By Tim Funk
tfunk@charlotteobserver.com

This week’s conviction of Bishop Anthony Jinwright holds lessons for every pastor and congregation in the Charlotte region and beyond.

That’s the verdict of church finance expert Dan Busby, who heads the national Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability.

He reviewed the trial and called it “one of the most egregious cases” of pastoral misconduct that he’s seen. Jinwright led Greater Salem City of God, a church in west Charlotte, since 1981. A jury convicted him and wife Harriet, after hearing the following: They took the church credit card to Vegas, had the congregation pay for their luxury cars and their daughter’s college tuition, demanded his $50,000 raise be taken out of money the church had borrowed, and failed to report more than $2.3 million in taxable income to the IRS.

Because of that last lapse, the Jinwrights – both found guilty of tax evasion – could spend the next few decades in prison. They’ll be sentenced later this year.

Busby hopes pastors and lay leaders were paying close attention to these revelations from the trial. “It’s grievous to see these things happen,” he says, “yet there are lessons to be learned out of this.”

They’re not necessarily new lessons for the Charlotte area, which has seen other local preachers use their ministries like personal ATMs. In 1987, the PTL empire collapsed amid scandal: Jim Bakker paid hush money to keep church secretary Jessica Hahn quiet about their sexual encounter, and PTL defrauded thousands of followers by overselling “lifetime partnerships” in Heritage Village.

And just three years ago, the Rev. John Henry Walker was sentenced to prison for tax evasion and for stealing from his congregation at Charlotte’s Macedonia Baptist Church. His case offered some of the same lessons as the Jinwrights’ trial.

Among those who didn’t pick up on them: Jinwright himself, who was Walker’s spiritual mentor and who prayed with him during that 2007 prosecution.

Here are five lessons churches can take from the Jinwrights’ case:

1. Churches should use standard accounting practices.

That means having internal controls in place that keep employees – including the pastor – accountable.

Clear personnel policies and rules, for example, can ensure everyone has to go through an approval process when it comes to expenses. Experts also recommend regular internal and external audits. Charlotte is home to several CPAs with a specialty in church finances.

“You cannot assume that because it’s a church, everybody will do the right thing,” says Phill Martin, deputy CEO of the National Association of Church Business Administrators. “Most churches are made up of sinners.”

2. Churches need governing boards that will hold pastors accountable.

At Greater Salem City of God, the Jinwright-appointed board practiced deference, rather than oversight.

Pastors calling the shots or riding roughshod over weak boards is a growing national problem, says Vern Hargrave, author of “Weeds in the Garden: The Growing Danger of Fraud Taking Root in the Church.”

His Fort Worth, Texas, accounting firm had such a bad experience cleaning up after one pastor that it changed its client acceptance policy: It will take only churches that have independent boards – groups of elders or deacons, finance committees – that are clearly providing oversight. Some experts recommend that the congregation elect the board and that membership carry term limits. Others say that there’s room for considering tradition and biblical principles in deciding church leadership roles, as long as internal controls are in place.

3. Three words: Checks and balances.

Making sure power is dispersed, and that no one person dominates, is especially important when it comes to money.

Segregate the financial duties, spread the money chores around: Get two unrelated people to count the Sunday collection. Get somebody else to write the checks.

“There’s common sense in not leaving the money in the hand of one person – ever,” says Lee Thrasher, executive minister at Charlotte’s Providence Road Church of Christ.

4. With tax laws evolving and often complicated, it’s crucial that pastors and other church employees stay up to date.

The question of whether churches are confused about IRS rules dominated the closing arguments in the Jinwrights’ trial.

Author-accountant Hargrave and other experts are convinced that the confusion is real, and that some tax law violations are made out of ignorance.

“Tax law is an area that’s not covered in seminary,” says Thrasher, who also heads the local chapter of the national church administrators group. Churches are tax-exempt. Pastors aren’t, though there are IRS rules that cover their salaries and housing allowances.

Pastors must consider complicated questions as they prepare their tax forms.

For instance, pastors of some churches commonly receive “love offerings” – financial gifts from their congregation or from a church where they gave a guest sermon.

At Greater Salem City of God, the Jinwrights got into trouble with federal prosecutors for taking home such collections without counting them or reporting them as income to the IRS.

The IRS has generally found “love offerings” to be taxable, but the rules are fuzzier when it involves cash that comes from individuals rather than congregations or from church treasuries.

To make sure a pastor isn’t receiving a salary that is excessive – at least in the IRS’ eyes – Martin recommends that church boards consult ministry pay databases that track compensation paid by churches of varying sizes.

At Charlotte’s St. John’s Baptist, “we have a personnel committee that arrives at benefits and compensation, and it’s done strictly by the book,” says Dr. Hank Packman, former head of the church’s board of deacons. “The pastor may have some suggestions on housing (allowance) but the personnel committee makes it their business to understand the rules and follow the law.”

5. It’s OK to raise questions about whether church money is being used properly.

Speak up if it seems church funds are being used for personal, rather than church, purposes.

One red flag is when the pastor’s lifestyle becomes flamboyant and excessive. Another, says Martin, is when the pastor “develops a sense of entitlement. ‘The church owes me.’ ‘I should drive a nice car.’”

A third thing to watch for: pastors who want to add their family members to the payroll for doing…nothing.

“You see a lot of churches where the wife is co-pastor,” Martin says. “The question is: Does she really have a job? Does she have a job description, with performance requirements as a way to evaluate them?”

WANT TO KNOW MORE?

There are free e-mail newsletters such as “Church Law & Tax Update” (twice monthly) and “Church Finance Update” (monthly). To sign up for either, visit www.churchlawtoday.com.

Dan Busby, president of the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability, has written two books that are updated annually: “The Minister’s Tax and Financial Guide” and “The Church and Non-Profit Tax and Financial Guide,” both published by Zondervan. Busby also writes a blog.

Christianity Today publishes Richard Hammar’s “Church & Clergy Tax Guide.”

Groups hosting workshops include the National Association of Church Business Administrators. www.nacba.net

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