Faithfully forgiven: Convicted thief rejoins church he hurt
Sunday, January 22, 2012
By TRACY SIMMONS ~ tsimm...@t-g.com
After serving his time, Charles Lohn, left, pictured with his wife Misty and Shelbyville Mills Baptist Church senior pastor Jonathan Sims, has been forgiven by his church family and is being reinstated today as a member.
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Charles Lohn was a thief and a liar.
More than two years ago, the youth pastor at Shelbyville Mills Baptist Church was convicted of embezzling more than $75,000 from church funds over a three-year period. The case was widely reported in local and national media.
Lohn served a nine-month sentence, three months of house arrest and is now completing the remainder of a 10-year probation.
This morning, he will stand before the congregation of the church he stole from, be transparent about his actions and motives, and ask for forgiveness from those he hurt directly. He will then be reinstated to membership in the church he's been associated with for a dozen years.
His relationship with senior pastor Jonathan Sims goes back much further than that.
"Charles and I have been together for 19 years," Sims said in an interview this week.
Sims met Lohn, then a young man just out of high school, while still in seminary. Lohn attended the first church Sims pastored in Texas, then followed him to a church in Talladega, Ala., where he would serve on the staff for six years. When Sims moved to Shelbyville, Lohn followed.
Sims had watched the young man grow up, had been a friend and counselor, had christened each of the four children born to Charles and Misty Lohn.
It was July 2009. Sims was a few days into a vacation with his family in Orlando, Fla. David Brown, associate pastor, was on vacation at home when the chairman of deacons of the church called his home.
"We don't have any money in the bank."
Not possible, Brown countered, ticking off assets and accounts which came to mind.
The two met at the church office and began to review bank statements. It didn't take long to figure out the discrepancy, to begin to understand what seemed impossible to believe.
"This is Charles. I trust him with my life," Brown said of his initial reaction. "There's got to be a more reasonable explanation."
Over a long period of time, Lohn had been embezzling from the church by taking cash and writing additional payroll checks to himself.
"I had ... thought that it would be alright to 'borrow' some money and pay it back at a later date," Lohn said. "This began to grow into taking more money. Although I told myself I would pay it back, deep down I knew that I could not."
Trust and disbelief
Because of the trust the church staff had invested in him, stringent checks and balances were not in practice.
"I knew without a doubt that one day I would get caught," said Lohn, who in time began to pray for that day to come.
Lohn went to the church offices to confess to Brown.
"The first thing that came out of my mouth was, 'Do you know what this is going to do to your pastor?' I knew what I was already feeling."
Sims returned to town by Friday. On Sunday the church was given full disclosure about what had transpired.
The congregation responded with shock and unbelief -- and profound sadness. There was anger, certainly. A thriving group of young people was in Lohn's care as youth pastor.
"My greatest struggle initially was sadness for his family. I knew what it would mean for his wife and family," Sims said.
"I'm a very protective person, I'm protective of the church, the people I love. I realized I can't protect him. He's done something that's beyond my ability to shield him -- and I obviously didn't want to [shield him] because what he had done was wrong.
"That was devastating to me, because I felt like one of my children had done something horrible that I couldn't -- as a father -- shield them from."
Sims admits some thought was given to keeping the matter private. Ultimately, he says, Shelbyville Mills relies on scripture to guide them in everything they do.
"The scriptures say that in the multitude of counselors there is safety, and the first thing I did was call on people that I look up to and trust," Sims said.
Providential, he says, was a call to Grace Community Church in Los Angeles, home of Dr. John MacArthur. One of the chief elders there is a federal fraud investigator with the FBI, who exclusively investigates cases of church embezzlement.
"I spent about two or three hours on the phone with him. His counsel was just spot-on," Sims said.
There is the sword of the church -- church discipline. Then there is the sword of civil government, which is also supported in scripture.
"It is a system that God ordained to keep order in society," Sims said. "We came to the conclusion that the sword of the church would not be sufficient to bring this guy to repentance."
A police report was filed, reporting the theft.
"I want to say for the record ... the local authorities in Shelbyville were completely professional, completely gracious in the way they dealt with us," Sims said. "They were not only professional, they were compassionate. They actually cared about him, and they actually cared about us.
"I think they recognized what we were trying to accomplish, and they came alongside us and worked with us. We're very grateful and have great respect for the way they handled this. [Assistant district attorney] Mike Randles, [detectives] Brian Crews and Charles Merlo, Judge Lee Russell -- invaluable."
At the time, Sims says his thoughts shifted between thinking of Lohn as a person who had never told him a lie to, suddenly, "You're thinking, has he even ever told me the truth?"
Lohn was not quite ready to tell the full truth -- even to his wife.
"When I knew that it could not be hidden anymore I confessed to some of it, but not the whole thing," Lohn said.
Sims and his wife met privately with the couple. Sims asked Misty if Charles had admitted to her what he had done. Yes, she said. Charles had written himself a couple of checks.
When Sims named a number in the $70,000 range, "She was devastated. He hadn't even told her."
The church membership voted unanimously to remove Lohn from the fellowship. He spent nine months incarcerated in Bedford County, three months at home with an electronic monitoring device.
Trials of faith
While he was in jail, Lohn tried to connect with his faith.
"Although I tried to pray and tried to talk to God during this time I could not," he said. "Even while in jail and away from my family for nine months, I tried to read the Bible and to pray. I would get glimpses of what I thought God wanted. I thought He had begun to work in my life."
Through it all, Misty and the couple's children never missed a Sunday or Wednesday service. The church supported the family financially during that time, paying the mortgage, utilities, credit cards and consumer debt.
Lohn was released from jail just before Christmas in 2010, and he began attending church services again.
Speaking as a father in ministry, and as a friend, Sims presented the young man two choices.
"One is a path of life and one is a path of destruction," Sims told him. "If you stay here in Bedford County and you face the people that you hurt the most, they will love you and forgive you, and you can restore what damage has been done.
"But if you cut and run you'll be a runner for the rest of your life."
Upon his return, the church put Lohn with a group of men who met with him regularly -- holding him accountable for both his finances, and for his walk with God.
A year and a half had passed since the theft had been discovered.
"Although I do believe that I was remorseful, I now know that I was not fully repentant," Lohn said.
Baptized into the church at a young age, Lohn had grown up in church, surrounded by Christian friends. A people pleaser, he knew the lingo.
The men took Lohn through a study on repentance, but it was halfway through a Precept study on 1 John that he finally broke. Of his salvation, Lohn said, "God brought me to the realization that you cannot restore something you never had."
Shelbyville Mills was misunderstood by some, at the time.
"There was a sin committed. The church lovingly -- though with a broken heart -- chose to obey the scriptures and discipline this brother and call him into an account, and it was painful," Sims said.
The church body has walked through a somewhat uncomfortable process in the past year; not formally reconciled with Lohn, but accepting him back among them each Sunday.
"The church never flinched," Sims said. "They've accepted this with grace ... But the goal never one time was obscure in our minds."
The goal was this day. A homecoming, forgiveness, a restoration and a welcoming.
"This wasn't about us kicking somebody out of church," Sims said. "This was about loving someone the way the Bible commands us to love them so that they can repent."
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