One in Three Churches Will Be Victims of Embezzlement, Experts Say

By Anne Stych
Church Fraud embezzlement fraud money
Embezzlement will cost churches $170 billion by 2050 if current trends continue, says Todd Johnson of the Center for the Study of Global Christianity (Photo: LightField Studios / stock image)

Trust is important to religious organizations. But misplaced trust can lead to financial fraud, and churches need to take steps to protect themselves from people who will take advantage of their good will, said the co-director of the Center for the Study of Global Christianity.

Embezzlement will cost churches $170 billion in the year 2050 if current trends continue, Todd Johnson told Christianity Today.

He said that although financial fraud would ideally be less prevalent within the religious community, giving is part of the church model — and where there’s money, there are thieves. 

Among recent cases: 

  • A bishop and a lay leader of the African Methodist Episcopal Church in California mortgaged church properties to obtain $14 million in loans to buy real estate.
  • A Lubbock, Texas, church bookkeeper spent $450,000 on church credit cards to pay for a car loan, medical expenses, and meals and to finance a business she co-owned.

The center said 1 in 3 churches will be victims of embezzlement, but 27% won’t report the crime. Because churches trust people to do the right thing, members often have a hard time believing they have been victimized — even after a church employee has been convicted of embezzlement and sent to prison, Johnson said.   

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“Our hope in bringing this to light is that churches would take seriously the issues of accountability and stop this as much as possible,” he said. 

He predicts some of the growth will be driven by economic gains in countries like India and China, where Christianity will transition from the church of the rural poor to more wealthy urban centers — and with more money comes more fraud.  

“As a global community, we might pay a price for that growth,” Johnson said. 

The center recommends churches take the following steps to ensure their money is safeguarded against theft:

  • Instill checks and balances at every step of the money-handling process.
  • Cultivate a culture of accountability; don’t rely on trust.
  • Commit to transparency; report any crime that has been committed.

This story originally appeared at MinistryWatch.

Anne StycheAnne Stych is a freelance writer, copy editor, proofreader and content manager covering science, technology, retail, and nonprofits. She writes for American City Business Journals’ BizWomen and MinistryWatch.

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4 thoughts on “One in Three Churches Will Be Victims of Embezzlement, Experts Say”

  1. +1 on Instill checks and balances. That alone would make a huge difference.
    Sadly, many churches are moving the wrong direction on that, putting more control in the hands of a few, with no accountability.
    RUN BACKGROUND CHECKS! It astonishes me how many churches do not run background checks on volunteers and potential employees.

    – Greg

  2. Kathleen Zielinski

    When I was a child, I always thought that church leadership was made up entirely of righteous, godly people who sought the Holy Spirit’s leading in everything they did. Then, when I was in college, I took a summer internship in the legal department of a major evangelical denomination (won’t say which one). Boy, were my eyes opened. I could equally as well have been working at any major corporation — the carnality, self-interest, ambition, pride, all of it was there on full display.

    Churches are the Body of Christ, but they are also businesses, and why are we surprised when it turns out they are run like businesses? Or that the same sinful leadership at the top of any other business seems to find its way to the top of our businesses too? Or that at least some of the people in it are doing it just for the money and may not even be genuine Christians?

    We need to recognize that fact. The sin nature does not disappear just because it’s a church.

  3. Mark Biddinger

    Having spent the better part of 30 years in senior finance leadership roles including nonprofit organizations like churches and universities, I always look for the fraud triangle. When motive/pressure, opportunity and rationalization converge, fraud usually follows. Look at your staff, and see if they are experiencing any one of these pieces of the triangle and you can identify and mitigate fraud.

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