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Church heals, finds new growth after alleged embezzlement

By Jessica Connor

GEORGETOWN—One United Methodist Church is turning what could have been a devastating experience into a new way to be connectional.

Last year, after the Rev. Marie Nuckles was appointed to Herbert Memorial United Methodist Church in Georgetown, the newly installed pastor began reviewing the church s apportionments giving. She realized there was a major discrepancy between what the church was stating it had been giving and what the S.C. Annual Conference actually received. Conversations among the church bookkeeper, finance chair and Pastor Parish Relations Committee chair did not clear things up.

We had records that we thought money had been paid when it hadn t, so we started looking at old bank records, cancelled checks, and discovered problems,  said David Essex, PPRC chair.

They called in police, who launched an investigation beginning in November that culminated in the Palm Sunday arrest of 27-year-old Herbert Memorial UMC bookkeeper Elizabeth Brown, of Georgetown. Brown has been charged with stealing $240,340.18 between July 2005 and November 2011.

A forensic audit authorized by the church helped determine the full amount allegedly taken from the church, Essex said, who noted Brown has been released on a $25,000 bond and is awaiting a grand jury review of the case.

But from the start, the church decided to take a proactive, open and loving stance about the situation. Immediately, Nuckles said, they called every single member of the church and invited them to a meeting, where church leadership informed them about the situation in full.

I think that was probably one of the most positive things we could have done,  Nuckles told the Advocate, noting District Superintendent the Rev. Dickie Knight was present, along with a pastor who had experienced this in his church before. The congregation was given the opportunity to ask whatever questions they wished, express any grief and request prayer.

Nuckles was touched by the forgiveness exhibited toward the alleged embezzler who, while not a Herbert Memorial UMC member, had gone through the church preschool program and grown up in the church; her grandmother lives down the street.

They felt she was a child of the church, and there was a lot of pain involved; they felt they had been deceived,  Nuckles said. Yet they really felt bad for her family and what she was going through and what her family was going through. From that point forward, there were comments made, that ˜we ve made it through worse things than this, and we ll certainly make it through this. 

Essex said they placed Brown and her family on the prayer list and began soon working toward overcoming the situation, not dwelling on the past.

The church established new financial systems to protect it from future problems, and leadership has redefined the office staffer job description from bookkeeper duties to more secretarial. At the time the Advocate went to press, they were about to hire a new staffer.

Members also increased their support. In addition to pitching in with volunteer help to staff the front office before they could hire a replacement worker, members upped their giving and their attendance.

It s been a re-awakening, a pleasant thing,  Essex said. People seem to be more willing to get involved and participate in the ministries of the church, and from that standpoint it s been a good outcome. 

Nuckles said it has been a learning experience for the congregation.

The church really rallied around one another with a strong determination that they will overcome this,  she said. Financially, the church is on positive grounding right now, paying all bills and apportionments. We did not lose anybody because of this, no negative pointing your finger, like ˜Why didn t this person find this. They have just been real Christian sisters and brothers through the whole thing. 

Surprising for Nuckles has been the concern the congregation expressed for her personal wellbeing. They kept apologizing that I d been brought to the church and had to go through this as soon as I started,  Nuckles said. But I looked at this as part of God s plan to be revealed through some fresh eyes. 

She cited terrific support from the district and the conference in resolving the problem and ensuring a stronger future.

It s proof positive God takes a bad thing and makes something positive out of it,  Nuckles said. The connectional system is alive and well. 

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