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Thursday, May 10, 2012

Ask the Matriarch - Petty Theft in the Church

Wherever there are people, there will be broken commandments.  Our churches are no exception, as today's question reminds us:

How should we deal with petty theft in the church?

We have one person who attends regularly (not a member), whom we suspect of "lifting" small items from time to time. Items displayed at the coffee hour for sale have gone missing, or someone's purse is gone through and change or candy is missing. It's not children, as we have only two attending, one is an infant of two months and her 3-year-old sibling is always accompanied. I have personally witnessed this person opening packaged gift baskets that were for sale and removing the items from it, "so I can see what all is in it." There's a general lack of respect for personal space from this person as well (stands too close and when you step back, steps forward; will handle other people's property without asking--a cell phone left on a table, for example), the crowning example being her curiosity about my tattoo (it's in the centre of my chest, so not always visible, but one day on a retreat I wore an open-necked shirt). She actually reached out and touched my tattoo, my chest, without asking permission. I stepped back and told her lightly that "no one gets to do that," but I am not sure she understood. I am not entirely sure if  she is dealing with some cognitive issues, mental health issues, cultural issues, or what.

We (the Board and clergy) have previously suggested to worship leadership that they leave valuables in the church office (which is always occupied or locked) when they cannot hang on to them (preparing for worship, leading worship, etc.), in order to nip anything in the bud, but of course people forget or "just this once," leave a purse out in the sanctuary or in the fellowship room.

Ideally, we would have a policy or plan in place so that when/if it happens again, we will be able to deal with it swiftly. Right now, I feel it is inadequate to tell someone who has had their purse rifled that, "Well, we don't really know who did it," and I don't want to "blame the victim" by reminding them they should have left their purse in the office.

I have two questions--how do we (clergy and church leadership) help the congregation feel safe (or that their belongings are) and minister to this person as well? I know we need to minister to the congregation AND to this person, but I am not sure how to do this.

Have others dealt with this and if so, how?

Muthah+, who blogs at A Stone of Witness, responds:

Dear Pastor,

I have not had quite this problem but I did have an instance where a child's behavior was threatening the safety of members.  I must admit that it did not go especially well but I do not think I would have done it differently:

With the head of my board, I spoke to the parents of the child very frankly about the issue.  They threatened to leave the parish, but they didn't and the behavior was changed.

I am a firm believer that the pastor and a lay leadership need to set some significant guidelines and then meet with the individual.  Do not accuse but merely say what is expected.  If she denies it, just reiterate what you have said.  Do not be severe, but be quite clear about what you are asking her to do--no touching other people, their things without their permission, etc.  If she is unwilling then she will be asked to leave.  Then if she is observed doing these things, some action can be taken.

Do not speak to her alone as it will be seen as personal, but if lay leadership is also involved, it will be seen as expectations of the whole community.

I have always tried to remember that the pastor's job is not just the individual souls in her charge but as the leader of a community of faith.  It 'ain't fun', but some intervention is the most faithful thing that can be done in such situations.

From Martha, blogging at Reflectionary:

As someone who had her purse stolen during a Women's Bible Study brunch many years ago (with $200 just withdrawn from the bank to pay for a birthday party!), I know the feeling of having something taken from a place you believed you were completely safe. It's awful. 

If it happened in my congregation, and primarily around worship times, I believe I would ask the Deacons for their input on safeguarding belongings. It sounds like you've begun that by suggesting worship leaders lock up their belongings. If you have warned people over and over, and they still leave things out where they can be rifled through, at some point it *does* become the responsibility of the person who doesn't follow your advice. That's not the same thing as blaming a helpless victim. 

 Where the person in question is concerned, it sounds like it might be time to find out more about her situation so you can intervene appropriately. Can you take a Deacon or other lay leader with you and visit her? I would imagine given that she is not respectful of your physical boundaries it doesn't seem like a good idea to go alone. If you have a canny lay leader available, one who can help you assess what you're dealing with, I would take that person. When you have a better sense of where the loose boundaries originate, you'll be in a better position to devise a plan with your lay leaders. 

