$l.5M embezzlement rallies church's faith

Baptist Press
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Posted: Jan 19, 2012 5:52 PM
$l.5M embezzlement rallies church's faith
MORRISTOWN, Tenn. (BP) -- First Baptist Church in a Tennessee county seat now resonates with the "Trust, but verify" outlook of former President Ronald Reagan.

Sadly, First Baptist's experience stems from the betrayal of trust by a 47-year staff member.

In 2010, the Morristown church learned that $147,000 presumably sent to the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering for International Missions had not been received by the International Mission Board.

Further investigation revealed that five payments (approximately $120,000) budgeted by the church to the Tennessee Baptist Convention for the Cooperative Program missions and ministry had not been received there.

First Baptist also discovered checks stashed away in a drawer that had been written to pay bills.

The issue revolved around the trust placed in former financial secretary Barbara Whitt. "Our people had grown up with her. She was like an institution here," pastor Dean Haun said.

The church employed a forensic auditor to examine how long the embezzlement had been occurring.

The audit discovered that more than $1.5 million had been diverted from the church over a period of several years.

Whitt later confessed that she had written more than 1,600 checks to herself, totaling $1,514,593, in what is considered the largest theft ever in Hamblen County.

In addition to Whitt's arrest, her son Michael was charged as a co-conspirator.

Both Whitt and her son were sentenced in October to roughly four years in prison.

With all that behind them, Haun believes First Baptist has grown from the financial adversity.

Looking back, Haun believes the church was able to overcome what happened because its leaders were open and honest from the outset about what happened.

When Haun and church leaders learned what the Whitts had done and the story was about to break in the local paper, a special meeting of the church was held on Tuesday night prior to the release of the story.

"We needed to be up front and honest with the church. We shared with the church everything we knew that night," Haun said.

Church members could have decided to find another church or quit giving, Haun said, or they could band together "and see God do a miracle in our midst."

One member stood up and said, "I am not going to let the enemy have the victory. I am going to give twice as much." The church applauded, Haun recounted.

The special meeting "ended up being more of a revival"; it was evident the church would rally, Haun said, and it did.

When the 2010 budget year ended, receipts were $340,000 over budget, Haun said. "It was the best year of giving in the church's history."

And though the church did not recoup all its losses from the embezzlement, it did receive $1 million from its insurance policies.

In the aftermath of what happened, the church has made up the Lottie Moon and Cooperative Program gifts that were siphoned away and continued to give at a high level, Haun said, noting that all bills have been paid and the church is debt-free.

In addition, the church has opened an evangelistic dental clinic, a bus ministry called "Taking It To the Streets" and had more additions to the church than ever before, Haun continued.

First Baptist also broke ground in September for a new children's building and has more than $4.7 million in funds for the facility, which Haun hopes will be paid for by the time it is completed.

"It has truly been a miracle of God as to what has taken place since this happened," the pastor said. "The grace and hand of God has been on our church."

Haun is especially pleased with how the church has responded to Barbara Whitt after her arrest and conviction. He has met with her once since her arrest. "We embraced for 10 minutes and talked for 30," he said. "I told her we did not hate her or hold any animosity."

The pastor also spoke in her behalf at her sentencing.

Church members likewise have responded with compassion. "We used scriptural principles in dealing with Mrs. Whitt," Haun said. "We did not 'bad mouth' her in the community. We showed her the love of Christ, and the community saw that."

Reflecting on the irony of the situation, Haun said, "Had Mrs. Whitt communicated to us that she was in dire financial need, our members would have given her the shirts off their backs.

"God is giving us an opportunity for us to show the difference between the way the world would handle a situation like this and how a Christian should handle it," Haun said.

"I have been so proud of our people."

In retrospect, Haun acknowledged that both the church and SunTrust Bank, which cashed all of Whitt's checks from the church, were too trusting. "I encourage churches to really have a good set of checks and balances in place," Haun said. "We do now."

There is a fine line to walk, he said. "I don't want our people to ever lose that sense of trusting your brothers and sisters in Christ but we have to have our eyes wide open in the day in which we live.

"I hope that what we went through can be a help to our fellow churches and be a reminder of how we need to deal with issues as believers. We need to respond with a Christ-like attitude."

Lonnie Wilkey is editor of the Baptist & Reflector (tnbaptist.org), newsjournal of the Tennessee Baptist Convention.

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