Chandler police arrested the chief financial officer of a Christian mega-church Thursday night on suspicion of embezzling more than $400,000 from the ministry.
Police searched the home of Brenda Su Carroll-Nester, who worked for the Cornerstone Christian Fellowship for five years, and found more than $250,000 in cash, travelers checks, money orders and gift cards.
Authorities also seized another $150,000 in cars, jewelry and electronic equipment in an ongoing investigation.
The dollar figures are expected to increase as the investigation moves forward, said Sgt. Rick Griner, in a press release.
Carroll-Nester, whose 23-year-old son was studying to become a pastor at the church, was booked on felony counts of fraudulent schemes, theft, and multiple counts of forgery.
“It saddens and disappoints us that this would happen,” said Michelle Rauscher, a spokeswoman for the church.
Rauscher said church officials started to notice accounting “irregularities” after they began implementing stricter financial guidelines nearly a year ago.
Carroll-Nester was confronted multiple times about the problems, according to an e-mail sent Friday afternoon to all church-goers from Linn Winters, the head pastor.
“When we notified police they were even more convinced that a crime had been committed,” Winters stated in the e-mail.
Investigators interviewed church employees and combed through financial records before serving a search warrant in her south Chandler home.
Of the cash found in the house, police found more than $100,000 stuffed inside a backpack. Police also seized two luxury cars — a 2006 BMW and 2006 Infinity — and the bank accounts of Carroll-Nester.
In addition, a safety deposit box at a Valley bank has also been seized by authorities.
Carroll-Nester was the top financial officer of the mega-church that regularly draws crowds of 4,500 to 6,500 people on any given Sunday, according to church officials.
Her son, whose name was not released, was part of an apprentice program that trains students to become pastors, Rauscher said.
Recently, the church has drawn attention for its edgy and risk-taking sermons and programs such as “Bringing Sexy Back.”
The six-week program, which drew thousands, focuses on adult sexuality in today’s culture. To advertise the service, officials posted signs outside the church featuring two pairs of feet sticking out from underneath a bed sheet.
Ron Keener, the editor of Church Executive, a business magazine for churches, said the incident underscores the need for churches to have better financial accounting.
He added that poor oversight is a widespread problem throughout the country among churches of all sizes.
“Too many times, churches are run like mom-and-pop stores when they need to be run like businesses,” he said. “It’s a fallen world and there are fallen people who will find ways to steal from churches.”
Keener, who is not familiar with the businesses practices of Cornerstone, said many churches would benefit from regular accounting audits — something that’s rarely done now.
He added that many of these types of thefts are swept under the rug and never reach the public.
The church program for Sunday will be changed to handle questions and inform members about the arrest, according to church officials.