But the congregation found some closure in a restoration service for its former minister of youth and church administrator, Charles Lohn, on Sunday, Jan. 22.
The church discovered in July 2009 that Lohn had embezzled more than $75,000 over a three-year period. When the investigation was completed, the amount proved to be more than $100,000.
For pastor Jonathan Sims, what made the situation even more stressful was that he had been "like a father" to Lohn since high school. Lohn served on Sims' staff for six years in Alabama before moving to Shelbyville, Tenn., shortly after Sims became pastor about 12 years ago.
"It was difficult, very heart-wrenching," Sims said, recalling the day when he received a phone call from David Brown, then minister of education and now associate pastor, that Shelbyville Mills literally had no money in the bank.
Sims, who was on vacation, had thought the church was in excellent financial condition, having paid off its mortgage.
Church leaders, in reviewing the financial records, discovered that Lohn had embezzled funds by taking cash and writing additional payroll checks to himself over the course of about three years.
Sims and his wife Kala met with Lohn and his wife Misty, who had no knowledge of what her husband had done.
Lohn did not disclose everything he had done after several meetings, which forced Sims and the church to turn the matter over to civil authorities.
"If he had been transparent with the church, this might could have been avoided," Sims said. "I couldn't protect him from this. A crime had been committed." Sims also knew that he "could not stop what was about to happen. It grieved my heart."
During the Jan. 22 service, Sims reminded the congregation that there are two "swords" the Lord uses to enact discipline -- church discipline and civil authority.
On Aug. 2, 2009, the church had voted unanimously to remove Lohn from its fellowship. "Our only goal was to bring Charles back to Christ," the pastor said.
Sims observed that church discipline is "all but lost in our churches today," yet he is a firm believer that it is mandated by Scripture in such passages as Matthew 18:15-20, 1 Corinthians 5:1-7 and 1 Timothy 5:19-20, with the latter specifically dealing with pastors.
Discipline is painful and distasteful, Sims said, but that doesn't give a church the right to leave it out.
"It is a part of divine Scripture and we tried to obey it," he said.
Sims also is convinced that Lohn would not have truly repented and ultimately realized he had never been saved had the church not forced the issue by removing him from membership.
Lohn concurred during the restoration service Jan. 22.
"Church discipline isolated me out of my world that I had conformed to and forced me to face God one-on-one. God did use it in my life to help convict me. Thank you for not departing from the Word," Lohn told the Shelbyville Mills congregation.
After serving nine months in jail, Lohn began attending the church as soon as he was released, but he was still considered a non-member.
It would take another 16 months of working with Lohn before church leaders felt he was ready to be restored to membership, Sims said.
Addressing the congregation for the first time since he was charged with embezzlement, Lohn read from a prepared statement. "I would like for you to know that I am truly sorry for what I have done," he said. "I have been convicted and I have repented to God. I know that I have been forgiven by God. I stand before you today to ask you for your forgiveness."
Lohn said he would try to answer questions he knew the church would have about what he did.
"I cannot tell you the exact date that everything started. I can tell you that I had not been the leader in my house or the man that I should have been," Lohn said. "I had gotten into a tough situation with debt and many things coming at once. I thought it would be all right to 'borrow' some money and pay it back at a later date."
Lohn admitted that he kept everything from his wife and that the situation began to become "a lifestyle."
As his spending increased he would take more money to meet his perceived needs, Lohn said.
"I was no longer in control. The sin was controlling me," he told Shelbyville Mills members.
Lohn noted that when asked why he did it, he responded with Jeremiah 17:9: "The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked who can know it."
He told the congregation that he knew he would eventually be caught. "I even prayed to God for that day to come."
Yet he admitted he was not ready for it. When first confronted about the matter, he put it off as long as he could. "Finally, when I knew that it could not be hidden anymore I confessed to some of it, but not the whole thing."
Lohn shared briefly about his time in jail and discussed how he tried to read the Bible and pray, yet when he was released he still was not truly repentant.
