State Board receives financial fraud report, looks to future

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JACKSONVILLE–Focused on Matthew 9:35-38, Tommy Green, Florida Baptists’ executive director-treasurer, urged the State Board of Missions to “pray for a sweeping move of God” throughout Florida.

As he spoke to Board members Aug. 25 in Jacksonville, Green affirmed, “Our churches are on mission for the Lord Jesus Christ … We have pastors with fire burning in their bones,” but he cautioned, “We must never get enamored with numbers and demographics.”

He stated, “Compassion compels us to action. … We have to be a people of compassion if we are going to make a difference in the state.”

He concluded by challenging Board members to “pray big, give big, dream big, go big.”

In a videotaped message Paul Purvis, Florida Baptist State Convention president, stated, “We are the church today and until the return of our Lord. … May we continue to proclaim, or manifest, the kingdom of God.” Purvis announced that Manifest is the theme of the FBSC annual meeting, set for Nov. 13-14 at Idlewild Baptist Church in Lutz.

Ken Whitten, recently retired pastor of Idlewild Baptist Church in Lutz and newly named national director of pastoral leadership at the North American Mission Board, delivered a biblical message to Board members on Aug. 24. He focused on Matthew 20 and urged those in attendance not to bargain with God, bookkeep with God or blame God. Rather, he said, Christians should “believe God.”

Financial fraud report

During its Aug. 24-25 meeting at the Baptist Building in Jacksonville, the State Board of Missions heard a report from the subcommittee tasked with providing oversight and recommended next steps regarding the investigation into the financial fraud discovered by the Florida Baptist Convention in May of this year. Members of the subcommittee were Aaron Burgner, Darren Gaddis, Paul Purvis, Brian Stowe and Angel Turbeville.

The subcommittee worked with federal and state investigators, internal and external auditors and cyber forensics experts in their investigation into the more than $700,000 in funds stolen from the convention through cybertargeting.

The investigation revealed no criminal activity on the part of any Florida Baptist Convention staff person but instead concluded that the crime was the result of sophisticated cybertargeting by, at this point, unknown perpetrators. The subcommittee’s work culminated in the recommendation for strengthened financial protocols and ongoing training for convention staff.

Among the efforts to prevent such a crime from occurring in the future, the convention is exercising heightened awareness when carrying out financial duties, implementing appropriate data security controls, and completing the process to become accredited by the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability. The convention is still making efforts to recover the stolen funds.

Green acknowledged that, in his more than four decades of ministry, this is the first time he has dealt with a crime of this nature. “Everything we do is built on trust,” he said. “I’m sorry. We will move forward. We are better, and we’ll continue to get better.”

He has already seen, he said, that “churches are learning from the convention’s fraudulent experience.”

The convention recommends these best practices to help churches protect their financial assets:

  • Provide staff training on recognizing suspicious emails and other sophisticated cyberattacks.
  • Enable multifactor authentication logins when available.
  • Verbally verify any changes to payment instructions requested by a vendor related to accounts payable or an employee related to payroll.
  • Discuss with the church’s insurance agent the programs and levels of coverage available to help the church in the event of a cyberfraud experience.
  • Engage a cybersecurity professional to provide analysis of information technology infrastructure and security.

Cooperative Program budget

In its August meeting, the State Board of Missions, on the recommendation of its Finance Committee chaired by Gaddis, approved a proposed 2024 Cooperative Program Basic Budget of $29.5 million, unchanged from the 2023 budget, that continues to designate 51% of all receipts from Florida Baptist churches to the SBC Cooperative Program, while retaining 49% for ministries in the state. Of the 49% of monies that remain in Florida, approximately 16.5% is earmarked for three of Florida Baptists’ cooperating ministries, The Baptist College of Florida, One More Child and Lake Yale Baptist Conference Center.

Other recommendations

To help bring awareness of higher education opportunities offered through The Baptist College of Florida, the State Board approved a recommendation from the Administrative Committee chaired by Burgner for an annual day of emphasis for the college/university to be held in January of each year. Messengers to the 2023 annual meeting of the Florida Baptist State Convention are expected to affirm the official name change of The Baptist College of Florida to the Baptist University of Florida. The college/university is one of only two Southern Baptist higher education entities that receives its nonprofit status from its state convention as a cooperating ministry.

The State Board of Missions approved a recommendation brought by its Denominational Committee led by chairman Jeff Robinson to adjust the FBSC annual meeting location schedule. Describing the annual meeting, which has been hosted in a local Florida Baptist church for close to 20 years, as “the annual family reunion for the Florida Baptist family,” leaders acknowledged that the format of the meeting “requires very specific and unique facilities.” Also, statistics show that more Florida Baptist churches and people attend the annual meeting if it is held in the central part of the state. The State Board approved a recommendation to conduct the FBSC 2024, 2025 and 2026 annual meetings at First Baptist Church of Orlando. After the 2026 meeting, convention staff will bring a report and recommendation for future years’ annual meetings.

The State Board also approved a recommendation from the Administrative Committee to establish Florida Baptist regional pastors’ wives networks to offer love, encouragement and support to the women who often go unrecognized. This initiative will be “soft-launched” in the Southwest region in the fall of 2023, with other regions to launch the pastors’ wives networks in early 2024. Green expressed that he is “incredibly excited” about the opportunity and that he believes the wives network can grow to “be one of the best things” the convention does in coming “right beside” churches and pastors. The staff liaison for the initiative will be Cindy Bradley, Florida Baptist catalyst for women’s ministry and mission education.

Administrative Committee Chairman Burgner and Finance Committee Chairman Gaddis led Board members to approve a recommendation that the current combined policy for church planting and church revitalization be separated into two policies, one for church planting and one for church revitalization. Having two separate policies will “provide the easiest process for helping churches,” leaders said.

Board members also approved recommendations from the Administrative Committee relative to the day-to-day operations of convention business.

Messengers to the 2023 FBSC annual meeting in November will vote on each of the recommendations presented by the State Board of Missions.

The Loans Committee, led by chairman John Marsh, reported that 18 churches have already received loans to purchase land or to make building and property improvements in 2023, bringing the total number of church loans currently being serviced by the convention to more than 150. “This is one way we as a convention are ‘right beside’ our churches,” Marsh said.

Board members also heard a detailed financial 2022 audit report from Batts, Morrison, Wales and Lee, PA of Orlando. The audit received an unqualified opinion of the financial statements in accordance with generally accepted accounting principles. “Our monies are being shepherded well,” said Gaddis.

In other business, the Board:

–learned that 245 pastors had received pastor financial assistance from the Florida Baptist Convention in the first half of 2023;

­–received information on the number of churches receiving church planting or church revitalization grants;

­–celebrated updates on ministry work of the Florida Baptist Convention’s cooperating ministries: The Baptist College of FloridaLake Yale Baptist Conference CenterFlorida Baptist Financial Services and One More Child.

The next State Board of Missions meeting is scheduled for Nov. 13 in Lutz.

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