Preacher Keith Thomas received six checks totaling $60,000 from a woman who had written only 10 days earlier a $25,000 personal check to his associate pastor, a man leaving the staff of First Baptist Church of West Palm Beach, Fla., after only a few years of employment.
Were such generous gifts coincidence or collusion? Were the gifts coerced or contributed voluntarily by a responsible individual?
Those questions and others were at the heart of a lawsuit filed by the court-appointed guardian for Lucinda Bennett against the church and its pastor.
The church eventually settled a lawsuit, placing an undisclosed about of money in an irrevocable trust for Bennett. While I served as an expert witness for the plaintiff, I do not know the details of the confidential settlement.
Some case background is in order: An active member of the church, Bennett had 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 to the tune of some $1.8 million, 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.”
Church staff depositions documented Bennett’s behavioral problems.
Kenneth Winter, a long-time staff member, testified to having problems with her on a mission trip to Mexico.
Kim Kerr, director of the church’s crisis pregnancy center, testified that Bennett was a volunteer at the crisis pregnancy center who was suspended for inappropriate behavior and urged to seek counseling. Kerr said Bennett’s “behavior and/or conversations tended to extremes.” After weeks of counseling, Bennett was not allowed to return to “counseling” at the center with pregnant women.
Asked if she informed Winter, her supervisor, about Bennett’s suspension, Kerr answered, “Absolutely.”
Asked if he approved of her action, Kerr said, “Yes.”
Winter also testified that Pastor Thomas knew Bennett had given the church a $225,000 check, which was dated March 30, 2000.
On May 1, she wrote a $25,000 personal check to Tommy Weir, the departing staff member. On May 11, she wrote separate checks for $10,000 each to the six members of the Thomas family.
Thomas denied that he knew about the gift to Weir. He admitted that he knew that Bennett had inherited money from her great-grandmother and that she had made some gifts to the church.
“What is your responsibility as a pastor in a situation where a parishioner is giving a large sum of money to the church?” asked the plaintiff’s attorney.
“I have no personal corporate responsibility except to channel that money where they gave it and express appreciation for their generosity,” answered Thomas, who later said in the deposition, “My job as a pastor is not to be the financial watchdog of every individual.”
Asked what his responsibility was related to a gift from a mentally-ill church member, Thomas questioned the definition of mental illness. He did say that if he had known she was mentally ill, he would have refused her gifts.
Thomas said he never saw any evidence of mental illness—whether in the church choir, at a children’s camp, in his home or during a counseling session with her. He said he did not know about the problems to which other staff members testified.
The plaintiff attorney asked, “Why did you accept this sum of money from Lucinda Bennett?”
Thomas answered, “Because it was given out of what I perceived to be a sincere heart of gratitude and desire to bless.”
The attorney asked, “But you weren’t close with her, you didn’t know her, weren’t good friends with her?”
“Uh-uh,” replied Thomas.
“You had just a passing contact with this lady?” questioned the attorney.
Thomas answered, “Yes.”
Asked to explain why Bennett gave his family such a gift, Thomas said that she gave it on his 10th anniversary at the church. He said earlier that she was concerned about his retirement since he had told the church that he was putting his retirement contributions toward the church’s fund-raising campaign.
Pressed about accepting such a gift from someone he hardly knew, Thomas said, “I did not think there was anything wrong with me receiving a gift from a person that was in the church and actively serving and expressing gratitude for what she saw happening in her own life and in the life of the church.”
The Thomas case raises questions: (1) Is there anything wrong with a pastor accepting large gifts from a church member? (2) Does the pastor’s familiarity with a church member make a difference in the acceptance of a substantial gift? (3) Should a pastor accept personal gifts in the midst of a church fund-raising campaign?
Many denominations help to answer such questions with codes of ministerial conduct. For example, the Church of the Brethren’s code of ethics calls leaders to make three covenant commitments:
- “We will not use our office or authority to apply influence upon a parishioner or others in order to get bequests, gifts or loans that would personally benefit us.”
- “We will act with financial integrity in all our dealings, professionally and personally.”
- “We will endeavor to manage our affairs in order to live within our income and neither expect nor specify financial favors, fees or gratuities because of our position.”
Ministerial codes of conduct will neither resolve knotty fiduciary questions nor ensure that some clergy don’t leverage their positions for financial advantage. Codes of conduct will provide guidelines that help clergy avoid the appearance of impropriety and maybe even lawsuits.
Does your branch of the Baptist river have clergy codes for conduct?
Robert Parham is executive editor of EthicsDaily.com and executive director of its parent organization, the Baptist Center for Ethics.