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Alex Cochran

The growing problem of clergy scams

Fraudsters are increasingly targeting people of faith. Here’s what worshippers should watch out for

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This article was first published in the State of Faith newsletter. Sign up to receive the newsletter in your inbox each Monday night.

The share of Americans who attend church regularly may be dropping, but that hasn’t stopped bad actors from targeting worshippers with scams.

In recent years, fraudsters have collected thousands of dollars from people who thought they were supporting their pastors. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the problem has only gotten worse, according to the AARP.

“Complaints about clergy scams used to trickle into the (AARP) Helpline once or twice monthly; since the global health crisis, there have been five or six reports weekly,” the organization reported last year.

My own Facebook feed often includes posts about this issue, since I have a lot of pastor friends. The faith leaders warn congregants to be on the lookout for strange messages and reminds them not to send gift cards or other types of donations over text.

This reminder hints at the logistics of clergy scams, which generally involve a fraudster posing as a pastor or other member of a church’s staff. The scammer describes some sort of unfolding crisis and asks message recipients if they’d be willing to help.

Sometimes, the message includes a promise of financial reimbursement, but churchgoers often don’t need that to be willing to give. After all, caring for people in need is what people of faith are expected to do.

“When there’s a need, you want to help,” said Kit Clark, who lost $800 in a clergy scam, to The Baltimore Sun.

Because law enforcement struggles to catch the fraudsters involved, officials, like pastors, have focused on putting people on guard. But the effectiveness of these warnings is limited due to worshippers’ natural trust for their pastors and friends.

“If it had been somebody else, I would have questioned it,” Clark told The Baltimore Sun. “But my minister saying he was in a meeting, and could I do this? I never questioned it.”

Comments likes these are why reports on and posts about clergy scams — and all types of scams, really — always leave me feeling depressed. It’s seems so unfair for someone to be targeted simply because they’re more willing than other Americans to help people in need.

Fresh off the press

Term of the week: Devotional

In the Latter-day Saint context, or at least the Utah Latter-day Saint context, the term devotional typically refers to a speech on religious practices or spiritual growth. But it can also be used to describe a book of daily prayers or a faith-related routine. Many Christians use devotionals to prepare for significant religious holidays, like Christmas or Easter.

One of my favorite writers and thinkers, Kate Bowler, along with her colleague Jessica Richie, released a new book of devotionals last week called “Good Enough.” It aims to help recovering perfectionists like me rethink their approach to spirituality and faith. I’m really enjoying it so far.

What I’m reading ...

The COVID-19 pandemic threw single people’s dating lives into chaos. Suddenly, they were forced to decide not only if a potential match was worth a date, but also whether he or she was worth the infection risk. Reilly Cosgrove, a young Catholic, recently wrote about her pandemic dating experience for America magazine.

I’ve written quite a bit in recent years about the rise of the “nones,” meaning the surge in Americans who don’t affiliate with a faith community. But I haven’t written enough about the creative ways that churches are responding to this trend. My friend Bob Smietana, on the other hand, is a master of these types of stories. I really enjoyed his look at a house of worship in Connecticut that’s creating programming for the spiritual-but-not-religious.

For years, faith leaders have worked to increase racial diversity within American houses of worship. But a new study from LifeWay Research confirms they’re not making much progress. From 2013 to 2021, the share of Protestant pastors who said their congregations are comprised primarily of members of a single racial or ethnic group fell by only 10 percentage points from 86% to 76%.

Odds and ends

Do you subscribe to Deseret magazine yet? The upcoming April issue is focused on religious trends and I contributed a couple of pieces.

Gallup released its latest survey on life satisfaction last week. Researchers found that the share of weekly worship service attenders who feel “very satisfied” with the way things are going in their life (67%) is higher than the share of people with a household income greater than $100,000 who feel the same (61%).