Report: $1.3M for Church-Starting Misused by Texas Baptists

Over a million dollars in church-starting funds from a Baptist Convention were misused, an investigation uncovered, and some of the church starts never even existed.

Three pastors in the Baptist General Convention of Texas misused more than $1.3 million given for 258 church starts and directed the monetary support elsewhere, the Associated Baptist Press reported. While irregularities in the church-starting program were known, the misused funds were not discovered until a recent five-month investigation.

"The BGCT should have recognized at least some of the red flags,” said Brownsville attorney Diane Dillard, according to ABP. “However, no evidence of a thorough investigation of these matters was provided to the investigators. The lack of written investigation reports, summaries or memoranda in the BGCT files suggests that the allegations were not seen as credible."

Dillard, who was enlisted to conduct an independent investigation, presented their findings to a called meeting of the BGCT Executive Board on Tuesday.

The three pastors - Otto Arango, Aaron De La Torre and Armando Vera - had reported 258 church starts. The investigation, however, revealed that about 98 percent of the church starts no longer exist or never existed except on paper.

Between 1999 and 2005, the pastors used the start-up funds for book printing, other ministry work, and a general missions fund rather than specified church starts. Although some house churches in the Rio Grande Valley became autonomous congregations, many of them did not qualify as "churches" under the BGCT Church Starting Center's guidelines, according to ABP.

Independent investigators uncovered poor oversight, uneven management, failure to abide by internal guidelines and misplaced trust by some BGCT church-starting staff leaders in Dallas.

The Baptist convention had reported 357 new churches in the Valley with 157 active. However, only 62 were found active. Among the 258 churches started by the top four sponsoring congregations, the convention had reported 100 active, but only five were active, investigators noted.

"The inability of the BGCT to correlate data kept under three different numbering systems impeded the progress and dramatically increased the cost for the investigation. It also prevents the presentation of meaningful data to decision-makers,” Dillard said. “The BGCT should have a system whereby all data regarding the funding of a new church, including all transactions, can be easily accessed in one location or reporting mechanism.”

Some funds were also deposited into a personal account, but investigators found no evidence that any BGCT staff received money for personal gain.

An FBI investigation in 2000-2001 had failed to find any evidence that BGCT staff misused funds. And investigators said BGCT leaders failed to investigate thoroughly charges of impropriety.

E.B. Brooks, retired director of the BGCT missions, however, countered opinions saying the concerns in the Valley were treated with seriousness.

"We did several things in response to both obvious lapses and rumored misdeeds," said Brooks.

A day before the findings were revealed to Executive Board leaders, the former director and associate director of the BGCT Church Starting Center left the staff Oct. 25. Former director Abe Zabeneh was said to have resigned and Former Associate Director and now BGCT consultant David Guel retired.