The Baptist General Convention of Texas (BGCT) is trying to recoup up to $1.3 million lost in failed and fraudulent church plants, some of which existed only on paper. A late October report revealed that most convention churches started in the Rio Grande Valley from 1999 to 2005 have failed. Among 258 congregations started by three pastors in seven years, only 5 still gather.

BGCT executive director Charles Wade said he expected a legal opinion in mid-December on whether to turn over information to government authorities. The convention was also to learn if it has any recourse to recover some of the funds.

Convention leaders have been developing stricter guidelines for church-planting oversight, which they plan to present in February to the BGCT mission committee.

"We began revising our strategy last spring," Wade said. Complaints sparked an investigation in May. "The guidelines we had were okay. They were just ignored."

The BGCT hired an investigative team that found evidence of inaccuracies, falsified reports, and lax convention oversight of the church-starting program. Pastors Otto Arango, Aaron de la Torre, and Armando Vera reported 72 percent of the valley's 357 church starts over a seven-year period.

De la Torre gave the most damaging admission of wrongdoing. The pastor of Community Baptist Church in Hidalgo described a scheme where he turned over BGCT checks to Arango, who allegedly deposited them into his bank account and gave de la Torre 50 percent of the money.

De la Torre told investigators he wanted "to be honest before God" and offered to pay restitution. The report said the pastor admitted that all 89 churches he sponsored or co-sponsored were only cell groups.

Arango did not respond to CT's request for a comment.

"Arango said that he had made a lot of money promoting his vision of planting churches," the report said. "In addition, he said the 'complainers' were envious of [his church] facility, in part because it was debt free."

Greed—not just for money—can entangle church leaders or blind them to wrongdoing, said Barry Minkow, founder of the Fraud Discovery Institute.

"We're greedy for numbers so we can tell people we're effective, which makes us vulnerable on the ministry side," Minkow said.

Wade vowed not to withdraw funds from church-planting efforts. He hopes the new guidelines will restore faith in the nation's largest state affiliate of the Southern Baptist Convention.

"There's widespread dismay," Wade said of reaction to the scandal. "Whenever monies that are given by people who want to see God's work done are diverted … there's a great sadness."

Related Elsewhere:

The Baptist General Convention of Texas announced that it had turned the reports of wrongdoing over to law officials.

Other coverage includes:

Texas Baptists hit by financial scandal (The Christian Century, December 12, 2006)
Texas Baptists instruct director to recover Valley mission funds (The Dallas Morning News, November 13, 2006)
Law enforcement officials to receive report of missing funds (Baptist Press, November 30, 2006)
BGCT to turn over probe results to law-enforcement officials (Associated Baptist Press, November 28, 2006)

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