By Jim Hannah
The Cincinnati Enquirer
COLD SPRING - A criminal investigation into finances of the First Baptist Church has adversely affected the congregation's financial support of Southern Baptist causes around the world.
First Baptist gave nothing to the Cooperative Programs - the source of revenue for Kentucky and Southern Baptist missions - from Sept. 1 through Feb. 29. First Baptist gave nearly $25,000 to the fund during the same six-month period a year ago.
First Baptist is one of the largest of 64 Southern Baptist churches in Northern Kentucky, yet it was one of only four that gave no money during that time. In 2003, First Baptist reported 1,652 members.
Religious leaders say the lack of donations to such an important Southern Baptist cause sheds light on the financial problems that have plagued the church, once best known for helping bring the Billy Graham Crusade to Cincinnati.
"I would think they quit giving money when the budget got tight at the church," said Harody Mendez, who was elected a trustee of the church on March 17. "It's not like we consciously decided we had something against the Cooperative Program. I think we just got behind in our donations during the financial situation."
He said the church's next budget includes giving 5 percent to the Cooperative Program. That is estimated to come to $35,000.
In March, the church put up more collateral in order to keep Fifth Third Bank from foreclosing on its 1-year-old sanctuary. The move came after former church treasurer Darryl Neltner told Kentucky State Police that he had discovered up to $600,000 in "questionable transfers."
Some of the transactions Neltner questioned included $7,400 in withdrawals at horse race tracks from an account he said was controlled by the Rev. Larry Davis, pastor of First Baptist. The ongoing police investigation has resulted in no charges, and Davis denies he stole any church money.
James McKinley Jr. of Louisville, a former president of the Kentucky Baptist Convention and retired missionary, said it is common for a church to cut donations to the Cooperative Program when there is a financial crisis.
"When finances are scarce, the Cooperative Program often suffers," he said.
A church does not have to make any gifts to the Cooperative Program to maintain membership in the Kentucky Baptist Convention, McKinley said, but donations to the program are important.
He said a church's largest donations in a year typically would be to the Cooperative Program if the congregation were cooperating fully with the state convention.
Figures released by the state convention show that other large Southern Baptist churches in Northern Kentucky have given freely to the program. For example, Erlanger Baptist gave $24,900 for first half of this fiscal year. Burlington Baptist gave $50,200. And even First Baptist of Dayton, which burned on Jan. 16, gave $1,800.
Robert Reeves, spokesman for the state convention, said money from the program goes to causes all Southern Baptists have agreed are important to them. Sixty-four percent of the dollars stay in Kentucky for mission and ministry work. Thirty-six percent is forwarded to Southern Baptist Convention, based in Nashville.
Justina Graziani, who quit worshiping at First Baptist after state police began investigating, said she felt misled because church officials told her 10 percent of offerings went to the Cooperative Program.
"When I gave, I gave in good faith that 10 percent would go," she said. "It makes me feel bad it didn't go to missions ... because that really is the center of what we are all about."
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