately, many parents find this question, "do you trust me", very troubling. They sometimes find it so intimidating that they fail the number one parental assignment and don't bother to ask the important questions. Sometimes, a child's moral compass is provided in other ways but all too often, the son or daughter is not prepared to enter adulthood. All too often serious moral and personal behavioral issues that could have been corrected, continue into adulthood, often because the parent didn't want to deal with the trust issue.

Today however, this question is often asked, not by children but by my peers -- adults with important jobs and important responsibilities, who probably haven't thought through this idea of trust. As the business administrator of a church it's my job to ask the hard questions. These questions are about budgets, expenses, receipts, process, and procedures that fall under the category of governance and oversight that is more than a simple matter of "trust".

The thing is, there is nothing simple about trust. For many people it is earned over a long period of time but can unfortunately be lost in a moment. One disappointment over an expense account, an inappropriate authorization of church resources, or even a good deed done without proper authorization can dash earned trust. Trust not only in the individual but in the organization as well.

And churches know they need to maintain the public's trust. Churches after all, depend on their members trust as they give their tithes and offerings. It's a proven fact that people like giving and will give generously to a good cause. Once however, people start to believe that the money may be wasted rather then spent on worthwhile causes, the giving is greatly diminished. I did some research and found some disturbing trends. Perhaps the most alarming find was a 2002 study conducted jointly by Epsilon and the Barna Group which found that while confidence in most of our major social institutions and professions is declining, donor confidence in non-profit organizations (including churches) is at an all time low.

Earning and keeping the public trust is critically important for churches and non-profits. Financial and moral scandals ruin ministries and while many ministries escape the ruin of scandal, most could use a little more financial accountability and what I and many financial professionals now call "transparency". Most of us remember the scandal that occurred at national ministries like Jim and Tammy Bakkers' PTL Club or more recently the scandals involving Catholic priests the past few years. This and others like them have reduced the public's confidence in church leaders and, consequently, reduced their giving as well.

Financial accountability requires that organizations not only have policies and procedures to protect and maintain integrity, but in also requires that someone periodically audit accuracy and compliance. The important point to remember when working in the church is that the mission that we have and the work that we need to do is critically important. Our ministries with the help of God change peoples' lives, and we must be diligent to always adhere to the highest standards of accountability so that we can maintain the publics' trust

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Do we need to believe the entire Bible?

One of the questions that was recently posed to me in a Bible study was pretty good. The question was about the Bible itself. Does a person need to believe the entire Bible? For example, can a person believe the "heart" of the gospel but not necessarily believe some of the more extrodinary feats mentioned in the Old Testament?

My simple answer is "no", believe in God doesn't require the belief in the Bible. Sorry that this disappoints some but from what I read the requirements to salvation don't include any such test. We need to trust in Christ as savior and of course that does require some belief in who He is represented to actually be.

The debate as to what parts of the Bible or the literal understanding of the Bible is a great debate within and outside of the Christian Church. Often, what a person believes about the first six Chapters of the book of Genesis or whether they believe in "literal" interpretation regarding Paul's instruction for the qualifications of Deacons becomes a litmus test for Pastors, teachers or church membership. I don't believe that it has to be always treated with such gravity.

Jesus never taught that in order to be saved we had to believe in Adam and Eve or that Jonah was swallowed by a great fish. The requirements for salvation and therein the requirements to be a member of the Christian church is quite simple: Belief in the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ on the cross for our sins, and a belief that we are sinful but because of His holiness, we can become accepted into God's kingdom. Note that I'm taking great liberties at this point in the scripture but the reason is that I want to make sure no-one misunderstands that somehow a literal interpretation of every word in the King James Bible is somehow a pre-requirement for becoming a Christian.

