Several Texas Baptists have asked me why an update on the misuse of church starting funds was not given during the Annual Meeting. All of the details on this situation have been reported in the Baptist Standard, so there was not anything new to report. Here is a summary of the situation: An Oversight Committee was appointed by Bob Fowler and chaired by Jim Nelson to help the Executive Board monitor the progress of our staff’s response to the investigative report. They made two reports to the Executive Board and these were reported in the Baptist Standard. The Baptist Standard reported after the last Executive Board meeting that all of the information we have from our investigation has been turned over since December, 2006, to the federal authorities in Brownsville. Our legal counsel in Dallas and in Brownsville have reported to the Executive Board that we have done all we can do that is feasible. We have stated on several occasions since last December that we would like to sit down with the authorities and personally convey our sincere desire for them to pursue this matter to a conclusion and our willingness to answer any questions they might have. We have, through our attorney, made sure they know how anxious we are for this to be dealt with. Our legal counsel advises us that to do more, to make a public show about this, would be very counter-productive and they advise us that we are doing all that we can or should do. Several of us went to the Valley in November last year to visit with the three pastors who are accused of misusing BGCT church starting funds. We asked them to restore the money, and we had prayer with them. In one case there was an indication of willingness to restore funds; that pastor seemed to feel that perhaps $10,000-$12,000 might be about right. Our preliminary investigation suggested it was considerably more. Our referral of the matter to the authorities and the large difference in our understandings of the amount of money involved prevented, at least for now, any restitution of funds. In another case, the pastor insisted he had used the money appropriately and that he had strong satellite congregations and ministries throughout his area. In the other case, there were anger and threats, denials and promises to fight this in the courts if the matter was pursued. After several months of looking into possible actions, we took a report last May to the Executive Board that indicated we would continue to encourage the authorities to complete the investigation and that we certainly would continue to monitor the situation. We also, on the advice of counsel, indicated we would not pursue the matter civilly. We would not because the possible recovery of funds from these pastors would not exceed the legal costs that the Convention would incur. And we would not because the publicity would damage the churches of the Valley and the association and the Baptist name in that part of the state. The attention to this in the media would far outweigh any possible financial recovery and would probably be interpreted as a large Convention with offices in Dallas picking on three pastors in the Valley. Furthermore, our visit to the Valley led us to the conclusion that while $1.3 million seems to have been misused and that there were “churches on paper” funded by our church starting dollars, that a sizeable amount of the $1.3 million, though not used as it should have been to start new churches, was used by at least two of the pastors to reach people for Christ and has resulted in their base congregations being quite strong and effective in reaching and discipling people. We are still encouraging the authorities to look into this and get to the bottom of it so justice can be done. With regard to First Baptist Church in Weslaco: We brought a full explanation to the Executive Board in September, and it was reported in the Standard. We had hoped to bring an updated and full report to the Convention, but the agreement we have reached in principle, could not be publicly discussed because the church has asked to have a legal document put in place. Our attorneys and their attorneys are working on the agreement. Simply put, Jon has returned the money to the church and the church has agreed to return the money to the BGCT. We are in the process of receiving the money from the church. I had sent a letter thanking them for wanting to restore the funds to our church starting efforts There were three new church starts, two of which remain viable. The difficulty arose because of a third church start that Jon Becker began as “a church within a church.” He did not fully inform his church that was what was happening. The church, perhaps using information that was not accurate from the pastor, used $26,000 of Convention funds to add to their pastor’s salary because, as he represented to our church starter, he was “pastoring” what he called a new church start to be spun off into an autonomous congregation later. But in the minds of most of the church, they had simply started a third service for their growing congregation at 9:30 a.m. on Sunday. This is terribly unfortunate and has caused Jon Becker to lose his pastorate at First Baptist Church of McAllen and to return the money he had taken in salary. I hope this information is helpful. Every dollar any one of our members gives through our churches is precious to God and to every pastor. Every dollar given by any one of our churches or missions is precious to God and to me. I am deeply sorry that these matters happened and that it caused a crisis of confidence. But I hope this gives you assurance that we are doing all that we can to be good stewards of the money entrusted to us by the churches.
Let me add this word, as well. Our new policies and guidelines outlined in our New Church Starting Manual will minimize the risk of misuse of church starting funds. Our whole process has been changed and improved. And if someone does try to inappropriately use church starting funds of the BGCT, we will be able to know it quickly and respond appropriately.
Paul Atkinson is our new leader of the Church Starting Team. He will be glad to provide additional information if you would like. This is critical for our churches and for the future of Texas and the needs of people who need what Jesus can do in their lives. With a state that has 10-11 million unchurched people, we continue to be a mission field in Texas as well, thanks be to God, as a mission base. The last I checked there are 25 or 26 states in our USA that don’t have that many people in their entire population.
Perhaps that could be a topic for another blog: Eleven Critical Elements in Starting New Churches. I will either write it or get Paul to comment on this next week. In fact, Paul, when you read this you might share the story about your motorcycle being the best witnessing tool you have had recently.
We are loved.