BGCT leaders pledge to ‘rebuild trust’ after alleged funds theft

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    BGCT leaders pledge to ‘rebuild trust’ after alleged funds theft
    By Gregory Tomlin
    Nov 14, 2006

    DALLAS (BP)--The staff and executive board of the Baptist General Convention of Texas will work toward “righting the wrongs” in the Rio Grande Valley where three church-starting pastors allegedly embezzled $1.3 million from the convention over six years, Charles Wade, the convention’s executive director, said at the BGCT annual meeting in Dallas Nov. 13.

    Wade told 1,900 messengers from some 600 churches that the “failures” identified in a report from the convention’s executive board were “those of a very few” and should not reflect on the work of numerous pastors, church planters and churches in the region. He said he will soon be traveling to the Rio Grande Valley to communicate the BGCT’s love and appreciation for the work being done there. “They face incredible challenges,” Wade said of the Baptist workers there.

    The suspect pastors -– Otto Arango of McAllen, Aaron de la Torre of Hidalgo and Armando Vera of Pharr -– claimed to have planted 258 of the BGCT’s 357 church starts in the region from 1999-2005, according to the BGCT. Only five of those “churches,” which in actuality were home Bible studies, small groups and children’s groups, are still in existence today. Arango recently founded the Piper Institute of Church Planting, a group that claims to be planting churches on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border.

    The FBI looked into allegations of fraud surrounding the pastors in 2000 but did not proceed with the investigation because the BGCT’s leadership declined further investigation of the matter. In October, however, a special internal BGCT investigative panel submitted a report to the convention’s leadership stating that the funds likely were misappropriated for phantom churches, or churches that existed only on paper.

    The submission of the report prompted the resignation of two members of the BGCT’s church-starting staff. David Gael and Abe Zabaneh both stepped down Oct. 25, the day after the report was handed to the BGCT leadership. Another staffer, E.B. Brooks, resigned last year and currently is executive director of Arango’s Piper Institute.

    When the report was presented to the executive board Oct. 31, Wade said the BGCT would implement the panel’s suggestions for tighter accounting and increased accountability, including the employment of an internal auditor. Wade also said the BGCT would study the church-starting process and work to foster a culture of trust in the Rio Grande Valley.

    Wade has received criticism for the relaxing of guidelines in the church starting division by Gael and Zabenah, actions which resulted in the loss of the funds. But Wade said he was committed to leading the BGCT through its current crisis.

    “You have my pledge that in the coming year you will have my very best in meeting the challenges before us,” Wade said, adding that Texas Baptists need to reach more than 10 million people in Texas who have no relationship with Christ. Wade also said that, within the next decade, another 4 million immigrants will arrive in the state.

    Bob Fowler, chairman of the BGCT executive board, said the board “shared the sadness” of the churches in the border region because of the “breach of stewardship revealed in the investigative report.” Fowler presented to messengers five motions adopted by the executive board that were designed to prevent any future misuse of funds and which called for seeking restitution.

    First among the motions was a call to institute “expeditiously and in full” the recommendations made by the special investigatory panel. Implementation of those recommendations will be monitored by an ad hoc committee, Fowler said. The committee will report on the status of the recommendations at the next executive board meeting in February 2007.

    Other approved motions implemented a process of internal audit and elevated church-starting guidelines within the BGCT to the level of “policy.” Those policies will be made available to the BGCT’s committee on missions and ministry in December and later to the executive board.

    Fowler said two final motions, also approved by the executive board, aimed at seeking “reconciliation and restitution.” The board instructed the president of the convention and chairman of the executive board, in conjunction with the convention’s legal representation, “to consider on an expedited basis the feasibility of and the full range of methods for recovery of funds misused or misappropriated” by the persons mentioned in the Oct. 31 investigative report. The motion presumably referenced the potential use of a civil suit to recover the embezzled funds.

    Fowler said a similar motion that called for the reporting of fraud to an “appropriate government investigatory agency” for criminal prosecution did not “compel the board” to act. The report to such an agency, he said, would be made only by the president and executive director of the convention, so far as the reporting is in the best interest of the convention.

    “The executive board pledges to resolve to right the wrongs, to fix what is broken, to reach out to the churches of the Rio Grande Valley, and to heal the hurt that has been inflicted on them,” Fowler said.

    One messenger, however, said allowing Wade to decide on the referral of the report was inappropriate. He asked that the convention be able to request a criminal probe of the matter, offering a motion that the will of the messengers should supersede the decision of the executive board, should the board decide to withhold the matter from government authorities.

    “Dr. Wade himself has some questions to answer about the earlier investigation, the one conducted by the FBI,” David Montoya, pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in Mineral Wells, said. “Did we not spend $150,000 to have competent attorneys look into the matter? $1.3 million -– is that not worth having a criminal investigator look into it?”

    Montoya has written about the disappearance of BGCT funds in the Rio Grande Valley on his blog. He wrote Nov. 12 that he has been pushing for an investigation of church-starting activity in the Rio Grande Valley since 2003. He also has called for Wade’s resignation, claiming that the convention should feel shame that its leader “is entitled to lead us with the string of failures trailing behind him like the chains of Marley’s ghost.”

    Moments after the general session ended, Montoya posted his version of the events in the convention hall, writing that his microphone was purposefully silenced and that people were seated around him to “intimidate” him. Montoya described the executive board’s presentation as “a bunch of attorney double-talk.”

    Montoya’s motion to amend the BGCT’s constitution later was defeated.

    Fowler, a real estate attorney, said he does not feel it is appropriate for the executive board to decide whether the matter should be taken to the authorities. “The board, in my opinion, did not feel it was qualified to make a determination as to if there was criminal action here,” Fowler said, adding that he believes the convention leadership should make that determination with its legal representation.

    At a news conference following the general session where the executive board presented its findings to messengers, both Wade and Fowler defended the decision to further investigate the matter before moving toward criminal prosecution. Fowler said he believes the convention needs to understand the “ramifications” of turning the report over to a government investigatory agency.

    “There are people in our convention who think just because we refer it there will be indictments, when that may not be the case,” Fowler said.

    Fowler also said that the executive board had asked Wade for his permission to put forward a vote of confidence in him, but that Wade had declined the measure. Wade said a vote of confidence would send the wrong message in light of the other motions.

    “If I get it fixed, then if they want to express appreciation and confidence, I will be happy to see it,” Wade said. “But right now, my concern is not if people like me or have confidence in me. All I ask is for a chance to get it fixed.”

    Wade said no vote of confidence would be necessary if he didn’t fix the problem by February. Wade did not indicate explicitly if his statement reflected the possibility of his resignation.

    BGCT President Michael Bell, pastor of Greater St. Stephen First Baptist Church in Fort Worth, said at the news conference that the executive board must proceed in “definitive ways” to build trust among the people who make up the convention and also among the people who may have suffered most from the misappropriation of funds –- those in the Rio Grande Valley. He said new procedures toward accountability will be a significant step in a “healing” process.

    “There are a lot of hurting people in the Valley,” Bell said. “They have difficulty trusting and feel they have been unfairly tagged.”

    The rest of the story is at

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