At the same time, Jesus spoke of Adam and Eve as historical people. He embraced the entire Old Testament and even compared His coming death and resurrection (which is the cornerstone of the Christian faith) to the Biblical epic of Jonah and the Whale. Therefore, the need to understand the accuracy of the Bible is of high importance in our Christian walk. If not for personal faith, the trust and confidence in the Bible is definitely a requirement for the perpetuation of the faith. If we can't trust the Bible to be true, then we have a great deal of difficulty in using the teachings of the Bible in matters of faith.

I'm not the first to address this issue. Dr. John Warwick Montgomery proposes three tests to determine if we can believe the entirety of the Bible. The tests stem from the fact of what the Bible claims to be...God's revelation of Himself to and through man." If God has revealed Himself in literary form, that revelation would have certain properties due to His infinite knowledge and moral perfection:

It would be entirely true - His infinite knowledge would prevent errors and His truthfulness would keep Him from deception.

It would be a coherent unity therefore not self- contradictory.

It would contain God's will for man and provide the motivation to live according to that will.
I believe that God has revealed Himself in the Bible without error. The Bible itself claims this inerrancy (2 Timothy 3:16-17;Matthew 5:18; etc.). When it comes to believing the Bible, I'm like the guy that says, "I believe it all from Genesis through Maps".

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Financial Resolutions for the New Year

Some people are really good at making New Year’s resolutions but not necessarily in keeping them. While this may be natural a New Year is a great time to make some resolutions to make positive changes. One of things families can often do better is to become good stewards of their finances.

This is something that nearly every family as well as single adult can work on as there is a daily and constant struggle literally between good and evil. On one side we have pull of a culture that tells us we need things we really don’t and on the other side, Godly wisdom which is available and can enable us to live a life that is focused on contentment when it comes to more things. Being content is difficult when we are constantly being told that things bring happiness, that debt is expected and that a little bit of money will solve all of our problems.While some people have found great help in the advice given by licensed, certified financial planners, there is some simple, common sense financial guidance that may help to give you a new perspective in the New Year.

For example, most people think immediately of "spending" when it comes to financial matters but actually, "spending" is just one part. There are actually five componets to a financial plan or budget. They include: Earning, Spending, Saving, Giving and Debt.

This article is too brief to fully develop all five of these components. If you are inclined, all of these components are fully explained and planned in the “Good $ense” seminars held regularly at the church where I serve on Pastoral Staff as well as at other churches that have a stewardship or financial ministry.

Here are some really good tips on just two of the five components: Spending and Debt.

We’ll start with Spending.

There are four myths that most of us have bought into regarding spending. They are: that things will bring happiness; that your possessions define who you are; that you deserve to have what others have; and finally, that spending is a competition. While these myths are truly pervasive in this culture, they stand in direct opposition to what God has said regarding the way we are to relate to the things of this earth.

The New Testament teaches that we are to seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness (Matt. 6:33). Further it teaches that we are to store up our treasures in heaven rather than consume things for our own benefit (Matt 6:19).

The more secular wisdom of practicing moderation or what the Bible calls contentment is also a good way of looking at spending. All too often we allow money and what it can buy to become an idol in our life and we need to eventually say, “Enough is enough”.

Studies have shown that often families get into trouble when they start believing that they need to have it all. Mom’s go back to work because they think they need to earn more income so that the family can have more; while all the time what the family really needed was more of mom. Dad works more and more hours to earn more and more money to buy more and more things; while the family really just needs more time to be a family.

The second financial component that we can mention is Debt.

American consumer debt has a stranglehold on too many families and it will destroy your family if you don’t get it under control. While there are many advisors that recommend debt consolidation and second mortgages as a way of decreasing your monthly payments I have an easier solution.

  1. Arrange all of your debt by amount owed and make a resolution to get all consumer debt (with the likely exception of your home mortgage) paid off. This may be a two or three year project for many families but it can be done.
  2. Start with the smallest amount owing and find an extra hundred dollars somewhere to aggressively pay off that debt.
  3. Make a firm resolution to not get into any more debt. Throw away all but one of the credit cards and don’t use that one either.
  4. When that first amount is paid off take all of the money you were paying on that closed account and throw it on the next smallest debt and so on.

