Fly-By-Night Churches Prey on the Flock

| March 3, 2010

West Memphis, Ark. – West Memphis police are warning the public to be wary of fly-by-night churches with questionable leadership. They say they could easily prey on those willing to open their hearts and wallets.

Police say people in West Memphis have voiced concern over curious churches popping up all over the city. And as far as the church leaders go, Fox 13 has learned, it’s sometimes difficult to find out if they're legit.

It seems Broadway Street has turned into the bible belt of the small town across the river. West Memphis Police Chief Bob Paudert says, "They're getting space out here, opening doors, putting signs up saying "minister" and they develop a following pretty quickly."

In the last year and a half, churches have been popping up all over West Memphis. Many are known as "store front churches," small churches that have taken over vacant stores. On Broadway, we counted 6 with in a quarter mile.

But Chief Paudert says some that have set up shop in his town have been fly-by-night churches with unscrupulous leadership. "They set up a church, get people to follow them they just throw money at these cons, basically what they are."

After complaints from concerned citizens, Chief Paudert, is now warning West Memphis residents to be careful about where they're giving. "They throw a lot of money in, which they don't have, but feel like they're giving to the right cause and they're being suckered out of money."

Pastor James Parker preaches out of a store front church. He says he was forced to move his congregation there 2 years ago, when his long-standing Morning Star Missionary Baptist church started falling apart.

He too has seen churches come and go and he worries about their followers who may be turning to faith in a failing economy. Pastor Parker says, "It's open. Can I say the atmosphere is just ripe for the pickings so to speak?"

Pastor Parker says shortly after his church moved in here, another one, with the same name, "Morning Star," moved in next door. It was gone a few weeks later. "The hearts of the people are so vulnerable now it's easy to take advantage of," says Parker.

Fox 13 visited Broadway Street one Sunday. Many store-front churches had just a hand-full of people worshiping inside. But this one advertises Sunday school at 10am and services at 11, was still dark at 11am. No one was inside.

Pastor Parker, says that's not unusual. He says some ministers are from out of town and may have other obligations. "I know several who live in Mississippi and come here for services."

It's not just on Broadway Street, Chief Paudert says. No matter where a church is, congregations should be aware of where their pastor is from. He also warns, to be wary of those with questionable backgrounds, "The majority we have are great and have a good following but some are misleading the people and have drug convictions, burglary convictions."

Fox 13 tried to track down one minister in West Memphis, with a criminal record. Court documents show pastor Donnie E. Gist, who leads the Lord's House of Prayer and Worship, was sentenced to 10 years in prison following a 1987 cocaine conviction. He was ordered to pay a $25,000 fine.

Despite repeated requests, Pastor Gist, would not talk with us about his past.

It seems many churches are turning to private investigators to check on church applicants. Private Investigator Keith Haney says, "It's kind of a sad state in my book where a church has to do a background on someone applying to be their minister or a minister."

On the internet, dozens of companies offer to do background checks on church staff. Haney says more and more churches are turning to him for background and credit checks on applicants, particularly those dealing with money, "People just want to be careful they want to do due diligence before they hire someone that's going to have that much responsibility."

Pastor David Moose, with Rosewood United Methodist Church in West Memphis, serves on the conference board of ordained ministers. He says it can take several years before a minister in his denomination is given his own church. "They have to pass a psychological exam, physical exam, credit background, criminal background check."

Pastor Moose says, as a church member, don't be afraid to ask questions. Ask if financial reports are given through a church board and if offerings are being counted by 2 unrelated people.
"If not supervised and accountable, there is greater temptation and opportunity to misuse the offerings of the people," says Moose.

Chief Paudert says there is money to be made in churches. He realized how easy it was for a house of prayer turn into a house of prey, when he recently saw one of his friends preaching from the pulpit.

Chief Paudert recalls, "He said "I'll do anything for money." he said, "I'm a minister for hire" so that's the attitude some take, but truly men of god, some of them are not."

These days, anyone can get ordained on the internet. Chief Paudert says a big title doesn't mean

a church or its leader is legit.

If you are worried about improper handling of funds at your church:

* Ask if regular financial reports are given to the congregation through the church board.
* Ask if financial reports are given to identifiable givers on a regular basis.
* If you can't get answers to these questions, reputable ministers say there's no way of knowing if the funds are being handled properly.

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Category: Church Security