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The comeback church: Herbert Memorial UMC back in the game after $250K theft

By Jessica Connor

GEORGETOWN —A little more than two years ago, Herbert Memorial United Methodist Church was hit with one of the worst things they could imagine. They were missing money—nearly a quarter-million dollars simply gone.

Standing accused was their beloved administrative assistant, who had grown up near the church and attended preschool there. It was the kind of devastation some churches never overcome.

Fast forward to today ”fueled by faith, forgiveness and a renewed commitment to their relationship as a church family ”and Herbert Memorial is in a whole new state of grace. They have not only fully recovered financially from the theft but have embraced a fresh mindset. Once mission-oriented, now they have a mission budget to back their zeal. Once scraping by financially, now they have adopted a can-do attitude grounded in belief.

It is a testament to the power of our God,  said David Essex, Staff Parish Relations Committee chair.

And now they hope others will be encouraged by their story.

Hard news

It all started in November 2011, when Raymond Pearigen, then-chair of the church Finance Committee, discovered a discrepancy in the amount they reported paying to the S.C. Conference of the UMC in apportionments and the amount the conference reported. He took it to pastor the Rev. Marie Nuckles, who called the conference treasurer s office.

To their shock, they discovered not only were their apportionment payments off, but they were $36,000 behind on their direct billing insurance payments, as well.

It got worse.

Pearigen went to the church the next day and started combing through financial records. He discovered they were $4,000 overdrawn on their bank account, and the church checkbooks were missing. While the deposits seemed just fine, Pearigen said, Checks written to our administrative assistant totaled almost $54,000 for 2010. 

They secured the church, changed the locks and called in the sheriff s office. After full investigation by police and a forensic certified public accountant, the grand total missing from the church: $242,000.

Over about a six-year period she took the equivalent of our one-year budget,  Essex said. It was a lot of money for the 260-member church, which has an average weekly attendance of about 120.

It hurt,  Pearigen said.

Immediately supportive

Nuckles called a church-wide meeting, personally inviting every church member, to announce the news. From the start, they decided to be completely up-front about everything ”no sugarcoating. Marion District Superintendent Dickie Knight was in attendance, as was the Rev. Ken Phelps, who also had experienced a similar crisis.

The church was incredibly supportive both of its leaders and of the accused, Nuckles said.

We handed out two cards: one for questions and one for prayer requests,  Nuckles said. I d say probably 80 percent of the cards we received were asking for prayer for (the administrative assistant) and her family. Her name stayed on our prayer list a year and a half after that. 

Pearigen said the church showed itself to be a true family.

The biggest thing was what they didn t say. They didn t blame anybody,  Pearigen said. The next Sunday in our regular church service we got an offering of $11,000; for our church to do $4,000 is pretty good! 

After a negotiated plea, the assistant pleaded no contest and got probation and partial restitution. At her sentencing, Nuckles said the church was a significant witness, stating they did not request any sort of punitive sentence.

The judge was kind of amazed; he d been on the bench many, many years and said it was rare to hear that,  Nuckles said. It was a witness to how things should be. 

Ultimately, Herbert Memorial received $100,000 in restitution, $100,000 from insurance, $10,000 from an employee malfeasance policy and a $10,000 gift from the Marion District, plus its members made many stretch-gift contributions.

They bounced back and made a full financial recovery in about a year s time, paying back all their past direct billing, achieving 100 percent in apportionments and paying back everything they owed except to the district, which insisted the money they donated was a gift.

A new mindset

The experience changed Herbert Memorial in so many ways, from financially to a newfound faith in their abilities as a church.

I remember Pastor Phelps came up and said, ˜You re going to look back and realize all the good that has come of this,  Essex said, noting Phelps was right. It s pulled us together and reaffirmed we were doing what we were supposed to be doing; it was a reaffirmation of faith. 

Thanks to a financial crisis, the church ironically is now doing more with God s money than it ever imagined.

Before, we always seemed to have just enough to get by. But from that day, we ve had more money than ever before,  Pearigen said. It was a mindset change. Before it was, ˜Oh, we can t do it, end of conversation. Now it s, ˜We can do it. 

Pearigen said the church had been wanting to replace its pews and add a sound system, but they never thought they could afford to do something like that. But a year after the theft, they decided they wanted to go for it. When they received the $100,000 from insurance, the church paid off their mortgage, reimbursed the conference, paid off the debt on the pews and sound system and still had $10,000 left ”a huge witness to their trust in God.

The church has also made a lot of changes in procedure, making sure lay members are in multiple roles, with many checks and balances.

But for Nuckles, the greatest thing to come from the experience was the way it personally transformed the members, both as a church family and in teaching valuable lessons about forgiveness and faith.

God continues to bless the congregation. There s no finger-pointing, no one going around angry,  Nuckles said. Personally, it affirmed for me what the church is ”the body of Christ coming together. We held one another up. 

Essex said he had been tremendously hurt by the financial crisis. He d spent many years lamenting why the church wasn t doing better financially, when all that time it had been doing well. He had many negative feelings to discard.

I did my Walk to Emmaus, and I went in wanting to pinch her head, and I came out understanding I needed to forgive,  Essex said. I laid that at the cross. I can t describe how it felt to lay down that burden. 

Now, the church has a new understanding of the connectionalism that is The United Methodist Church. It was the district that gave them the initial gift of $10,000. It was the conference that had the insurance.

It was because of all that we were able to continue,  Nuckles said.

Looking forward

With the financial crisis behind them, Herbert Memorial is entering a bold new phase: a huge heart for missions.

Before, while they cared about helping their community and sent youth to Salkehatchie Summer Service and other efforts, the church didn t have a budget for missions. Now they do.

Last year, they sent 28 church members on a mission trip to Costa Rica, and the church provided a lot of financial support for the trip. They are also making a conscious effort to find missions that involve all ages, such as their work with Helping Hands, a local food organization. Recently, t
hey did a food drive plus donated funds, and the church children and youth got $400 to personally buy groceries and deliver them to the organization. They also spent time stocking shelves.

Essex is seeking some stay-at-home mission opportunities with overseas implications, such as supporting a nearby church, Union UMC, which is constructing water wells in Africa.

Nuckles said the church is also involving itself in more hands-on mission in the local community. Currently, they are exploring the conference emphasis on helping children in poverty.

They are in a good place, and members are optimistic about the future and the good they can do for the Lord.

A whole lot came from this,  Pearigen said. At the end of the day it makes you glad to be a Methodist. 

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