These days, most churches aren't just places of worship; they also function as schools, food pantries, sports centers and even television studios.
A steady stream of money flows in and out of houses of worship...but who's keeping track of it all?
An elevator, two dining rooms and an 8-burner gas stove: these are just some of the highlights of the Archbishop of Atlanta’s $2.2 million home. Who can forget the “German Bishop of Bling,” who the Pope fired for spending a whopping $43 million on renovations for a palatial pad?
Sometimes, our faith leaders fall from grace and get carried away with those collections given by faithful members of their congregation. Even here in Richmond, Former ROC pastor Geronimo Aguilar was living large in a luxurious home valued at more than half a million dollars—and paid for by his parishioners.
Steve Law of Finance for Churches is a certified church administrator who helps local churches create a budget. When it comes to money in houses of worship, Law told ABC 8News Investigative Reporter Kerri O'Brien. "There should to be some checks and balances."
Although churches are tax exempt, Law says they are small businesses.
"Churches are also exempt from state sales and use taxes," explained Law, meaning they don’t have to file any forms with the IRS.
So how do church members really know where their offering is going? We created a list of our 15 largest churches in Metro Richmond; six are in Henrico, 4 in Chesterfield and 5 are located in Richmond. ABC 8News Investigative Reporter Kerri O’Brien asked all of them to open their books; only five of the 15 agreed to share their financials: Southside Church of Nazarene, The Cathedral of the Sacred Heart, Church of the Epiphany, Saint Michael’s and First Baptist Church. The group’s total annual budgets range from $1 million to $5 million.
Kim Boys, First Baptist Church Treasurer, says the church tries to “spend every nickel” of its budget.
First Baptist Church, located on Monument Avenue, has 4,000 members and told ABC 8News their biggest expense on the books is community programs. 48 percent of their budget is used to fund everything from services to family night dinners, youth activities and helping the homeless.
"We have a shower ministry, clothes closet, food pantry," explains Boys.
The Cathedral of the Sacred Heart in Richmond spends every penny it takes in from collections.
Sacred Heart’s Business Administrator Kim Kremer told us “There’s not a slush fund, no.”
The majority of the money from collections is used for worship.
"That's everything for our week in and week out services," Kremer explained.
But with an aging church, there are maintenance repair on the building. Only $77,000 of the nearly $1 million budget is for clergy and the pastor at The Cathedral of the Sacred Heart. Housing is also provided, but it’s an average Fan-area home.
“Not opulent, no,” said Kremer.
But that’s the exception instead of the rule. In most churches, Law said personnel is usually the biggest piece of the pie.
“The staffing should be somewhere in the neighborhood of 50 percent."
That’s the case for Southside Church of Nazarene in Chesterfield. Executive Pastor Wynne Lankford explained:
"About 42 percent of our over revenue that comes in is for salaries."
The church tells us youth and families are top priority. They organize several youth mission trips a year; they even partner with the Xzone to provide after-school sports.
But all of that requires staffing: 48 employees, including pastors, adds up to about $1.2 million.
"We've received today about $185,00 to $195,000," said Lankford.
The church tried to keep an open dialogue about the money going with the congregation on a regular basis; updates are even given at services.
Pastor Lankford said clarity is the goal. "We just want to have transparency."
All of the churches who opened their books to us hand out brochures to their parishes annually with a complete financial breakdown. This is a good policy, according to Steve Law.
“Churches should have open books, absolutely,” he said.
First Baptist Church even includes its members in the budget process.
"We have a financial team, budget team, audit team,” Kim Boys told us. “All the controls a regular business has."
ABC 8News reached out to those other ten big churches for their financial information: West End Assembly of God told us they didn’t like a lot of attention, Victory Tabernacle says they’re worried about security, Fifth Street Baptist and Grove Avenue Baptist simply declined.
Of the other churches, which include large congregations like St. Paul’s, Cedar Street Baptist and First Baptist Church of Southside-where Mayor Dwight Jones is head pastor—our numerous calls and emails requesting an interview were not returned.
Law told us that if a church isn’t sharing its financials with members, it is a cause for concern.
"It should be a yellow flag, maybe a red flag,” he said. “But yes, a church member should ask, “Why is the information about the money not being shared?”"
Click here to see a complete list of which churches shared their financials with ABC 8News, and which ones didn’t. You can also find out exactly how budgets break down for churches that talked with us here.
Stay with ABC 8News on air and online for updates to this story.
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