Recent Developments

Issues that affect ministers and churches
Benevolence Funds and Money Laundering
Key point 7-21. Embezzlement refers to the wrongful conversion of funds that are lawfully in one's possession. Embezzlement is a common occurrence in churches because of weak internal controls.

A Florida court affirmed a pastor's conviction for grand theft and money laundering as a result of his use of a church benevolence fund to pay more than $100,000 in personal expenses. The pastor served as pastor of a local congregation from 1995 until 2009. The church received donations from various sources, and the donations were divided among four bank accounts: the mortgage account, the operating account, the scholarship account, and the benevolent account. Parishioners could designate which account their contributions should be deposited, and each account had a dedicated use. As to the benevolent account, the funds were to be used solely to help those in need in the community, and the church gave the pastor sole control over the use of that account. As to the other accounts, the pastor had no more than joint control; however, while the church required two signors on every check, the banks where the accounts were held did not.

Between 2007 and 2009, the pastor paid numerous personal bills with money from the benevolent account, so much so that it amounted to his essentially using the account as an extension of his personal checking account. To avoid detection of his use of the funds, he manipulated the benevolent and mortgage accounts so as to conceal many of the improper transactions. For example, he would write a check from the mortgage account and deposit that check into the benevolent account, which was kept at another bank. He then would write a check from the benevolent account to himself or to petty cash and then cash that check and "pocket" the proceeds by depositing them into his personal account at another bank. The evidence at trial showed that the pastor managed to pilfer approximately $115,204 in church funds over two years, and approximately $29,180 of that total resulted from the disguised transactions between the mortgage and benevolent accounts.

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