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Pastoral Excuses for stealing $392k?

A former rector at St. Stephens Church in Colorado Springs is in big trouble… accused of stealing $392,000 from the church treasury.

Rev. Donald Armstrong’s reasoning in court this week?  Well… he did use church funds to pay for his two kid’s college tuitions, but he did so in lieu of getting any pay raises for several years.

In other words… you didn’t give me a pay raise, so I just paid my kids college bill instead.

He said that all the checks were made to “Tuition Management Systems, and that the purpose of those checks should have been obvious.

And each check needed to be signed by Armstrong and someone else from the church.

Here’s an interesting exchange from the Gazette.com:

Wasn’t it obvious that the checks were going for tuition? Hartley [Armstrong's attorney] asked the detective. “Yet not one warden who co-signed on these checks ever questioned what this was for?” he asked.

“I suppose the senior warden was depending upon the rector to be honest,” Flynn [the detective] replied. “And my investigation showed that Mr. Armstrong was not.”

Mistake #1:  Armstrong signing checks

Mistake #2:  The church trusting Armstrong and not having any financial accountability.

Sound strikingly familiar to this story yesterday?

Come on, people… have some common sense.

Read more here.

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10 Responses to “ “Pastoral Excuses for stealing $392k?”

  1. I served under a pastor in Oklahoma City (don’t freak, he’s no longer a pastor and the church is no longer in existence) who paid himself an excessive salary and paid off his student loans while claiming church hardship and cutting my salary by 60%. That was back when I was young, dumb, and thought that all pastors were, by default, honest and above reproach. Needless to say we learned something.

    The saving grace, is that first I didn’t know about how deep the improprieties were until after I resigned. Second, I didn’t sound-off like a hurt puppy when I left. I quietly asked God to take care of me, and He did. The truth came out about 6 months after we left and the church folded overnight. Very sad. The guy lost his joy, church, wife and integrity.

  2. PastorDT says:

    Using payscale.com’s average of $52,863 for a Senior Pastor annual salary plus bonuses and estimating 3% raise per year it would take over 64 years to accrue $392K worth of raises.

    1. I assume he still received his base salary, just not a raise on that base.
    2. 64 years ago would have been 1947. How many pastors were making over $52K in 1947?

    Even IF you accept his explanation, it is pretty hard to believe.

  3. Greg Smith says:

    If you know anything at all about this case, then you would know that the prosecution of Fr. Armstrong was a sham propagated by The Episcopal Church to oust an orthodox priest from ministry. Please read the Parish statement IN DEFENSE of this priest and essentially calling the charges that were brought (20 felonies reduced to 1 misdemeanor!) baseless in the first place.

    Love the blog… but some research on this one would be helpful. If you need help understanding this further, please don’t hesitate to contact me at greg -at- ionanet . org

    In the meantime, check out this link
    http://www.standfirminfaith.com/?/sf/page/26619/

    • Todd Rhoades says:

      Greg… interesting link, and it seems that there is more to the story. I was just going off the newspaper report of the court proceedings.

      Regardless, that doesn’t change the main point of my post: financial accountability. It should be above reproof. If the diocese wanted to make an example out of the Rector for theological reasons, this is the wrong way to do it, for sure. But, by the church not having proper financial accountability, it surely opened the door for something like this to happen.

      So… I stick by my 2 mistakes listed in the post. Without those, there would be no case. Period. They’d have to attack the Rector on some other thing than this.

      • Greg Smith says:

        Again, I don’t think you have the full story.

        Mistake #1 – Armstrong signed the checks.

        Perhaps… but that’s not actually a big deal if the books are being audited (as these were… it’s a yearly requirement in the Diocese of Colorado) and as long as the Vestry approves this budgeted item.

        Mistake #2 – The church didn’t have financial accountability

        Nope — Armstrong was acting in accordance with the Vestry’s full knowledge and the money was from a fund set up for educational purposes.

        The judge’s ruling seems to make it clear that Armstrong is being held accountable for the entire church.

  4. Mike says:

    Interesting definition from The Free Dictionary dot com

    Rector:

    An Anglican cleric who has charge of a parish and owns the tithes from it.

