Today Lord Snow presides over a church embezzler who trotted out a Christian dogwhistle around a judge–and got slapped down so hard for it that I could just about hear the noise from over here. Stephanie Everett found out exactly what the phrase “full responsibility” means out here in Reality-Land–and maybe you’ll find the story to be as funny–and as ultimately hope-inspiring–as I did.
A Game of Christian Dysfunction.
I have an alert on my phone that sends me news about Christian ministers who get arrested/charged with crimes. See if you can answer these quiz questions, which were all inspired by the most recent week of news stories:
- “An Ontario, California youth pastor just got arrested for…”
- “A Cumberland County, North Carolina youth pastor just got charged with…”
- “Another North Carolina pastor is facing 142 criminal charges for…”
- “A St. Louis pastor just got charged with…”
- “A former pastor from The Woodlands just got prison time for…”
- “A Kansas City church elder reported his wife missing, but now he’s charged with…”
And remember, that’s just a sampling from this week’s alerts.
I’m usually relieved if everyone involved in these stories is alive by the end–and if nobody’s underage. But neither of these is a given in Christian-Land.
As rightly and justifiably dramatic as that list is, there seems to be an alert I’ve totally overlooked that may rival this one in terms of sheer numbers of wrongdoers–and indicates almost as powerfully just how broken of a system that Christianity really is.
There’s something about people who steal from their own churches that boggles the imagination–and yet makes perfect sense. Hell, embezzlers are all but an inevitable result of any broken system.
In this case, the predators were invited into the house by the masters of it. They were appointed and put into place by a group or a leader who undoubtedly prayed over the decision and asked their god to help them select the best candidate for the job. They have to fit a list of requirements including education and training, experience and technical know-how. They advise the leaders of their churches about the legality of certain financial dealings; they help churches navigate tax season; they even help churches figure out trends within their membership.
Some churches hire someone specific for the role–either on a volunteer basis or hired for a paid position that is either part-time or full-time. Others outsource to a third-party group. (One site advises–without explanation–that this person be paid, not a volunteer.) It’d be hard to imagine any churches who don’t have someone dedicated to handling the money.
Considering how extremely dependent churches are on donations, and the rules they’re under regarding those donations (however poorly enforced), most churches handle that money very poorly. There’s a damned fine reason why they fight transparency proposals as hard as they do, not the least of which is how swiftly these proposals would unmask the thieves hiding in their own sheepfolds.
They’d rather lose many thousands of dollars than follow the same rules regarding money-handling that regular, secular businesses do.
Everyone, Meet Stephanie Everett.
I first realized just how serious the problem with church embezzlement is when I ran across the story of Stephanie Everett, who stole almost USD$100,000 from Cave Rock Baptist Church in Troutville, Virginia.
Cave Rock Baptist Church is a very small, basic sugar-cube of a church sitting on a street corner in a very small, basic Southern town of about 430 people. It is also very likely a Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) church, but like many of SBC churches these days, that affiliation is kept on the down-low. The church has about 50 members, who are described generally as poor and struggling to make ends meet.
As you’d expect in an area that’s still quite dominated by fundagelicalism, an absolutely inexplicable number of churches jostle each other cheek to jowl in that tiny town, fighting and clawing for the few people there who actually attend church still–which is probably nowhere near the attendance rates that the state’s residents dutifully (and, I think, rather wishfully) reported to Pew Forum. I’m sure that there are a lot of Christians in Virginia still, but I absolutely do not believe for a moment that 44% of them really attend church at least once a week.
The leader of this church is–or rather was–Bryan Lawrence, who appears to be locally famous for going into the ministry after a serious spinal injury he sustained in his previous career as a police officer. At first he just did a lot of lay preaching, but it looks like he eventually successfully parlayed that avocation into an actual job–much like my Evil Ex, Biff, had once hoped to do. (The strategy works a lot better in teeny-tiny towns and teeny-tiny churches, and indeed it worked for Mr. Lawrence.) By 2011, he’d been ordained as a preacher by the SBC. By 2014, we see that he’d become a volunteer pastor with Cave Rock Baptist Church. I couldn’t tell if he was ever a paid pastor of the church.
Despite the church’s small size and low membership, the church’s leaders recognized the importance of having someone handle the church’s finances.
And the person that these Christians’ god appears to have selected for the job was Stephanie Everett.
She appears to have become the church’s treasurer sometime in 2012, so a couple or three years before Bryan Lawrence became its pastor. It didn’t take long at all for her to gain control of the church’s debit card–which one deacon didn’t even know the church possessed. Thanks to the church’s opaque handling of money, nothing and nobody stopped her from using it for herself.
I wonder if she felt sometimes like she’d won the lottery, all thanks to Jesus.
A Snowball Rolling Down a Hill.
Everett got caught embezzling thanks to the very earthly intervention of an audit from the church’s bank. At that point nobody really knew how much she’d stolen from that tiny little church.
She was charged with credit card fraud, theft, and embezzlement. Early estimates of the total stolen came to about $10k. She blamed the church’s leadership for not giving her clearer instructions about how to use the card–and also blamed them for not giving her more oversight. (She maintained that version of events right up until the end of the trial process.)
The judge in the case, Malfourd “Bo” Trumbo, suspected that there was more to the story than she was telling. He requested a detailed reckoning of the damage.
That investigation turned up a lot more stolen money: $99,227 in total.
