When Benevolence Ministry Becomes Risky

Around lunchtime on a Friday, a man entered a Boston-area church and soon left with the church secretary's purse, according to a local news station. The man claimed he needed money to support his five children. After the secretary went to consult the pastor on how to respond, the man—and also her purse—were gone.

The man also approached another church with the same story. That church gave him a $50 Target gift card.

Fortunately, the police caught the man at a local store using the secretary's credit card, according to Fox News.

Benevolence ministry, like all ministries within a church, presents risk. Property, funds, and employees are at risk when doors are open to the public to request money from the church. Policies and preparation can minimize these risks.

Protect Property

"In the course of dealing with a loss, many churches have admitted they were probably too trusting," says Peter Kujak, a senior claims adjuster for Brotherhood Mutual Insurance Company, in Guard Valuables When Others Use Building. "They didn't assume there was a risk from those who came through the doors. They realized too late the need to control access to their building and to lock up valuable items."

A few tips Brotherhood Mutual offers for when outsiders have access to the building:

  • Lock the doors of interior offices, classrooms, and supply rooms when not in use.
  • Restrict access to unused parts of the building. If you cannot control access otherwise, consider installing collapsible metal gates that bolt to walls, such as those you find in schools.
  • Use a safe for petty cash, small valuables, keys, and important documents.

Protect Church Finances

Churches often receive requests for financial assistance, and it's difficult to assess the truthfulness of each request. To help make the decision easier, church leaders can develop criteria for individuals who may receive assistance and determine how benevolence funds should be disbursed, says Dan Busby, president of the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability (ECFA), in Safeguard the Church Treasury. For church leaders developing a benevolence policy or updating a current one, a sample is included in Benevolence Fund Basics.

Abiding by tax laws for benevolence ministry is also an important way to protect money. For example, in Benevolence Fund Basics, Richard Hammar writes:

Nearly every church has at least one person who is continually in need, or at least continually requests assistance. The IRS grows concerned when the benevolence assistance is regular and continuous. If the person also volunteers at the church, the IRS will likely claim that the payments were wages. If the payment is substantial, the IRS will likely claim that the person is receiving a private benefit, jeopardizing the church's tax-exempt status.

Hammar goes into more detail about how to comply with these and other tax requirements in Benevolence Fund Basics.

Protect People

Guarding property is valuable, but so is guarding employees. A year ago, a tragedy shook Arlington, Texas, during a weekday afternoon, according to NBC News. A church pastor was murdered and the church secretary was badly beaten.

"Church administrators who are working alone at the church most often are the victims of robbery," says James Cobble in Securing Church Property. "Keep doors locked during regular office hours. Install a remote-controlled door lock that the administrator can activate from the church office. An employee should be able to see who is at the door through a window, a peephole, or through video surveillance."

He also adds:

Create a physical barrier between the reception space used to greet visitors and the administrator. For example, the administrator may be in a locked office that has a sliding window that opens up to the reception area. Or the office may have a counter that separates the administrator from people in the office. Some churches install a ‘Dutch door' in the administrator's office. The bottom half of the door remains locked while the top half is open. The administrator should be seated in a location that enables a natural surveillance of who is outside the office, or who is entering the office.

Benevolence ministry is a wonderful opportunity for churches to follow Scripture's call to love the poor. Even though risks are present, churches can minimize them—and should take steps to do so.

This content is designed to provide accurate and authoritative information in regard to the subject matter covered. It is published with the understanding that the publisher is not engaged in rendering legal, accounting, or other professional service. If legal advice or other expert assistance is required, the services of a competent professional person should be sought. "From a Declaration of Principles jointly adopted by a Committee of the American Bar Association and a Committee of Publishers and Associations."


Displaying 1–4 of 4 comments


May 07, 2012  11:34am

to Sue above who asked "when will people realize that we are not in Kansas anymore? And why aren't we in Kansas anymore? Because the education establishment and the media have undermined the influence of faith, good religion, and churches. Lousy entertainment has popularized immorality–such that over 60% of black kids are raised without father in the home –and 29% of white. And over 60% of black men will experience jail at least once by the time they are 35. Why??? "The sins of the parents are passed on...." The church can't keep up with the damage of the breakdown of marriage –and now half the country wants to worsen it –suggesting it doesn't matter who marries –why not two men or two women. Because God knew best: the woman was made for man and they complement one another for the rearing and civilizing of children.

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April 27, 2012  9:36pm

This is so sad. I remember the days when I walked three blocks from my house and the church doors were always open. I was a young girl and I went in there to pray. Our children and grandchildren will never know of this kind of trust or sense of security. When will people realize that we are not in "Kansas" anymore.

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Michelle Dowell

April 25, 2012  9:08am

Annie, I'm sorry to hear about the recent crime in your area that affects your church and many other churches. I admire your church's desire to still pursue helping the poor while keeping your church staff safe. Thanks for sharing your experiences in this. I'm sure people who read your comment will benefit from not feeling alone in dealing with these issues. Sincerely, Michelle Dowell

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April 24, 2012  10:37am

Speaking as church staff, we had a bunch of break-ins at several churches in our area (upscale suburbs) a few years back that caused those of us who still left our doors unlocked to begin locking them after hours. Some were still broken-into after that. Some were strictly thefts and some included vandalism costing lots of $ to repair (not to mention the demoralizing effect on church members!) Recently several churches were robbed by persons requesting assistance and then stealing whatever was handy when staff left the office to get assistance. Often these were staff's personal items (purses, camera, winter coat, cell phone, etc.) that were not covered by the church's insurance policy and staff was simply left empty-handed (not reimbursed by insurance or church for the loss.) We used to hand out gift cards but after being taken advantage of by intimidating people abusing the system we had to stop. We now keep all doors locked when staff is here alone. We have an intercom system to the outside front doors so staff can speak to whoever comes to the door without having to open it. We have a large dog who attends with staff each business day. Staff is not allowed to open the doors when here alone. We are sorry to have to take such steps but we are somewhat isolated from the main road and traffic and have to put the safety of staff ahead of our ability to provide immediate assistance to whoever shows up. So sad (but necessary!) We now support those in need in other ways, like supporting local food & clothing pantries, soup kitchens, etc. We have a list of organizations that are able to provide different types of assistance and people in need are referred there (where they have the staff and resources to determine legitimacy etc.) Unfortunately criminals have learned that the church is an easy target, too trusting, and lacking in even the most basic security measures. They know churches are under-staffed and easy targets for theft and violence. To top it off, many churches are set back from the street in secluded locations, so their chances of being seen entering or leaving the scene of the crime are slim. Yes we are Christians, but that doesn't mean we should be naiive or ignorant about the world we live in and risk the safety of staff and clergy.

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