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One in Three Churches Will Be Victims of Embezzlement, Experts Say

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Trust is important to religious organizations. But misplaced trust can lead to financial fraud, and churches need to take steps to protect themselves from people who will take advantage of their good will, said the co-director of The Center for the Study of Global Christianity.

Embezzlement will cost churches $170 billion in the year 2050 if current trends continue, Todd Johnson told Christianity Today.  

He said that although you would hope that financial fraud would be less prevalent within the religious community, giving is part of the church model—and where there’s money, there are thieves. 

“We have an ecclesiastical crime folder here in our office, and it’s getting pretty full,” Johnson said.

Among recent cases: 

  • A bishop and a lay leader of the AME Zion Church in California mortgaged church properties to obtain $14 million in loans to buy real estate.
  • A Lubbock, Texas, church bookkeeper spent $450,000 on church credit cards to pay for a car loan, medical expenses, and meals and to finance a business she co-owned.

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The Center said one in three churches will be victims of embezzlement, but 27% won’t report the crime. Because churches trust people to do the right thing, members often have a hard time believing they have been victimized—even after a church employee has been convicted of embezzlement and sent to prison, Johnson said.   

“Our hope in bringing this to light is that churches would take seriously the issues of accountability and stop this as much as possible,” he said. 

He predicts some of the growth will be driven by economic gains in countries like India and China, where Christianity will transition from the church of the rural poor to more wealthy urban centers—and with more money comes more fraud.  

“As a global community, we might pay a price for that growth,” Johnson said. 

The Center recommends churches take the following steps to ensure their money is safeguarded against theft:

  • Instill checks and balances at every step of the money-handling process.
  • Cultivate a culture of accountability; don’t rely on trust. 
  • Commit to transparency; report any crime that has been committed.
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Anne Stych

Anne Stych is a writer in Charlotte, North Carolina.