    On a serious note:

    Todd, I agree that had Armstrong not signed the checks, the case would be mute to a great extent. However, I believe Greg makes a point.

    Personally I’ve prefer to have others sign the checks in my churches. It removes opportunities for accusations.

    That said, I don’t believe it is unethical or immoral in and of itself for clergy to have signatory privileges.

    I believe that if there was a yearly audit and double signatories, there was a reasonable effort at financial accountability in this situation.

    Provided their audit was current, and provided the second signatory was actually reviewing the checks (vs. signing blank checks) then the actual issues was not financial accountability, or that the clergy was able to sign checks. Other dynamics were in play.

    • Todd Rhoades says:

      I understand. But when you’re writing $392,000 worth of checks, and signing your name, and all that money is going for something that you’re receiving personal benefit from (i.e. your kids college tuition), then I think it’s wise to be a little farther out of the process than this.

      The co-signer, from what I remember from the article, said he just assumed everything was on the up and up.

      I have no problem with the rector signing checks for the electric bill, or for other people’s salaries (other than his own or family members)… but it would seem that it would be wise for him to have other signatures for things that my be a conflict of interest… like this, or his expense account, etc. That’s a mighty big temptation for some people. For others, it’s not a problem.

      I know of a pastor that just lost his job for writing personal checks out of the church account. It caught up with him. His need was just too big, and the temptation proved to be his downfall. If he never had this option, it wouldn’t have happened.

      Just be wise… at least when someone looks at the books and says that the church paid $29.95 for an oil change on the pastor’s car or $395,000 for his kid’s college, you can at least not have to explain why your own name is on the check.

      It sure does take the bulk of the ‘splainin’ off the pastor.

      • Mike says:

        I completely agree with your line of thinking. I still don’t believe it immoral or unethical to be one of two signatories even on your own check – in theory. I very much believe it to be less than wise. (Understatement there).

        If you search the site Greg links to above, there are articles where a forensic audit cleared Armstrong, as well as one member involved in accounting who mentioned the strong checks and balances Armstrong had instituted when he came as rector. Interesting.

        A couple of items I noticed:

        His parish (on action of the then Vestry) had initially withdrawn from the Episcopal Church over theological issues. This led to a 17 million dollar lawsuit over church property and who the owner/successor congregation was.

        The withdrawing faction lost in court. The remaining faction constituted a new vestry, kept the property, and continued in the Episcopal Church. It appears it was the Episcopal Church and the remaining faction that brought the allegations.

        The withdrawing faction, which appears to have include the former Vestry, seems to have a different take on the money.

        Police claimed $392,000 was funneled to Armstrong’s kids’ education from the church’s dedicated education fund for seminarians. But the amounts actually discussed in the verdict are about about $100,000 less.

        Also interesting was the reason why only $99,247 was ordered to be repaid

        From The Gazette:
        http://www.gazette.com/articles/armstrong-54699-indictment-theft.html

        “But Werner rejected a request by a special prosecutor to order Armstrong to repay Grace and St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church an additional $191,753 in church funds that also were spent on his children’s education.

        Werner cited testimony by three former church officials who testified they knew of a deal where the church paid the tuition in lieu of giving Armstrong a raise for several years.”

        It would seem that the members of the former Vestry had authorized some if not all of the funds spent.

        It doesn’t change the fact that it would have been wise if Armstrong had not signed the checks, but it may make a difference in what whether he was stealing from the church, or whether the former Vestry cut an unbelievable compensation package with him.

  5. John says:

    The money was taken from a trust fund set up to pay for seminary study. He wrote the checks out to pay for his children to go to college. Big difference.

  6. Carpathia says:

    The story behind the story perhaps…

    Why did this pastor (or pastors in general) need to be sneaky about remuneration? Perhaps it is because pastors do not feel that they are appreciated for the work they do as expressed by the board via the amount they receive. As a society, we pay commensurate with what we value. The pastor’s actions were way out of bounds, but point to another underlying problem that many leaders face; i.e. that parishioners don’t truly value their spiritual leaders.

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