The con man and his generic church

As your GetReligionistas have said many times, this whole post-denominational age in which we now live continues to present some major challenges for mainstream reporters and editors. I mean, it was one thing when religious believers tended to clump in hundreds of different herds with often strange sounding names that mean something to insiders, but sound like technical mush to outsiders. This is picky, picky stuff.

OK, troops, explain the doctrinal differences between the Missouri-Synod Lutherans and the folks in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, making a special effort to clearly explain why so many people in both of these groups cannot accurately be described as "evangelicals" in the same sense as the people at your friendly local evangelical megachurch. Then, once you have done that, explain why some people -- in both of those Lutheran flocks -- can accurately be called "evangelicals." You have, at the most, one paragraph. Begin.

I bring this up because of a recent Los Angeles Times story about a con man who turned to Jesus, and Oprah, and now appears to have returned to his old con tricks. The name is quite famous -- Barry Minkow. Here's the opening of the report, with a few comments:

Barry Minkow's former congregation accused the con man-turned-preacher of misusing church funds and luring its members into bad investments, allegations that forced a two-week delay in sentencing for the admitted two-time fraud artist.

Here is my first question: Shouldn't this man, under Associated Press style, be called "the Rev. Barry Minkow"? Or has he already been defrocked? Wait, more on that question in a minute.

San Diego's Community Bible Church said in a letter, part of a confidential pre-sentencing probation report, that Minkow improperly used church funds to finance the fraud-busting business he ran on the side, his defense lawyer said. The letter also attacks Minkow for leading members of his flock to make ill-fated investments in an unreleased movie about his life, said the lawyer, Alvin Entin.

"It accused Barry of everything except being in bed with a live girl or a dead boy," Entin said.

Time for another picky question. The story says that the church wrote a letter saying "blah, blah, blah." Stop and think about this. You mean the whole church congregation sat down and wrote it? I would assume not. I would assume that some kind of governing board at the congregation produced this letter, some small body of leaders.

Ah, but this raises another question. This is called a "Community Bible Church." What in the world do these words mean? In short, what kind of church is this? The body's beliefs statement helps a little bit, but not much (click here to check it out).

I would argue that this is actually a crucial question in this specific story. Why? The bottom line is that this is almost certainly a completely independent conservative church of some kind -- a nondenominational or post-denominational body, like unto thousands that have sprung up from sea to shining sea in recent decades. Who is in charge? Who is supervising this church? And, while asking these questions, let's add another: When something goes wrong, who is liable? With whom does the buck stop?

This kind of question is crucial when you're covering a fraud case.

Latter in the story, an important -- but vague -- word appears.

Entin said he plans to argue that Minkow had not wronged the church because he always returned funds he used to finance investigations by his Fraud Discovery Institute, a for-profit business Minkow operated on the side. Several church elders invested their own money in the institute, the lawyer said.

"Barry wasn't stealing anything from the church," Entin said. "He put in more than he took out. In fact, he worked without pay for the last four years."

Entin said his client waived a salary of more than $125,000 a year because the church was financially stretched and his institute was making money. Officials at the church, where Minkow had worked for 14 years, did not return calls seeking comment.

Minkow was convicted in the 1980s of operating his ZZZZ Best cleaning firm as a fraud. He emerged from prison as a repentant born-again minister and anti-fraud crusader. His latest conviction stalled the opening of a laudatory movie about his rise, fall and rehabilitation, leaving filmmakers scrambling to craft a new ending.

So there is a board of "elders," which implies some structure. To whom does this board answer? Most likely, the answer is going to be -- the ministers. It's a perfect circle in most independent churches of this kind. That circle of authority, or lack thereof, is the big story of the post-denominational age.

The story includes all kinds of serious information about the dollars and cents, which is logical in a business-section report. However, I do not see how readers are supposed to figure out the nature of these misdeeds without knowing something about Minkow's ministerial career and the church itself. Who ordained him? Where did he go to seminary? Other than God, who was this man's boss? Oh, and who was making this movie? A non-profit religious group?

In short, where did this large, once thriving church and its converted con-man pastor come from? We need to know something about that issue in order to grasp what may or may not happen next. One or two sentences, please? This information is at the heart of the alleged crime.

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