Watch the Money!

by Joe McKeever

Nothing will tempt the servant of God like the large amounts of money that flow into the coffers near the place where he labors.

As the money comes into the offering plates, or through the mail or via bank drafts, his reasoning powers become tainted by those large numbers. He thinks to himself, "When I do well, the money comes in. When I do poorly, the money dries up. This is about me. The money is mine. I have earned it."

That, or some variation of it.

My family was living in Charlotte, North Carolina, in the late 1980s when Jim and Tammy Bakker of PTL fame (or infamy, depending on one's point of view) got in trouble and lost their multi-million-dollar ministry, with Jim serving a term in prison. Those who lived through that period may recall the sexual aspect of the downfall, involving a young woman named Jessica Hahn. While that may have been the part of the story that caught the public fancy, it was the misuse of money which sent Jim Bakker to prison.

In most cases involving ministers, misuse of money does not end up with the man of God going to prison, but rather losing his ministry and his influence. The ongoing problem reminds me of the political corruption in my city of New Orleans. It is revealed so often, one would think the word would get out and the perpetrators would cease their lawbreaking; but it seems to go on and on, as though people are not paying attention and refusing to learn the law of nature which Paul pointed out to the Galatians a long time ago: "Whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap" (Gal. 6:7).

A pastor I know served as a trustee of one of our denomination's boards, requiring him to journey to a distant city a half dozen times a year for two days of committee meetings. On his return, he would turn in his expenses to that agency's business office, which would issue him a check a few days later. I served on the same board with him and followed the same practice. It was standard procedure. But then he did something else.

After submitting the paperwork for reimbursement of his travel expenses, he would submit the same expenses to his church treasurer and be reimbursed a second time. In the course of a year, that probably amounted to no more than two thousand dollars. Not a lot of money, certainly not enough to alter his lifestyle or finance a vacation home, but more than sufficient to compromise his ministry, with the result being that when the practice was discovered, his church leaders called for and received his resignation.

So lowly did the pastor value his integrity, so cheaply did he give up his ministry, so easily did the tempter ensnare him.

As this is being written, a well-known veteran pastor of a large church in our denomination is in the news due to a movement calling for his resignation. A friend who knows him well assures me he is a good and godly man, so my reporting it here, with a comment, must not be interpreted as an indictment of him. But one thing seems not to be in doubt from the account released by our denomination's press office.

When his daughter was married recently, the pastor invited the entire church to the reception which ended up costing many thousands of dollars. A staff member suggested that since the entire congregation was invited, it would be only fair for the church to pay at least half the cost. The pastor agreed and this was done. When the word got out, many church members were livid. This seems to have provided the spark that ignited the smoldering discontent among many in the congregation.

The Price of Leadership

(A pastor who has been at a church for any number of years, if he has done anything at all, will have neglected enough people, possibly offended enough people, and surely disagreed with enough people that anyone determined to oust him will find a core audience who like the idea and they can collect enough charges to convince the average jury. It's the price of leadership.)

In this particular case, as the dissent spread throughout the congregation, a supporter of the pastor wrote a check to reimburse the church for the reception expenditure. But the damage was done.

Financial integrity is not only an issue for huge ministries like the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association or Focus on the Family, but it is every bit as essential for Shiloh Baptist Church on Post Oak Road out from Brookhaven, Mississippi, as it is for your own church and ministry.

Here are six suggestions for the minister who would be kept safe from the temptation to get one's hands on the money of the Lord and call it his own.

Six Suggestions:

One. Make a decision in your heart and then publicly announce to your constituency that you will not handle money. When someone hands you their offering envelope at church-as they frequently will-do not take it, but direct them to a more appropriate person. If you can't find such a person, ask the member to stand right here and wait while you find someone. If you have to, enlist a deacon or Sunday school teacher to take the envelope. But treat the offering as though it might contain anthrax. Do not touch it!

Two. Periodically, have an outside expert review how your church handles money, the inflow as well as the outflow. Ask them to make suggestions on ways to improve the technique your church is presently using.

Three. Be aware that the longer you stay at a church, the easier it is to let down your guard in these matters. The pastor who "allowed" the church to pay for half his daughter's wedding reception has been in that pulpit at least twenty years. During a ministry of that length, there will be occasions that blur the dividing lines between right and wrong, between what is his and what is not. The congregation will take up a generous love offering for the minister; they may give him and his wife a cruise for a significant anniversary, or pay for a Holy Land trip. Churches have been known to purchase a new car for a pastor in appreciation of his faithful service.

All good things, all suitable rewards for a well-serving spiritual leader, and all bringing their own unique set of temptations.

If the congregation wanted the pastor to have a new car, perhaps they would want him to charge the church for its maintenance. Some have so reasoned. Since the church gave him and his wife a cruise,
doesn't it follow that they will pay for the little extras such as the side trips in Cozumel and the helicopter ride over the volcano. They gave him the Holy Land trip, so surely they meant to cover the expenses in Rome on the way back.

Just so casually do we begin to rationalize misusing the church's money. Just so easily do we begin to cut corners. Just so simply do we begin the downward slide of financial compromise whose end is the congregation's loss of confidence in the minister and the pastor's loss of a congregation to minister to.

Keep your guard up, minister.

Four. Demand of your financial administrators high standards and strict accountability for what they do. I have sometimes told the bookkeepers in my churches, "If I ever ask for a check from you which you have a question about, don't write it. Get back to me, and if you're still not satisfied, turn the matter over to your boss. We're counting on you."

When she does this-as she will, believe me!-thank her profusely. She has done you a great favor.

Five. Have an accountability group to whom you are responsible. Meet with them on a regular basis, and make sure they are allowed to ask you anything and get a square answer. When you have a question about the line between what's best and what's allowed in the matter of church money, bring it up here, then listen closely. If anyone even remotely thinks a matter is questionable, if he hesitates before answering, do not do it.

Six. Simplify your life. Watch the temptation to buy expensive clothing, to live in the finest house, to drive the most impressive car, to belong to the toniest clubs, to eat out in the high-priced restaurants. The love for these things has no place in the minds and hearts of a servant of God. Love for these has lured many a wonderful servant of the Lord into major trouble. Shut the trouble down before it starts by living within your income

Don't Be Swayed by Position.

Even though the community calls you "doctor" and accords you the same respect as those with medical doctorates, you cannot compete with them materially. Even though the church elevates you to its leadership and suddenly you find yourself the spiritual leader of a large congregation, which includes executives and entrepreneurs worth many millions, you are not to be swayed by their large bank accounts as though you were expected to live as they do. You are being expected to set an example for them, not follow theirs.

No matter how much we rationalize that "the Lord richly gives us all good things to enjoy" and "I've earned this" and "the congregation expects it," the simple fact remains that the servant of God must live by a higher standard with a greater integrity.

"If you have not been faithful in the use of filthy lucre," the Lord said in Luke 16, "who will entrust to you the true riches?"

Who indeed.

Dr. McKeever, a pastor for more than four decades, writes and creates
church-related cartoons with equal felicity. He presently serves
as director of missions for the New Orleans Baptist Association.

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