The Rev. John J. Hunter of First African Methodist Episcopal Church is receiving forgiveness from at least some of his parishioners for failing to pay federal taxes and for using church credit cards to buy personal luxuries. But Hunter and other members of the clergy must remember that Congress and the Internal Revenue Service may be less charitably inclined when preachers stray from the path of fiscal righteousness.
In 2004, Hunter succeeded the legendary Rev. Cecil L. "Chip" Murray at First AME Church in Los Angeles, a bastion of the "social gospel" combining faith and good works. The city as a whole benefits from the church's efforts to help provide affordable housing, food and legal services for the poor, and would suffer if Hunter's financial problems were to undermine the church's outreach programs or corrode its credibility.
So it's good news that Hunter is negotiating with tax authorities to resolve his obligations, and that he and church financial officials have agreed that he will repay more than $100,000 in expenditures including family vacations, clothes and jewelry. The church also is instituting stricter accounting policies. Hunter now knows -- as other members of the clergy have discovered, sometimes too late -- that even preachers must render unto Caesar honest and transparent stewardship of the funds entrusted to them.