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#ChurchToo Church Culture Opinion


Editor’s Note:  Last week begins a new feature at MinistryWatch.  Most Saturdays we will feature this “Editor’s Notebook” column.  MinistryWatch President Warren Smith will comment on one or more stories in the week’s news, adding an additional perspective or, sometimes, a behind-the-scenes look at how the story came to be.

The SBC’s Infamous List.  Leaders at the Southern Baptist Convention’s Executive Committee released a formerly secret list Thursday (May 26) of sexual abusers, which had been kept by SBC staff since 2007.

The 205-page list includes details about 700 cases of abuse by pastors, Sunday school teachers, camp counselors, music ministers, bus drivers, and missionaries.  I’ve reviewed the list, and here are a few of my takeaways.

First, a number of prominent SBC megachurches have dealt with abuse.  Among the abusers on the list were a pair of former ministers at Prestonwood Baptist Church in Dallas, which is led by former SBC President Jack Graham; an associate pastor at Bellevue Baptist Church near Memphis, led by former SBC President Steve Gaines.  Both Gaines and Graham have been accused of mishandling abuse allegations, something Graham has long denied.

Secondly, most of the names on this list were those of abusers who had been convicted of sex crimes or those who had confessed to adultery or inappropriate behavior. Many of the names on this list had already been made public by the Houston Chronicle investigative report, “Abuse of Faith,” published in 2019.  That fact makes it even harder to explain why the SBC has been holding on to this list for so long.  It also causes me to wonder if this list is possibly just the tip of the iceberg.  It doesn’t include the names of those who have been credibly accused of behavior that would disqualify a person from ministry, but didn’t rise to the level of criminal wrongdoing.  

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Thirdly, at least nine of the people included on the list may still be in active ministry, including two who have ties to an SBC church. Those churches have been reported to the SBC’s credentials committee, which has the power to recommend those churches be expelled from the SBC.

Church Embezzlement.  An Oklahoma City woman has been charged with wire fraud and aggravated identity theft for allegedly embezzling more than $360,000 from the California church where she was an administrator for five years.  Chanell Easton is charged with stealing money from the food pantry and youth ministry at the unidentified Yuba City church from 2013 to 2018.  

This story did not involve a well-known megachurch, or huge sums of money.  (Don’t get me wrong:  $360,000 is more than the budget of most churches in this country, but it’s not mega-millions.)  So why did we decide to cover this story?  In part to warn other churches of the need for internal controls and an outside audit.

The federal indictment in this case alleges that Easton opened five business credit card accounts in the church’s name without the church’s knowledge or authorization and used them, as well as a credit card issued to the church’s youth pastor, to make personal purchases at a hair salon, retail stores, online retailers, a vacation rental service, and concert venues, then used the church’s money to pay off the credit card balances.

An audit doesn’t guarantee that this sort of fraud won’t happen.  But it dramatically increases the likelihood that it will get caught before it goes on for five years, as it did here.  It’s also worth mentioning that internal controls in an organization include the division of duties.  The person or persons receiving funds shouldn’t be the same person as the one spending the funds.  

In small churches, internal controls and the division of duties is difficult.  There often aren’t enough people on the staff to do all the things that need doing.  But the problem is solvable, sometimes by using church volunteers with accounting backgrounds, sometimes by outsourcing some of the accounting functions to a bookkeeping or accounting firm.  

Yes, that’s an additional expense for the church, but it sure beats the cost of even a single embezzlement – and in a recent survey, 27 percent of churches reported that they had had at least one episode of embezzlement in the life of the church.  

By the way:  If convicted, Chanell Easton faces a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine for each count of wire fraud, and a mandatory two-year sentence on each count of aggravated identity theft.  Plus, she’ll likely be required to pay back what she allegedly stole, though in many similar cases, the victim – in this case the church — is never made fully whole.  In short, this story is a tragedy for all concerned, but it doesn’t have to be a tragedy for the rest of us.  We can learn from it.

Warren Cole Smith

Warren previously served as Vice President of WORLD News Group, publisher of WORLD Magazine, and Vice President of The Colson Center for Christian Worldview. He has more than 30 years of experience as a writer, editor, marketing professional, and entrepreneur. Before launching a career in Christian journalism 25 years ago, Smith spent more than seven years as the Marketing Director at PricewaterhouseCoopers.

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