The above approach is called “snow-balling” and it works. Most families can be completely out of debt in a two or three year period but it only works when they become more responsible spenders and prudent consumers.

Take the time today to talk in your family about the ways that you spend money as well as the balance that you could have between spending and time spent as a family. There are people available to help you with your financial plan and you can likely find them at your local church.

The Good $ense Ministry is a national ministry found in many churches in the United States and Canada.

A Good $ense ministry benefits a congregation in a variety of ways:

  • Helps individuals remove money as a barrier to full devotion to Christ
  • Supports the pastor in training and maintaining the core value of good stewardship
  • Leads individuals to the God-honoring management of money and the resultant peace, joy, contentment and freedom in their hearts
  • Frees individuals from the bondage of debt Restores relationships torn by conflict over money
  • Helps the church realize its redemptive potential, as its congregation becomes free to give and serve

Click on the Link above for more information

Friday, December 09, 2005

Churches taking precautions for coffers

Clergymen believe the money put in the collection baskets and plates passed pew to pew Sunday morning is an offering not to the church, but to God.

But ensuring that the tithes of the faithful reach church coffers leaves no room for blind trust of those who handle the money.

The Dec. 17 arrest of a former parish housekeeper in the theft of more than $173,000 over four years from an unlocked safe at St. Margaret of Scotland Catholic Church in Green Tree is an example of what happens when policies aimed at safeguarding collections aren't followed, Pittsburgh Catholic Diocese leaders say. Thefts plague hundreds of U.S. churches each year, according to one of the top two church insurers in the country.

The first precaution for churches that could be vulnerable is to acknowledge the need for scrutiny of those with access to donations, said Jeff Hanna, a police detective-turned-minister from Ohio. Hanna has written two books and numerous articles instructing churches on keeping collections safe.

"Churches are notorious for not wanting to change," Hanna said. "A lot of churches are operating under guidelines 20, 30 or 40 years old, and they have to understand that things have changed."

Hanna is executive director of the church risk-management division of GuideOne, an insurance company based in Des Moines, Iowa, that provides liability insurance for 45,000 churches nationwide. GuideOne handles an average of 1,800 theft claims from churches each year, totaling $2.8 million.

The company insures about 1,400 churches in Pennsylvania.

"Let's be honest. We're all broken people, and we all have the capacity to do bad things," Hanna said. "So it's important to screen people and to know what you've got."

That's not always easy.

In August 1998, the Rev. Walter Benz, 72, admitted stealing $1.3 million over 26 years from St. Mary of the Assumption Roman Catholic Church in Hampton and Our Lady of the Most Blessed Sacrament in Harrison, police said. Benz was suspected of using the money for luxury cars and gambling trips. He died that September.

"You would have thought they would have learned their lesson after that one," said the Rev. Kevin Clementson, pastor of Berkeley Hills Lutheran Church in Ross.

Berkeley Hills Lutheran suffered its own theft scandal in the mid-1970s, said Clementson, who arrived there in 1994. The church now rotates a team of five members who count collections each Sunday and take the checks and cash to a bank the same day for deposit. His church conducts a regular internal audit in addition to an external audit every three to five years. He may increase that to every two years.

"This just encourages good people to remain good people," Clementson said. "My old Uncle Oscar always said you have to pay your tuition to get your education; this congregation paid their tuition a long time ago and got a good education."

As further security, Clementson's church also offers electronic bank transfers to members through Vanco Services of Minnetonka, Minn. The company found the niche industry of providing electronic money transfers to churches in 1997. Now 6,000 churches nationwide, representing 28 denominations, pay 25 cents per transaction along with a setup fee of 50 cents to $1 per parishioner, said Len Thiede, the company's vice president. Several Pittsburgh-area churches use Vanco.