And from Kathryn: 

Great question and one that is very timely for me. We have a similar situation here.
In our case one of our pastors and two Elders are planning on sitting down with Karen (made up name) and telling her firmly that she is welcome to come and worship and eat with us (she shows up for events that include meals), but we will not accommodate belligerent behavior. It is also not our responsibility to provide her with 'to-go' containers for her boyfriend.

We are also working through a security plan that has us teaching folks how to be more observant about what is going on around them, including where they leave their own belongings and the assumptions that they make about how safe their coat and its contents are out on the coat rack in the hallway. We have also been known to have someone 'shadow' Karen. This has not been anything official, more of a quiet, behind-the-scenes kind of thing when she comes to events.

I'm looking forward to what others have to say. This is a tough one, especially when the clergy and other leadership see the difficulties in someone's behavior and other members of the congregation wonder why we're not being more hospitable. When is one no longer allowed to hold an entire community hostage?

We'd like to hear from you - please use the "Post a Comment" to share your experience or your thoughts.

May you live in God's amazing grace+


  1. I have some difficulties with all the answers, because it seems that there are suspicions, not facts about who the thief is. It may well be that the thief is someone else, perhaps even a "respected" member of the congregation.

    It also sounds to me like the woman has mental health issues.

    I would continue to ask people to safeguard their property. I realize that is uncomfortable in a church setting, but the reality is that we are all sinners and all subject to temptation.

    I would try to learn more about the woman's situation. As someone suggested, a visit with another church member might be in order.

    My prayers are with you.

  2. I suspect this is a much more widely common problem than one might think at first; and I suspect too that many of us get your two questions tangled up together with a kind of haze of notions about “property equals theft” or possibly a vague recollection of The Bishop’s Candlesticks. So I applaud the clarity with which you’ve reminded us that there are two questions here, not just one.
    What documentation does your denomination offer about “Church as Safe Place”? What information or advice does your insurer offer? You can be taking full advantage of that – in the meantime redoubling your reminders that “this is not a secure area” when people are coming and going. Members might be briefed to act as tactful security observers, watching items put out for sale, reminding people about their purses, cameras, phones, PDAs and so on. I have seen signs posted in a number of churches: “please take your purse with you to the communion rail” and so forth.
    Another expedient might be to consult your local police about building security, inside and out. I found that our local precinct were extremely helpful, both in conversation and with printed information booklets. That kind of conversation helps to build community as well – useful and fruitful.
    Now about ministering to the person in question – and I hear what you say about cognitive/mental health/cultural issues. Firm, prompt, polite reminders that “this is not what we do,” or “this is not acceptable,” or “you must not do this” fall within the definition of ministry—and further conversation on general, neutral topics may help you discern if or how to tackle the unacceptable behaviour more strongly. However sad the deficiency, however, this person is abusing the congregation, and that we don’t condone, any more than we would overlook other kinds of abuse.

    One of my senior colleagues observed during discussion of pastoral ministry in the context of Good Shepherd Sunday that part of it is knowing the difference between a sheep and a coyote…(in this part of the world, the latter is a “ki-yoot”).

  3. I saw a wonderful witness of faith in my previous church. We had a middle-aged man of another race who had been brain-damaged from time in jail. He clearly stood out in the congregation as different from the rest. He was known to pick up items around the church, some valuable, some personal, but mostly just "stuff".

    This congregation embraced him by bringing him into an adult Sunday School class, providing him breakfast (he walked a number of blocks to get to our church), repairing his bike, and communicating with his sister with whom he lived. They addressed the concerns of his theft by accompanying him throughout the building and reminding him that he can't take things that aren't his (he was mentally about the equivalent of age 5).

    He had been banned from several other congregations, but I was humbled by the witness of this congregation.


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