Conference helps churches safeguard against embezzlement

By Jessica Brodie

BAMBERG—Clergy and laity headed to Trinity United Methodist Church in the Orangeburg District March 4 for a seminar designed to help them prevent embezzlement, how to spot it and what to do about it.

“Protecting Your Church From Embezzlement” was led by Conference Treasurer Beth Westbury and other lay and clergy leaders and covered a host of topics, including a scriptural and ethical basis for being faithful to God in the ways we handle God’s gifts and resources; how to prevent fraud and embezzlement in your church; what to do if you think your church is the victim of embezzlement; and helping victims heal.

The day started at 10 a.m. as David Salter, co-director of Lay Servant Ministries, introduced the speakers and welcomed all to the event.

The Rev. Robert Cox led a devotion on Luke 16:1-12, on the parable of the dishonest manager. He urged attendees to consider attributes of people who are trustworthy, as well as to understand concepts such as stewardship vs. ownership, honesty, integrity, loyalty, accountability and self-control (being able to resist temptation).

Next, Westbury discussed what she called the “fraud triangle”: incentive, rationalization and opportunity.

Westbury said churches can help prevent embezzlement with strong controls, such as written policies and procedures; risk assessment; control of activities, such as segregation of duties; monitoring by verifying procedures; or doing year-end reconciliations and an audit.

People often start small, Westbury said, testing with little things. They ask, “Do the policies and procedures stop me?” If not, they might try something bigger.

She used two real-world situations from South Carolina UMCs to illuminate her points.

Bottom line, she said, pay attention to the details and have the courage to ask questions.

Next, the Rev. Tim Rogers, Marion District superintendent, addressed what to do if your church is the victim of embezzlement.

First, he said, if you become suspicious, notify your council chair, pastor and district superintendent. Church leadership should temporarily relieve the person of their duties, protect the data, secure backups, contact their insurance carrier and follow their requirements to protect their claim for reimbursement. They should also have an independent party investigate, consult the annual conference and report it to this church.

He cited a church that lost half a million dollars because of embezzlement, and the perpetrator is currently in prison. It’s important to be transparent with the church to establish and maintain trust.

After all, Rogers said, “People won’t give if they don’t trust.”

Last, the Rev. Cathy Joens addressed how to help victims of embezzlement heal. She noted churches and people involved can experience trauma, which is an emotional response to a significant negative event. They can also experience grief and engage in conflict. So be clear and lead well.

“Don’t assume people know,” Joens said.

Leaders lead, she said, often with a calm presence. If embezzlement happens in your church, communicate clearly and with transparency, communicate often, cover the basics and answer questions. Also consider holding small groups, question-answer sessions and listening sessions.

Chances are you’ll have a scar, she said, but a scar is a story.

Do we want this to be a story of triumph where we’re reminded how we pulled together in the midst of this tragedy, or a scar of self-defeat?

Another embezzlement training slated for April 15

The conference is holding one more embezzlement-protection seminar.

“Protecting Your Church From Embezzlement” is scheduled for 10 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. April 15 at Central United Methodist Church in Newberry.  The $25 registration fee covers all materials and lunch. Register by April 10 at (no onsite registration).

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