Money and ministry: Are we serving the right master?

Too often in the church, we can develop a casual attitude to other people’s money, says Philippa. Photo: OSV News/Gregory A. Shemitz

My column on the church and money triggered a few readers – thanks for getting in touch. Quite a few people have an opinion or story to tell.

This comes hot on the heels of last weekend’s parish cake stall, which I help to organise and run. I also collect the money and the EFTPOS receipts, count it all, do a spreadsheet, and then give it to the parish counting committee on the following Monday.

I am in no danger of running away to Paris on the proceeds. But if I can’t account for every cent I practically have nightmares, because it’s not my money, and I am painfully aware of this.

Too often in the church, we can develop a casual attitude to other people’s money. This has led priests to embezzle, dioceses to end up in the red, and cardinals to go on trial.

In the last week, I’ve heard some interesting stories from parish land. Youth group funds have gone missing, or priests have been transferred and left behind them a trail of financial chaos.

My favourite was the parish with $1.5 million in debt which spent over $200,000 on a financial consultant to help them develop a plan to pay it off. His advice? Do some fundraising.

In every case, money matters caused pain and misery in the parish community. It’s hugely sad.

But that’s what can happen, because money brings out the best and worst in us. The love of money, says St Paul, is the root of all evil (1 Timothy 6:10).

St Paul isn’t criticising money itself. Nor did Jesus, who said it should be used in this life to make good friends who will welcome you into eternal life (Luke 16:9).

Let’s look at the whole verse from St Paul: “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.”

US Catholic news outlet The Pillar recently featured a story about fraud and misuse of parish funds. In fact, the Journal of Forensic and Investigative Accounting published a scholarly article about this last year.

It’s not clear if it’s happening more often, or if priests— who are the main offenders—are being caught more often. Robert Warren and Timothy Fogarty, the authors, say that religious bodies are often exposed to fraud for several reasons.

They tend to be slow to adopt modern business practices, including internal controls, and they also tend to have a lot of cash still floating around.

When this system meets something called the “fraud triangle”—motivation, opportunity, and rationalisation—bad things can easily happen.

Warren and Fogarty looked at a range of reported embezzlements over time and uncovered all sorts of motives for stealing from church funds. Priests stole to fund lifestyles, gambling addictions, and secret families.

But some stole to give to charities or to support their families in developing countries. Some kept stashes of money off the books to keep struggling parishes open for longer.

One group of priests were padding their retirement funds. This helps to explain why the average age of the priests in the US who’ve been caught is 52—they’re planning for a more comfortable future.

I know that Jesus said we should use money to help us make friends, but I’m not sure this is exactly what he had in mind.

When there’s no parish council, or a very docile parish council whose members don’t understand money, that means less oversight. This can lead to an attitude of “it’s not really stealing.”

Some priests in the US have tried to argue that canon law gave them the right to spend the money as they wished. Sometimes this worked as a defence in court, and sometimes it didn’t.

Sadly, a lot of these cases also involved parish employees who looked the other way. Sometimes it was the parish secretary, but in one instance it was the diocesan finance officer.

Some of the stories I was told last week also involved a person in authority being casual about church financial impropriety.

When concerns were raised about the finances, this person would dismiss it by saying that worse things happen in Rome, or that money always goes missing in church circles, and so on.

This casual attitude is fatal. It needs to be weeded out if we’re going to have a climate of proper fiscal honesty in our churches.

Transparency about money is the church’s best friend. There’s literally nothing to fear.

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