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Stolen Faith: How Internal Control Reviews Could Save Your Religious Institution from Fraud

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By: Gary Loew


Theft is as old as time. There have been documented instances of people taking things that were not theirs for as long as there have been ways of reporting it.  

If you pay attention to the news, it is not uncommon to hear about businesses, both big and small, private and public, suffering losses due to employee theft. What seems to be on the increase, though, are the instances of religious institutions that are falling victim to financial schemes.   

The stories read:  

  • A 55-year-old religious organization bookkeeper embezzled $3,000 from the church she was employed at. 
  • A religious organization usher collected offerings in the sanctuary balcony and then pocketed loose bills on his way down. Over several years, he stole several thousand dollars. 
  • A church bookkeeper embezzled thousands by issuing checks to a fictitious company she created. 
  • Police report that an employee stole more than $812,000 from the church between March of 2014 until the end of 2019. 

As religious institutions strive to ensure that donations are used and recorded appropriately, they face challenges regarding their oversight.  

Who has access to tithes or the donation plate? 

How are donated funds being tracked? 

How are they being spent?  

And ultimately, one of the best questions for leadership of religious institutes to ask themselves…  

What do our internal controls look like?  


internal controls

Internal Controls – What Are They & Why Do They Matter?

Internal controls are the procedures and policies implemented by an organization to safeguard its assets, ensure the accuracy and reliability of its financial information, promote operational efficiency, and comply with legal and regulatory requirements. 

For a church, internal controls are essential to promote transparency, accountability, and responsible stewardship of resources. 

Proper internal controls create a strong checks and balance system to ensure critical financial transactions are reviewed frequently and that policies and procedures are followed. Ensuring separation of financial duties and eliminating opportunities for circumventing processes are two big initial benefits of strengthening internal controls.  

A Common Opportunity  

Having investigated fraud in its many forms for the past eighteen-plus years, I can unequivocally state that a person stealing from a religious institution does not have a specific gender, race, or ethnicity. They don’t look, act or give the same. Nor are they obvious or easy to determine. What they do have in common is they all have an opportunity to commit fraud. A strong controls system limits or entirely eliminates those opportunities.   

Religious organizations are entrusted with preserving and utilizing parishioner and member donations wisely. They are obligated to safeguard those monies – a daunting responsibility, especially when many hiring staff on a limited budget or volunteer basis. Theft or loss of any amount is extra important and can signify additional hurt in the trail of broken trust and promises.    

Partnering to Create Strong Controls  

It’s understandable that many religious leaders have come to the proverbial crossroads of wanting to ensure they are good stewards of their church’s resources but are questioning if the policies and procedures they currently have in place are effective. In coordination with church leadership and financial counsels, Maner Costerisan has successfully assisted numerous religious organizations of various denominations and sizes in completing internal control reviews.  

The reviews are completed in conjunction with religious organization leadership and assist with creating or strengthening policies and procedures regarding the institution’s financial transactions, including payroll functions, and helping ensure appropriate segregation of duties for employees and volunteers exists.  

Maner Costerisan’s Consulting team members would love the opportunity to talk with you regarding internal controls and how we may be able to assist you in protecting the financial health of your religious organization.

Reach out to our team at or via phone at 517-323-7500.  

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