Q&A: Protecting Church Members

How can we keep our members from being taken advantage of financially?

An older woman from a foreign country, who calls herself a prophet, appeared at our church and solicited financial support from our congregants in exchange for praying over our cathedral for approximately six months. An affluent member of the church volunteered to let her stay in his home. No one knows anything about this woman—who is quite assertive—and exactly where she is from. She continually talks about not having any money for her trips, and yet she wears expensive jewelry and outfits. Some of us are concerned. How can a church protect itself from such strangers showing up and taking advantage of the generosity of members of a congregation?
According to some reports, nearly two-thirds of all financial frauds were promoted through common church involvement. The promoters take advantage of the trust developed through their common church affiliation, as well as the lack of financial sophistication of many church members.
Armed with this knowledge, the church should view all those seeking to use or abuse its members with skepticism. This means if the new “prophet” or business person seeks resources or investments from members or the church, red flags should go up. If their story does not add up (expensive clothes and jewelry while seeking monetary assistance, for example), the church should check into the person’s background.
The church can ask them where they have lived and worshipped for the last five years. The church should ask for pastoral and personal references from the last five years. The church can also engage a private investigator to run criminal background checks along with credit reports. The private investigator report should not cost more than a few hundred dollars. If the person refuses to provide all this information, or delays in providing information more than a day or so, the church should request the individual to leave the church and not contact members. The church should also consider reporting their suspicions to the police.
In sum, trust, but verify to keep church members from being exploited financially by strangers.
Frank Sommerville is a both a CPA and attorney, and a longtime Editorial Advisor for Church Law & Tax.

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