Trust your neighbor but cut the cards

An estimated $16 billion dollars was embezzled worldwide by those in charge of churches and religious organizations in the year 2000.

That’s according to Janet Jamieson, a member of the accounting faculty at the University of Dubuque and an expert on finances in local United Methodist churches. She’s also married to Phil Jamieson, an elder from East Ohio and now my counterpart in Nashville. Last month the two of them gave a presentation to 40-some new ministers in the Conference.

Sometimes these thefts are the result of a long-term plan to gain acceptance and trust, then steal at will. But most often it is a crime of opportunity. Someone needs some quick cash, and they figure if they borrow a few bucks from the church no one will know. They’ll do it just once, of course, and pay it back immediately.

But in 2000 that payback didn’t happen 16 billion times.

Nothing is fool-proof but some basic internal controls can help your finance volunteers reduce the temptation. Afterall, wouldn’t Adam and Eve have been happier if that one tree hadn’t been planted in the garden?

The Jamiesons authored the most recent Guidelines for Church Finance and offer some helpful hints for internal controls:

  • Cash should always be handled by two un-related people: counters, couriers, ushers. Rotate and jumble these teams
    Promptly deposit all funds
  • The treasurer and financial secretary should not be the same person
  • Checks should be signed by someone other than the person who writes them
  • The checking account should be reconciled by someone who does not write the checks
  • Volunteers who handle money should not hold the position for more than three consecutive years.

These are just the highlights.  I encourage you to spend some time with the Guidelines publication.  There is a good chance your pastor already has it.  If not, it’s only about $3 from Cokesbury.

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