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Pastor Arrested Then Released

By Raul Rivera

Several years ago while in Houston, TX, a former pastor of a small church shared a conversation with me during which he unveiled the details of a terrible experience he had undergone while pastoring. It all began when his church decided to purchase a used swing set from an army surplus store.  The church needed a swing set for the small children, and so when an opportunity to purchase one from the army surplus store came up, it naturally seemed like a great idea.  Because the pastor's travels prevented him from being able to see the set at the time of purchase, he bought it sight unseen for less than $300.00 and asked a church volunteer to run a check to the store and to have the set delivered.

Upon returning from his trip, there in the back of the churchyard sat a dismantled, pressure-treated, wooden swing set.  He and several men of the church tried to put it together, but there were so many parts missing and broken that it was impossible to salvage.  Regrettably, they decided that the swing set needed to be thrown away.  They cut it up into pieces and discarded it in the church dumpster.  However, before going home the pastor noticed a board that was in good enough shape to be converted into something useful. Deciding that he would like to at least salvage what he could, he went to the dumpster, removed the board from the pile, and threw it into his vehicle.  Driving home, he felt cheated!  He also realized that the church had gotten ripped off; he settled in his heart right then and there that he had learned his lesson about buying things sight unseen.  Oh well, no need to continue meditating on that failure.  It is best to simply move on.

One month later

Within one month, the IRS audited the owner of the surplus store and learned that he had committed tax fraud.  As part of the investigation, they discovered the invoice between the church and the surplus store.  Naturally, they called the pastor and asked him to describe the nature of that transaction.  He explained how they bought the swing set and had to throw it away because it was unusable.  He also explained how they felt the owner deceived them into believing it was a good swing set.  When the agent asked how they discarded the swing set, he told them that they threw it into the dumpster and that the only remnant was a board he pulled out of the trash and made into a see-saw for his daughter.  The agent asked if there was any paperwork or documentation revealing the unfortunate situation that forced them to throw it away.  Was there anything, such as board meeting minutes or resolutions, which the agent could use that "would help in their investigation?"  The pastor said he had none.  The agent thanked him for his testimony and bid his farewells.

One year later

It was 11:00 p.m. and the pastor was getting ready to turn in for the night when there was a knock at his door.  "Who could it be at this time of night?"  When he went to the door, he was surprised to see a U.S. Marshal in full uniform.  The marshal asked him if he was Pastor So-and-So.  The pastor answered, "Yes."  "I have a warrant for your arrest."  What a shocking moment.  Right there in front of his family, he was taken into custody and charged with embezzlement and conspiracy to commit fraud.  

Why he was released

He was charged with embezzling from the church because the agent said he took the swing set from the church.  He was also charged with conspiracy to commit fraud, because it was believed he did it in agreement with the owner of the surplus store.  However, further investigation revealed that none of the charges should have ever been filed against the pastor.

Why did this happen?

When I first heard this pastor's account, I instantly realized the importance of documentation and how it can be a lifesaver.  When the church decided to throw away the swing set, it should have documented it in its minutes that the swing had to be thrown away.  When the pastor said he had no documentation to prove that the church had discarded it, it appeared that he used church property for his own gain.  As a tax exempt organization, the church must comply with the requirement that "no part of the assets, income, or profit shall be distributed to or inure to the benefit of officers thereof or to any private individual."   Everything was later cleared up, when a board member corroborated the pastor's story; but the damage was done.  He spent the night in jail and went through the discomfort, embarrassment, and uncertainty of being arrested.

Know what you should know

Pastoring and leading a ministry is not just preaching.  It has its pitfalls and you need to know them.  Prudence tells us to ask one question.  "What don't I know?"  Chances are high that there is much to learn when it comes to the compliance side of leading a ministry.  We are here to help.  

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