"It was not until six months later, when I was studying God's Word through an accountability group that I was truly convicted for the first time," he told the church.
He confessed that though he walked down the aisle when he was 10 years old and was baptized, he had never been saved. He went to church, surrounded himself with Christians and grew in his knowledge of religion. "I also learned how to please people," he said.
Lohn began to grasp how he had approached life as if he were a Christian "through the study of Scripture (1 John) that I was in with the men holding me accountable…. God brought me to the realization that you cannot restore something that you never had."
He saw himself as God saw him -- "as a wretched man in need of a Savior."
Lohn told the congregation that "I know by faith God has saved and cleansed me from all my filthy unrighteousness. I am ready to spend my life pleasing Him and not pursuing the approval of men."
SHOWING GOD'S GRACE
Lohn and his wife said they will be forever indebted to the church for how they treated the family after the embezzlement.
Sims said the church paid the family's mortgage for a year plus their utilities, paid off some of Misty's consumer credit card bills and helped in numerous other ways.
"The church rallied around Misty and the children and loved her from the very disclosure of this," Sims said, noting that she and the children never missed a service throughout the entire process.
Misty Lohn also addressed the church during the restoration service.
"When all of this happened there were two choices. I could let this destroy our lives and be 'woe is me' or I could say, 'Lord, I know we are going through this for a reason. Please let me learn what You are going to teach us through this.'"
She admitted that she has always been concerned about what people thought about her. "God showed me through this that I can't change what people think or say about me. What I can do is have a pure heart and try to live my life every day in a way that would be pleasing to God and bring Him glory."
Misty said she had long prayed for her husband's repentance and salvation. "I want to thank you for allowing Charles to come back to church so he could be with his family and also to sit under (Sims) preaching. Even through your hurt, your focus was on my husband's salvation and my family.
"I know that as a church you had to make some tough decisions but I thank you for them. I am eternally grateful for each one of you," she said.
She said someone asked her recently if she would like to forget the past few years.
"I told them absolutely not. My relationship with Christ has grown tremendously. I have a whole new understanding of completely trusting in God and how the peace of God which surpasses all understanding will guard my heart and mind through Christ Jesus."
Her husband said he likewise is deeply grateful for the grace and love the church showed him and his family during the ordeal.
"I stand before you today to say thank you for loving my family, for loving me. I also thank you for caring for and providing for my family even after everything I put you through."
As part of the process for being restored to fellowship, Lohn met for about 16 months with two accountability groups, one of which dealt with finances and the other with spiritual issues.
During the restoration service, Roy Lawler, who was in the accountability group which dealt with spiritual matters, noted that they used the Bible solely while counseling with Lohn.
Lawler noted they went line by line through all five chapters of 1 John.
"This pierced his heart. Praise God for His Word," Lawler said.
Sims then asked Lohn some tough, pointed questions including whether Lohn has admitted to all that he did and what he did with the money.
Lohn said the money was used for excessive spending and, when questioned, assured the congregation none of it was used for gambling, pornography or prostitution. A legal investigation by local authorities confirmed those statements, Sims told the congregation.
At the end of the restoration service, which also included a question-and-answer time with the pastor and Lohn, Sims issued a charge to the church.
"I call upon you to forgive and to forgive completely Bro. Charles," the pastor said, noting that Lohn would be baptized in a few weeks.
When asked by a reporter why the public service was held, Sims noted that because Lohn was publicly disciplined by the church, he needed to be restored publicly.
"Because this was a highly publicized and reported sin, we felt the church as a whole needed to come publicly and declare we had forgiven him," Sims said. "We wanted to be completely transparent."
Lonnie Wilkey is editor of the Baptist & Reflector www.tnbaptist.org
newsjournal of the Tennessee Baptist Convention.
Copyright (c) 2012 Southern Baptist Convention, Baptist Press www.BPNews.net