The absolute most foolish thing the lay leadership of a church will ever do is to bring in a new pastor, turn everything over to him, and abandon him.
“You’re God’s man; it’s in your hands now.”
Sounds good. But it overlooks one massive fact: he’s a sinner and you have just handed him a temptation he may not be able to resist. You have endangered your church and put his entire future ministry at risk.
Take just the area of finances, for instance.
If you want to corrupt a preacher–not all of them, but it will work with a strong percentage–give him the say-so over the checks that will be written from the church. Do not build in any kind of oversight.
Hand the minister a credit card and pay the bills when they arrive with no questions asked. I can almost guarantee that fully one-third or more of ministers will cross that invisible line into questionable territory.
The news out of Compton, California, this week reports another pastor arrested for abusing the church’s trust. This minister took as much as $800,000 from the church, according to the FBI.
The FBI? They call the feds in on these things? They do. This is not a private little matter between a pastor and the mayor or the police chief, who may even be a member of your church. This is serious stuff. The Compton pastor will spend several years in the federal penitentiary.
You might think all the members of that church would be upset at the preacher. You’d be wrong.
You’d be surprised how many church members excuse the preacher’s malfeasance with, “But he’s such a wonderful man. When mama died, he ministered to us better than any pastor I’ve ever known.”
You might also be surprised to learn that church members are irritated at the lay leadership for not building in checks and balances to guard against the preacher’s embezzlement. Some will even justify the preacher’s behavior, believe it or not.
“You call it embezzlement?” I hear the preacher saying. “I just overspent an account or two.” Oh yeah.
According to the news story, the Compton pastor went before the church and excused his greed with the explanation that he overspent his housing allowance. He didn’t say he did it to the tune of almost a million dollars.
I keep thinking about the sons of Eli.
Two of my favorite Bible names are Hophni and Phinehas. These scalawags were priests in Israel back in the days before the little nation had kings. Their daddy was the high priest and in that country at that time, that was as good as royalty.
These boys became patron saints for every wicked preacher or deacon’s kid since. They took advantage of their father’s blind trust in them, lined their pockets with church offerings and seduced the gullible women who entered the sanctuary. Their story is told in chapters 2-4 of I Samuel.
What strikes me about the story of these men, however, is the failure of their father, Eli, to hold them accountable. As a father, he should have disciplined them. As the high priest, he should have fired them.
God in Heaven decided to kill them.
Here are a few comments from the Scripture’s account….
“Now the sons of Eli were worthless men; they did not know the Lord.” (I Sam. 2:12) Literally, in the Hebrew they are called “sons of Belial,” or SOBs for short.
“Thus the sin of the young men was very great before the Lord, for the men despised the offering of the Lord.” 2:17
“Now Eli was very old, and he heard all that his sons were doing to all Israel…. And he said to them, ‘Why do you do such things, the evil things that I hear from all these people? No, my sons, for the report is not good which I hear the Lord’s people circulating.” 2:22-24
“But they would not listen to the voice of their father, for the Lord desired to put them to death.” 2:25
God had their names on His appointment calendar.
To Eli, the Lord said, “Why do you honor your sons above me?” 2:29
To Samuel, God said, “I have told Eli that I am about to judge his house forever for the iniquity which he knew, because his sons brought a curse on themselves and he did not rebuke them.” 3:13
There are two levels of sinful, rebellious behavior going on here. There is the wickedness of the sons, explained by the fact that they did not know the Lord.
And there is the failure of Eli as both father and high priest to do his job and hold these young men accountable for their actions. Eli would die, too, when he heard the news of the defeat of Israel at the hands of the Philistines, the capture of the ark of God, and the death of his two sons. (4:18)
All of this is a cry for the church leadership–different in every church, but perhaps the deacons or finance committee or the church leadership team (what we used to call the church council)–to write some policies of accountability and live by them.
The best time to do this is during the interim between pastors.
The second best time to do it is now.
The pastor would do well to take the lead in this. If a minister knows himself to be a man of integrity who would not dare abuse the trust of the congregation–thank God there are plenty of such–then, he should take the initiative in this in order to protect the church’s future.
Once these structures are in place–perhaps a monthly going-over of all checks written by the finance committee and written reports and receipts turned in by the ministers–it’s up to the lay leadership to follow through and make sure they are being observed.
The old adage is true: “People do not do what you expect; they do what you inspect.”
Sometime in the early 1990s I learned I was going to have to keep a daily log in my car of my comings and goings and mark the mileage down every day. I protested. “What silliness! Pastors don’t have time for this!”
But I adapted. And now it’s second nature. Even in my retirement, I enter my car, start it up, and reach for the book in the door pocket. I unclip the pen and note today’s mileage numbers and jot in where I’m going.
It takes all of 20 seconds. It’s for my own good if I expect to be able to justify the miles to the IRS on my annual tax forms.
No one enjoys the hurdles our world erects that those of us in the ministry are expected to clear. No preacher would automatically volunteer for more reports to fill out and more committee meetings. We groan at the very thought.
But some things are worth it. The continuation and survival of one’s ministry and the honor and reputation of the church are worth any amount of inconvenience on the preacher’s part.
And, let us add, the layman’s part, too. After all, it’s a hassle for a businessman or woman to come home from work after a long day, get a quick bite of supper, and instead of spending a quiet evening with the family, drive to the church and sit in a meeting geared to making sure the preachers have been responsible with the church’s credit card.
It’s a hassle, friend, but I’ll tell you….
It may be the best gift you could ever give your minister.