Saturday, November 14, 2015
Your Money Back?
Minnesota passed a 2012 law to limit the ability to reclaim money given more than two years prior but that law did not stop a judge from ordering the University of Northwestern St. Paul to give back $5M given by a partner to the creator of a $3.7 M Ponzi scheme there.
So what is the legal or moral duty of a church when it turns out a generous member was in reality a thief or a conman? I do not have a quick or easy answer. It would seem to me that in some cases the organization might be expected to know that the gifts were not entirely legit. Large cash gifts and sudden riches often raise real questions. But while those answers might be easier to arrive at (even if they were harder to swallow given the size of the gifts), what about our own members who claim bankruptcy or who fail to file their taxes or in some other way give money that they probably should not have given? Does a church have a duty to investigate the funds and financial condition of those who give before receiving the gifts?
Since I have never been on the receiving end of the size of donations that are prime targets for such recovery, the issue for me has to do with more ordinary circumstances. I once joked with a local funeral director who told me the deacons had told their pastor to call upon a local lottery millionaire. I told him that he could not do that and that Baptists had too much integrity to do this. First, it was ill gotten gain and they would want nothing to do with it. Second, the person was already Lutheran even she did not yet know it. Lutherans, on the other hand could receive the gift without the pangs of conscience since we believe in moderation in all things. That was the joke. But the truth is, often we find ourselves so dependent upon the next week's offering that we will take money without a second thought as to its source. Money does not hang around long in an average congregation's bank account.
So, for example, is it kosher for a Lutheran congregation to receive the tithes and offerings of a Colorado owner of a marijuana emporium engaged in the state legal practice of selling the stuff (though it is still illegal federally)? I would suspect this is not necessarily theory but has already arisen in actual practice. What are a congregation and pastor to do? How many denominations or congregations have policies in place about what is given?
All of this raises questions about both the legal and moral consequences of accepting money. I don't have all the answers but I have quite a few questions. What about you?