Let’s just say I would have been a wee-bit surprised if my pastor offered remarks like the pastor of First AME Church in Los Angeles did yesterday. Imagine sitting in the pews for this whopper:
Pastor John J. Hunter, 51, used church credit cards to pay for at least $122,000 in personal expenses, including family vacations, clothes, jewelry, bikes and auto supplies, The Times reported Sunday. He and church finance officials said he had signed an agreement to repay the money and instituted stricter accounting policies, such as spending guidelines and more frequent audits, to guard against future problems.
Hunter also told The Times that he is working with federal tax officials to repay back taxes, penalties and interest amassed over 17 years, which have resulted in federal tax liens of more than $309,000 against himself and his wife, Denise Brown Hunter. He explained that he had legally opted out of the Social Security system several years ago, as ministers are allowed to do, but that the IRS had no record of it and assessed the taxes.
On Sunday, before more than 6,000 congregants at three services, Hunter acknowledged that he had made mistakes and that it was “disconcerting and embarrassing” to see private church matters aired publicly. But he assured his flock that he had done nothing criminal and was working to resolve the problems, and that the church remained financially strong.
“I stand not as a perfect servant but one who tries to be a faithful servant,” Hunter said, drawing scattered applause and murmurs of approval from congregants at the 10 a.m. service. “Our church is in sound financial condition. We are solid, perhaps more so than we have ever been. Our future is bright.”
I’d hope it’s bright. Hunter isn’t operating some podunk church. First AME is the oldest, largest and most prominent African-American congregation, and it was led for 27 years by the Rev.—as in: revered legend—Cecil “Chip” Murray until he retired and joined the faculty of USC. Hunter took over in 2004.
It sounds like his followers don’t feel like they’ve been led astray. But mind you this is not the first time a church—any church—has been distracted by financial, um, “irregularities,” and such circumstances can’t help but drive some members to other congregations.