The con man and his generic church

As your GetReligionistas have said many times, this whole post-denominational age in which we now live continues to present some major challenges for mainstream reporters and editors.

I mean, it was one thing when religious believers tended to clump in hundreds of different herds with often strange sounding names that mean something to insiders, but sound like technical mush to outsiders. This is picky, picky stuff.

OK, troops, explain the doctrinal differences between the Missouri-Synod Lutherans and the folks in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, making a special effort to clearly explain why so many people in both of these groups cannot accurately be described as “evangelicals” in the same sense as the people at your friendly local evangelical megachurch. Then, once you have done that, explain why some people — in both of those Lutheran flocks — can accurately be called “evangelicals.” You have, at the most, one paragraph. Begin.

I bring this up because of a recent Los Angeles Times story about a con man who turned to Jesus, and Oprah, and now appears to have returned to his old con tricks. The name is quite famous — Barry Minkow. Here’s the opening of the report, with a few comments:

Barry Minkow’s former congregation accused the con man-turned-preacher of misusing church funds and luring its members into bad investments, allegations that forced a two-week delay in sentencing for the admitted two-time fraud artist.

Here is my first question: Shouldn’t this man, under Associated Press style, be called “the Rev. Barry Minkow”? Or has he already been defrocked? Wait, more on that question in a minute.

San Diego’s Community Bible Church said in a letter, part of a confidential pre-sentencing probation report, that Minkow improperly used church funds to finance the fraud-busting business he ran on the side, his defense lawyer said. The letter also attacks Minkow for leading members of his flock to make ill-fated investments in an unreleased movie about his life, said the lawyer, Alvin Entin.

“It accused Barry of everything except being in bed with a live girl or a dead boy,” Entin said.

Time for another picky question. The story says that the church wrote a letter saying “blah, blah, blah.” Stop and think about this. You mean the whole church congregation sat down and wrote it? I would assume not. I would assume that some kind of governing board at the congregation produced this letter, some small body of leaders.

Ah, but this raises another question. This is called a “Community Bible Church.” What in the world do these words mean? In short, what kind of church is this? The body’s beliefs statement helps a little bit, but not much (click here to check it out).

I would argue that this is actually a crucial question in this specific story. Why? The bottom line is that this is almost certainly a completely independent conservative church of some kind — a nondenominational or post-denominational body, like unto thousands that have sprung up from sea to shining sea in recent decades. Who is in charge? Who is supervising this church? And, while asking these questions, let’s add another: When something goes wrong, who is liable? With whom does the buck stop?

This kind of question is crucial when you’re covering a fraud case.

Latter in the story, an important — but vague — word appears.

Entin said he plans to argue that Minkow had not wronged the church because he always returned funds he used to finance investigations by his Fraud Discovery Institute, a for-profit business Minkow operated on the side. Several church elders invested their own money in the institute, the lawyer said.

“Barry wasn’t stealing anything from the church,” Entin said. “He put in more than he took out. In fact, he worked without pay for the last four years.”

Entin said his client waived a salary of more than $125,000 a year because the church was financially stretched and his institute was making money. Officials at the church, where Minkow had worked for 14 years, did not return calls seeking comment.

Minkow was convicted in the 1980s of operating his ZZZZ Best cleaning firm as a fraud. He emerged from prison as a repentant born-again minister and anti-fraud crusader. His latest conviction stalled the opening of a laudatory movie about his rise, fall and rehabilitation, leaving filmmakers scrambling to craft a new ending.

So there is a board of “elders,” which implies some structure. To whom does this board answer? Most likely, the answer is going to be — the ministers. It’s a perfect circle in most independent churches of this kind. That circle of authority, or lack thereof, is the big story of the post-denominational age.

The story includes all kinds of serious information about the dollars and cents, which is logical in a business-section report. However, I do not see how readers are supposed to figure out the nature of these misdeeds without knowing something about Minkow’s ministerial career and the church itself. Who ordained him? Where did he go to seminary? Other than God, who was this man’s boss? Oh, and who was making this movie? A non-profit religious group?

In short, where did this large, once thriving church and its converted con-man pastor come from? We need to know something about that issue in order to grasp what may or may not happen next. One or two sentences, please? This information is at the heart of the alleged crime.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Paul

    Well said and thank you for what you did not say as well. Who did answer to whom? The elders certainly did not answer to the members. Instead they brought back the founding pastor to give a “Mary Kay” style sermon on the bright future of Community Bible Church, if we just hang in there. The members of the church needed answers and healing and got “raw-raw” instead. That was the last service I attended there.

    I am still having trouble getting answers from a media that has an ax to grind or point of view to sell.

  • Dave

    The website of an independent church should have “leadership” (or, if they’re old-school, “polity”) as a menu item. Lacking that, any press inquiry should dig for it. (Before I wrote this I made sure my own church’s website has it…)

  • Suzanne

    Excellent points. While it may be a business story, understanding the accountability structure of a church requires asking questions about religion.

  • Mike

    You’ve gotta to love Entin’s quote: “It accused Barry of everything except being in bed with a live girl or a dead boy.” That’s the kinda of stuff that police reporters live for!

  • Stephen A.

    I have a huge problem with Entin’s quote:

    “It accused Barry of everything except being in bed with a live girl or a dead boy,” Entin said.

    The correct way is: “In bed with a dead girl or a live boy.”

    Seriously, I agree that there are some words that need definition here, although this article is otherwise quite informative and detailed. The word “elder” is one of them, certainly. Though as tmatt noted, it’s typical in some independent churches for elders to be accountable to the minister(s) rather than the congregation, which presents serious problems. (I’ve heard of church boards driving new Caddy’s onto the stage as a “gift” for the pastor, on the congregation’s tab. Without their knowledge.)

    If Minkow’s attorney is correct here – that he put in more than he took out of his Institute and gave back everything he took as investments, and that he didn’t take a salary – that either shows his innocence or only that the first investors in a new pyramid scheme got paid back.

    Is his not taking a salary may a great defense, though? It may have forced him to look elsewhere, his congregation, for cash.

  • Will

    Right. The line is attributed to Klan boss D.C. Stephenson, whose downfall came about over a dead girl (because of his role in making her dead.)

  • Alan

    Tmatt, this pattern of poor judgement on the part of the community Bible Church Elder Board goes back much further than the current mess at the church. It started when they hired Barry Minkow, a convicted felon, 14 years ago, only two years out of prison and with no previous experience as a senior pastor/minister. Only two years working on staff at a church, Rocky Peak, in north San Fernando Valley in L.A.

    The Community Bible Church Elder Board choose to overlook the fact that Barry Minkow had NOT graduated from seminary, and had NOT been ordained by any recognized church. In fairness, I think Barry had taken some corresponce courses from Liberty University in VA while in prison. Also, the Elder Board KNEW they were hiring a man with a known record as one of the biggest con men in U.S. history up to that time, but they choose to over look that history.

    I know a lot more, but that is enough for now. There has
    been an ongoing pattern of poor decisions and judgements on the part of the Elder Board over the last 14 years since they first hired Barry Minknow. He was basically
    allowed by the Elder Board to operate unchecked!!!

  • Elijah

    It would be helpful to know the church structure. As others have pointed out, without knowing more, it is impossible to know to whom Minkow reported. In my church – which is non-denominational and congregation-led – the pastors report to the elders who report to the congregation. All expenditures over $2500 must be approved by the Joint Board (Deacons & Elders) and anything over $10,000 must have congregational approval.