Everett had used the church debit card to pay for car washes of her own private vehicles, a $200-a-month cable TV package for her home, fast-food meals, iTunes music, tickets to college football games, and tons of junk bought from local retail shops. She even charged a week’s vacation out of town to the church. She also made direct cash withdrawals from the account linked to the debit card to pay her personal bills. In essence, she used the church’s bank account as her own personal second income stream–and over five years, that amounted to almost $100k, not the $10k that was initially estimated.
She tried at first to justify some of the expenses as being church-related. That cable-TV package was necessary because it was how she got online to conduct church business. The fast-food purchases were made while she ran church errands (I guess her sugars were running low?). And all that stuff she bought from retail shops were presents that were given to church members, who probably didn’t realize that her largesse was bought and paid for with their tithes. She also tried to claim that many of the purchases she made were done because she was “told to do” them.
The judge did not sound amused at all by her explanations:
“How can you justify that?” Trumbo asked at one point about $9 car washes billed to the church.
She Almost Took “Full Responsibility,” Y’All.
When I say I take full responsibility for something, it means I know I dun goofed–and that whatever lands on my head as a result, I won’t argue about it or try to evade it. It means I won’t make my problem anyone else’s problem, but instead work with whatever penalties are coming my way on my own without inconveniencing others.
In Christian-Land, by contrast, the phrase I take full responsibility is a sort of dogwhistle term used to call back to Jesus’ instant forgiveness. I used to hear Christians say that all the time–and I still hear it out of them. By it, they think they are taking the entire blame for a situation upon themselves. But then they whisper a magic spell at the ceiling and are instantly forgiven for their “sins.” (Clickhole, a satire site, lampooned that mindset nicely a while ago.)
For all that emphasis they lay upon accountability, there seems to be precious little of it in Christians’ ranks. The more extremist the Christian or group, the less real accountability there appears to be. Even fundagelicals themselves perceive that truth. And it’s not hard to think of a reason why that strange lack might exist.
Easy, instant forgiveness makes wrongdoing seem way less serious. When a magic spell uttered at the ceiling is enough to gain that instant forgiveness, the real victims of a “sinner’s” wrongdoing are cut out of the equation. And since the social system that fundagelicals typically teach and believe does nothing whatsoever to make them better people, they’re going to fail–a lot–at being decent human beings. When they do, they will come up with truly surreal explanations for why they failed, and then create more and more elaborate ways of preventing it from happening in the future. Those new methods will be based upon the teachings that have already failed to produce the results they say they want, so they will fail even worse.
It’s like a circle of life, except it ends with church treasurers stealing 100 Large from a tiny church that could ill afford to finance a mediocre Christian’s aspirational lifestyle.
What’s hilarious here, and the reason we’re in this blog post now, is that Everett tried to trot out that standard-issue fundagelical double-step phrase on a judge. This tactic had clearly already worked to get her church on her side. Oh yes, her church had had a huge drama erupt when they’d found out just how much she’d stolen. Many people there didn’t approve at all and weren’t happy with her.
But most of them supported her and forgave her completely without any further questions.
Everett was allowed time to speak to the court and judge before her sentence was handed down to her.
She opened with “I take full responsibility.”
And then the judge smacked her into the middle of next week.
“Don’t say that,” the judge interjected. Cutting Everett off in mid-sentence, Trumbo said he doubted the veracity of her version of an embezzlement scheme that wreaked financial havoc at Cave Rock Baptist Church in Troutville.
“If you want full responsibility, I’ll give it to you,” Trumbo said, warning the defendant that he could impose 10 years in prison.
ZOH. MY. GOD.
Everett was clearly very shocked by that smackdown, being as it was a solid education in what the very stark meaning of full responsibility is out here in Reality-Land. She didn’t say anything else to the judge. She only turned around to apologize to her churchmates.
She ended up sentenced to two years in prison, with some kind of restitution to be paid, and then five years’ probation.
Her churchmates have already raised $24,000 to help with that restitution.
This is money raised by a largely poor, struggling congregation to give to a thief to help her pay back the money she stole from them.
Signs of a Broken System.
We could distinctly consider churches’ record regarding money to be good evidence against a number of their claims–both supernatural and earthly.
Obviously, no god told these church leaders and committees who to hire.
Obviously, no god stopped that thief from stealing funds from these churches.
Obviously, no god told any of these churches that a thief lurked there.
… Unless, of course, these betrayed churches try to argue that their god deliberately told them to hire a thief or deliberately chose not to stop the thievery from happening one way or the other. Lots of people already think that the character of the deity portrayed in the Bible is malevolent enough to get his jollies doing that.
At the very least, though, one person ended up shouldering some of the responsibility for Everett’s crimes.
Bryan Lawrence, you see, ended up losing his pastoral position at Cave Rock Baptist Church over Everett’s crimes. (The movie based on his life, Badge of Faith, didn’t do very well either. At least they changed the name of it from its original title, Kicked by Grace.) The church could easily forgive the thief herself, but apparently they could not forgive their pastor for whatever role he’d played in the crimes that thief committed.
Maybe their god has lousy aim.
Or maybe he has a sick sense of humor.
Or maybe he doesn’t exist at all.
Today, Lord Snow Presides… over what might be a uniquely Christian type of thievery and a uniquely Christian way of avoiding the repercussions of that thievery–and a smackdown that hopefully will give you a little hope that Christians’ unwarrantedly-high status in society is dropping even in fundagelical-like-whoa Virginia.
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Lord Snow Presides… is our off-topic chat post series. Feel free to talk about anything you want here! I’ve started us off with a topic, but you can go anywhere you want. Lord Snow is my sweet, elderly white cat, who doesn’t know anything and yet knows everything.