The Center for the Study of Global Christianity report for the year 2019, the global Christian church lost $68 billion through ecclesiastical crime−church fraud−in 2019. Sadly, the Seventh-day Adventist Church is not immune. Fraud can and does happen in churches. According to the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners, three elements must exist for a fraud to take place.
Pressure can be a personal or perceived, but the motivation is always the same. Money is needed. Pressure-causing events can include:
A medical emergency leaves a family with a mountain of debt.
- A gambling addiction gets out of control.
- A lost job leaves one desperate for funds.
- A church needs “help” to get higher return on their assets.
As church members, we must be observant to notice when a fellow member may be experiencing financial distress. If we learn of a situation, it is our responsibility to inform the pastor or head elder of our concern with that particular member handling church resources during their time of financial anxiety.
Rationalizing that something wrong is now okay can take a lot of time and a variety of circumstances, but the heart being deceitful above all things (Jer. 17:9) makes it easy for someone to deceive themselves with a rational lie such as:
- I’m entitled to this money because of all the work I’ve done.
- • I’m just borrowing the money until my next paycheck,
- • It’s okay because other people do it.
- • Money will help more people if used my way.
An opportunity is available because of weaknesses in an organization’s internal controls. Internal controls are processes in place to detect and prevent fraud. Common weaknesses in theses controls might exist because of tradition or because effort has not been given to protect the resources entrusted. Ask these questions:
- Do we have enough people involved in the process?
- When was the last time we evaluated established controls for the weaknesses?
- Are we placing too much trust in one person’s good character?
A church’s best chance at lowering their risk of fraud is by removing opportunities for fraud to take place. An opportunity may be discovered when a mistake slips through the church’s controls. This discovery is acted on when financial pressure is felt and justification found. Periodically meeting and re-assessing your financial controls can lessen these opportunities.
INTERNAL CONTROLS TO PREVENT FRAUD AT YOUR CHURCH
Good financial controls provide protection. If a false accusation is charged against a person, the only security they have is the controls that are in place. You want internal controls that protect resources while not overburdening the individuals doing the work.
Segregation of duties – It is ideal to separate bookkeeping and depositing responsibilities.
Handling of Cash – Loose cash should always be counted by two individuals at the same time. This should not be done alone or taken home. Cash is the most susceptible resource to fraud. Encourage members to donate online or by check using tithe envelopes.
Approvals – Establish processes for those who sign cheques, approve large payments, reconcile statements. This should be multiple people, not just one person.
Conflict of Interest – Conflicting interests may cloud or corrupt a member’s judgment. Beware of a member’s potential benefit from offering a ‘good deal’ or providing the church services.
Regular financial audits – To help prevent fraud, the local conference is responsible to provide periodic audits of local church financial records. If your church has not been audited in the last two years, contact your local conference treasurer to have an audit scheduled.
From the church employee at the General Conference to the local deacon that collects the offering on Sabbath, we are all responsible for the safe keeping of our church’s financial resources. When a gift is placed in the offering plate, the giver is extending trust to our stewardship system and the multiple people who ensure that money reaches its requested destination. Review the internal control systems at your church so this trust is not broken.
This article was published in 2015 in the October /December issue of the ‘Elders Digest’ an – Adventist Magazine.