One day last week someone told me that the secretary of her church was caught forging church checks and diverting the funds into her personal bank account. That brought to my mind the case of a former colleague who was the financial person on the staff of a church where I also served. He was found to be funneling hundreds of thousands of dollars to himself.
That same day when I learned of the church secretary's actions, the attorney trying to defend the guy I knew called me to discuss his case. Since the discovery was made a few years ago, I figured matters were closer to being resolved, but I learned otherwise. While the church has recovered whatever funds its insurance company provided in the settlement, the case now is a criminal matter. The attorney was blunt in telling me, "There doesn't seem to be much I can do to help (my client)." He was caught. The evidence is clear. He's going to prison at some point, perhaps for three or four years.
I have known at least one other person who stole money from the church. In his case it was due to a gambling problem. Stealing money from churches is not as uncommon, perhaps, as it might seem.
It occurs to me that people steal from the church in other ways, as well.
There are clergy who suck the life right out of a church by trying to turn the church into a cult of personality -- theirs, of course. Everything centers around them. The focus is on them. The attraction is them.
Others -- clergy and laity alike -- play drama games. Conflicts and differences of opinions become personal battles. People look for ways to foster controversy, and assume the worst about fellow church folks.
Churches and vocal members take up crusades around hot-button issues such as abortion, homosexuality and gender issues, biblical inerrancy or other doctrinal matters, targeting "enemies" among other churches and Christians in order to make themselves look as if they alone truly are faithful.
On another scale, people steal from the church and its ministry by not taking seriously their own spiritual growth. Clinging to childish notions about God and the faith; reducing Christianity to inane cliches; avoiding real issues of human need; arguing about music used in worship; complaining when the worship service extends past 12:00 noon -- all of these and more steal from the vitality and growth of the church.
Stealing money is one thing -- a wrong thing, of course. Stealing from the church in these other ways hurts the church's ministry, faithfulness, reputation, and standing.
In all these cases, theft occurs. As a result, the church and its witness are weakened, with the world worse off because of it.