Hanna said more churches, especially ones with large congregations, are using electronic transfers because auto-tithing tends to mean larger, more consistent donations, and it removes the possibility of sticky fingers.

Ken Behr, director of operations at Northway Christian Community in Marshall, said his 5,000-member church works directly with a bank for electronic transfers and has joined the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability, an 1,100-member organization based in Winchester, Va., that reviews church finance matters ranging from salaries to governing board composition. Donors can even request audited information about their church from the council, which provides a "donor bill of rights."

"What happened at St. Margaret was unfortunate, and that happens sometimes when organizations don't take those kinds of precautions," Behr said.

St. Margaret failed to follow diocesan collection and auditing guidelines, said the Rev. Ronald P. Lengwin, spokesman for the Pittsburgh diocese, which has 215 parishes. "Again, it's because of the trust that's involved," Lengwin said. "It is almost impossible to prevent theft in every instance."

Lengwin said security procedures were tweaked in 1999 after the Benz case, but he said that despite the most recent theft, the diocese's guidelines do not need to be revised. Lengwin said St. Margaret underwent a financial review conducted by a diocese representative within the past year, but he wouldn't comment on the results.

The first rumblings about a possible theft at the church cropped up in March, when Green Tree police learned from West Virginia State Police that deposit bags with checks and envelopes from St. Margaret had been found on a highway near Weirton.

The Rev. Richard Jones, recently appointed pastor of St. Margaret, said the church is using sealed money bags and secured safes for holding cash, especially overnight. Investigators said the church left the safe unlocked, allowing housekeeper Amy Caldwell, 35, of Charleroi, to steal $173,000, taking a few hundred dollars a week for several years.

Lengwin said the church's insurance carrier should cover the losses. Caldwell will face a felony theft charge.

"I think it's the kind of thing that sneaks up on people," the Rev. Blair Morgan, senior pastor of Bethlehem Lutheran Church in Shaler, said of money handlers who give in to temptation. "They sit there and mean to put (the money) back, but they get caught up in a situation."
Morgan said his 900-member church keeps donated money "traceable" and in the hands of many to reduce the possibility of theft.

The Rev. Larry Homitsky, council steward for the Western Pennsylvania Conference of the United Methodist Church, said the 900 congregations he oversees have detailed security guidelines. He said church money counters are rotated each week. At least two people stay with collections at all times; counters must be from different families; and everyone working with the collections must be legally bonded.

Thefts from churches hurt everybody, Homitsky said.

"And it's more than the money," he said. "Because as important as the dollars are, there's a higher importance -- there's an expectation of trust higher than anywhere else in society."

Costly Church Thefts:

  • Dec. 14, 2004: Amy J. Caldwell, 35, of Charleroi, is accused of stealing $173,000 from St. Margaret of Scotland Catholic Church in Green Tree. She waived her right to a preliminary hearing Tuesday.
  • Nov. 15, 2000: The Rev. William M. Altman is charged with stealing more than $1 million from bank accounts and parishioners of Grace Christian Ministries in West Mifflin. In 2002, he was sentenced to four to eight years in prison and 10 years of probation. He also was forbidden to handle finances for any organization.
  • Sept. 4, 1999: The Rev. Walter Benz, 72, dies of an illness shortly after admitting that he stole $1.3 million from two Allegheny County parishes. Even though he wasn't formally charged at the time, investigators said Benz stole the money over 26 years from St. Mary of the Assumption Church in Hampton and Our Lady of the Most Blessed Sacrament Church in Harrison.
  • January 1998: Former church Secretary Dawn Mehalek, of South Fayette, is accused of stealing almost $500,000 between April 1994 and October 1996 while working as a secretary at Holy Child Parish in Bridgeville. Mehalek pleaded guilty and received five years' probation in June 1999 for apparently writing more than 100 checks to herself and forging the pastor's signature on them.

Jeremy Boren can be reached at or (412) 765-2312.

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