|A confidential settlement last spring placed money in an irrevocable trust controlled by a court-appointed guardian for a mentally-ill woman named Lucinda Bennett. The guardian had sued the First Baptist Church of West Palm Beach, Fla., and the church’s pastor, Keith Thomas, on the grounds that they relentlessly and systemically solicited money from Bennett to the tune of some $1.8 million.
An active member of the church, Bennett inherited approximately $2.5 million from her great-grandmother’s estate.
Shortly thereafter, the church and its employees “began to systematically, repeatedly, and relentlessly solicit money” from Bennett, according to the lawsuit.
The complaint against the church charged that the pastor “manipulated” Bennett’s “religious beliefs and convictions so that she sold the condominium she lived in,” which “she had inherited from her great-grandmother, and transferred all of the sale proceeds, approximately $530,000.00 to the Defendants.”
Bennett ran out of money over the next year, becoming destitute. A lawsuit ensued when the church leadership refused to return her money.
As an expert witness in the case for the plaintiff, I read the voluminous depositions, although I have no knowledge about the contents of the settlement between the two parties.
The facts of the case disclose a disturbing breach of ministerial ethics -- both in what the ministerial staff did and did not do. Additionally, the church appeared to lack guidelines for employee accountability and protection.
Take the deposition of Tommy Weir, the senior associate pastor, who had graduated from Liberty University and Criswell College. He had a doctorate in strategic leadership from Regent University. He had done fund raising for Jerry Falwell Ministries.
After several years on church staff, Weir announced he was leaving the staff. The church took up a “love offering,” a tradition of churches collecting voluntary financial gifts for departing staff members.
Asked in a deposition if he knew Bennett, Weir answered, “Quite possibly.”
The plaintiff’s lawyer asked, “Would it be fair to say that you hardly knew the woman?”
Weir answered, “I don’t know if I would recognize the woman if she walked in the door.”
After another question, the lawyer asked, “Did there come a time when Ms. Bennett gave you a check for $25,000?”
Weir replied, “We had a love offering when I left the church.”
The lawyer soon asked, “Did you receive a check payable to you personally for $25,000 on or about May 1st from Lucida [sic] Bennett?”
Weir answered, “Possibly.”
“Yes or no?” asked the lawyer.
Weir answered that he assumed so because the defendant’s lawyer had told him the day before that he had received a check from her. Weir finally said he would not deny that he had received a check from the plaintiff, saying, “I vaguely remember getting a check, but I don’t remember the dollar amount.”
Asked the total amount of his love offering, he said it was $30,000. Weir then admitted that the plaintiff’s check constituted the vast majority of the love offering.
“Okay. And what you’re telling me then is you received this check as a love offering from a person who you really didn’t know if she walked through the door?” asked the attorney.
“Correct,” answered Weir.
“Did you have any reason at that point in time to question why a check in that amount was given to you from a total stranger?” asked the plaintiff’s lawyer.
After the defendants’ lawyers objected to the question, Weir answered, “No.”
Given the fact that staff members had multiple accounts related to Bennett’s unacceptable behavior in church activities, was it probable that Weir did not know Bennett? Given the fact that Weir supervised the church staff, was Weir’s assertion that he did not know Bennett believable?
Is it possible that Weir did not know a church member who had given a $203,713.70 check in February (from her great-grandmother) and a $225,000 personal check in March to the church?
Was his memory credible about the amount of her personal check to him?
If he really didn’t know Bennett, what should Weir have done upon receiving her check for $25,000? Should he have sought to certify who the donor was? Should he have counseled with the church’s attorney or the chair of deacons or the chair of the finance committee about what to do with the gift? Should he have asked Bennett to process her gift through the church?
Should a minister ever accept a personal check from someone they don’t know, especially a $25,000 check? Is that wise decision making?
Although he was leaving the church, the church was still his employer. Did Weir have an obligation to report such an unusual gift to his employer?
Should the church have had a clear policy about employees accepting checks directly from church members?
Did Weir act as a pastor, one morally obligated to protect the flock from harm? Or did he take advantage of one of the vulnerable members of the flock? Was he a shepherd or false shepherd?
These are the kinds of questions that churches and church ministers need to consider.
After all, the love of money is a dangerous thing in churches. It is so dangerous that Apostle Paul warned the early church that a bishop should be “no lover of money” (1 Tim. 3:3) and deacons should “not [be] greedy for gain” (v. 8). He wrote, “For the love of money is the root of all evils” (1 Tim. 6:10).
That biblical truth about the danger of money surely necessitates walls of financial separation in churches to protect tempted clergy and vulnerable laity.
Robert Parham is executive editor of EthicsDaily.com and executive director of its parent organization, the Baptist Center for Ethics.