Nun Embezzles

Every now and again one of my “anti-” religious friends sends me an article of some priest doing wrong.  In conversation they are usually polite, but inevitably the link has to do with bad clergy, bad religion, or an atheist insight they guess I’ve never heard.

Recently a nun was charged with embezzling at a local Catholic college.

Of course, I’m always disappointed, frustrated and saddened whenever this happens.  Not just because it’s bad for the institution and the individuals who are hurt, but because it affects me.

Whenever a priest or a nun is accused of a crime, of any denomination or tradition, it wears off a little.  I become embarrassed and ashamed, even though I did nothing wrong.  A conviction of one priest, and we’re all convicted.  One accusation, and we’re all accused.

I don’t think that one’s religion or faith has much to do with why or when a crime is committed.  It may be that, as churches are fundamentally trust-based institutions- it’s easier to commit crimes without being detected.  It’s easier to avoid the normal controls that businesses have.

Plenty of churches operate more responsibly.  The Episcopal church, by and large, has systems to encourage churches to monitor their money.  The priest in my church, for example, doesn’t count the money – in fact, the entire vestry is trained to do the work instead.  We have two, not one, treasurers, so that power isn’t in the hands of one person.  My discretionary account isn’t separated from the main account, and is easily tracked by the wardens.  Churches are required to have audits.

And when someone gives me cash, I remind them of a simple rule:  never give a priest cash.  I remind them that the $20 will either sit on my dresser, or be a part of my clergy beer fund, to which I buy rounds of drinks for anyone who joins me.

Priests often feel that they work hard, and are undercompensated.  When they are disconnected from their own congregations, they justify to themselves taking a couple dollars here and there.   It’s an insidious cycle.

It is one reason dioceses encourage churches to compensate parish priests enough so that they do not have to be stressed, worried or resentful.  Nobody becomes rich when they decide to enter the ministry – we are fully aware that we won’t have a Mercedes, send our children to Switzerland for skiing trips, and routinely go to fancy restaurants.  It is enough to have a wage that is just, that allows a priest to have a family without being afraid of what the next day brings.

Jesus sacrificed his life, so that we would not have to.

Money, trust

From last year’s enewsletter around this time

Money.

The automakers are looking for a bailout.

More than half a million people have gone on unemployment.

Endowments – liquidated.

Office parties: canceled.

It’s so sad.

So now what do we do? Can’t afford clothes from Barney’s. Can’t jet off to Paris on that little extra bonus we had. And it would have been nice to see a couple of the office workers dance on the new guy’s desk after a few highballs.

Instead, we might just go home turn on the TV and watch Survivor reruns or that old Caddyshack DVD.

The instinct for people when they are afraid about the future is to hoard. To get overly frugal. To protect the little we have. it’s understandable. Sometimes we just have to curl back into the fetal position and wait for the sun to rise again.

But in the parable of the talents, remember what happened to the servant who decided to put one talent in the ground rather than invest.

He was cast out!

Metaphorically. And then he probably got even more depressed.

Although perhaps investing wouldn’t be the wisest idea right now.

But it’s noted, in a commercial society, that when there is a loss of trust, the proper role of the government is to do the opposite. To encourage people to trust more. By infusing trust into the economy, and people, banks and businesses will respond by trusting more.

Yes, if you haven’t guessed, I am a Keynesian at heart.

Money symbolizes trust. It is an implicit agreement, the foundation of a commercial society. And right now, we’re living in a time when trust has been broken at a level that is hard for even sophisticated bankers to understand.

For good reason: the trust was so subtle, the web of commerce so interlinked and nearly invisible, people didn’t see how crucial trust was for a working economy. What was visible? Getting rich.

Let me say that being rich is not the problem. Wealth is, by and large, a good thing. The scripture indicates that we want wealth, honorably created, through industry rather than through corruption. We prefer economies that are like fishing: through hard work and tenacity; rather than gold-digging – a matter of luck.

But we’ve been living through a time where there was enough dishonesty, ignorance and envy that people made decisions that would later affect our economy. And the system of incentives as such that most people were cheerfully self-deluded by the economy’s seeming resilience.

They were making decisions because everyone else was doing the same thing.

Yet, while there will be misery, fear and frustration as there are more layoffs and less money to go around, we have not yet lost the real source of wealth: our communities.

Yesterday, the Yankees paid more than $160 million for a pitcher. I’ve never heard of him, but I’m guessing he knows how to throw a fastball. Gold plated fastballs, with diamond studded seams.

Of course, by purchasing such players, priests like myself only go to Yankee games when someone else is paying. For everything, including the cotton candy and a bottle of Heineken.

I can barely afford to buy tap water at the new stadium.

We could alternately also decide to form a softball team at St. Barts. The cost? $1000 to join a league. And we get to play. That’s cheap.

Who will be happier? In one, we get to watch. In the other, we get to play. And invite our friends to watch for free. We can bring our own keg to the park if we want. One’s expensive. the other is fun.

The other evening we threw a party where people donated gifts. Many of them were gifts of love. Gary Rogers donated car detailing. I donated salsa lessons and an Indian meal for 4. Sandra offered a fancy 3* dinner for six. Meg offered her amazing brownies and cookies. And people paid money for them. They exchanged goods. Because we’ve got wealth here.

Bill McKibben writes that the real economy that sustains us happens when we are engaged in the workings of our communities. It’s what we have to look forward to.

What is the cost? There is one major cost. And we barely see it.

It’s convenience. It’s work to cook, to teach, and to clean. It’s work to share and be available to each other. It’s work to be a part of a community. It’s inconvenient.

Perhaps, as the economy deteriorates, we’ll realize that the conveniences we have are killing our humanity.

I don’t want the economy to crash. I hope it doesn’t get any worse.

But if it means we have to begin looking to one another for encouragement, help and love, then what we have lost will be much smaller than what we have gained.

Here at St. Barts, we will continue to throw parties.