Featured Columns

Written by Keith Schwanz
From his column It’s Your Money


I stopped to see Frances (name changed) once or twice a week in the months after her husband died. She had two adult children, but they lived hundreds of miles away. She had friends who checked on her regularly, but as her pastor I felt a responsibility as well. Even though she could look out the window throughout the day and see neighbors walking by, as a widow she would be alone to a degree she had never experienced previously. So I made it a point to visit.

One day I pulled up to her house and noticed it was dark inside. Her car was in the carport, so I suspected she was home. I knocked. A moment later I saw her peek out the window. She opened the door and invited me in. Frances told me she sometimes saw her deceased husband sitting in his favorite chair, and it was just better for her to keep the lights off. In that moment I knew why my pastoral instinct had felt so strong.

During one conversation, Frances said she had gone to the bank to settle an issue regarding her checking account. She told the banker someone must be taking her money. The banker looked at her account and explained that all appeared to be in proper order. Frances was not convinced. By the time of our conversation, she believed her banker was probably involved in the mischief.

Financial Fraud

FINRA (Financial Industry Regulatory Authority) is an independent, nonprofit organization authorized by the Congress to look after the concerns of investors. In 2012, FINRA conducted research in “Financial Fraud and Fraud Susceptibility in the United States.” Researchers discovered fifty billion dollars per year are lost to fraud. Persons aged sixty-five and older were more likely to be targeted and thirty-four percent more likely to lose money once targeted than persons in their forties. Further, the report identified nonfinancial costs of financial fraud, including severe stress, anxiety, sleeping difficulties, and depression.

Researchers at Stanford and Yale universities considered “Individual Differences in Susceptibility to Investment Fraud.” The findings suggest interventions that support impulse control could be effective in thwarting financial fraud. Allowing for time between hearing a “pitch” and making an investment could help. Consulting with a family member or trusted friend also might provide ample space in the process to contribute to well-thought-out rather than spur-of-the-moment financial decisions.

Because of the aging Baby Boomers, persons in financial services expect fiscal fraud to increase among the older population in the years ahead. To this point, professional ethics have limited what a financial advisor can do when a person insists on making what could be an unwise decision. That is beginning to change. Major financial companies have begun to educate their agents on how to detect early signs of impaired rationality and financial elder abuse. Some companies have authorized their personnel to contact family members, not to reveal confidential financial information, but to urge intervention. Saying something like, “We see things that concern us,” can provide the alert so appropriate persons can provide needed attention.

Pastoral Care

I had previously never considered that as a pastor I might care for someone like Frances by looking at her monthly bank statement and checkbook, but that is what I did. Then I asked her if we could call her daughter. Frances desperately wanted to remain living independently, but she obviously needed assistance with her financial matters. Frances’s daughter asked if I would be willing to review the monthly bank statements. I agreed to do so and report to the daughter afterwards. I never found evidence of wrongdoing. Confusion, yes—but not fraud. Frances eventually moved to a retirement facility close to her daughter, but for a season, I served Frances by comparing her checkbook register with the statement she received in the mail.

I affirm the effort by the financial industry to adjust processes to better serve those with decreasing mental capacity. I suspect, however, that pastors and parishioners may often be in positions to see the earliest signs that assistance is needed. I do not suggest that my relationship with Frances and her daughter be generalized; another situation could require a different type of response. But I have a growing sense the church might be able to graciously care for persons in ways not often considered.

In Matthew 25, Jesus talked about feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, welcoming the stranger, caring for the sick, and visiting the prisoner. I do not understand this as a comprehensive list. In our day, maybe the “least of these” includes elderly persons vulnerable to financial fraud.

Keith Schwanz is a writer, editor, and publisher in Overland Park, Kansas. He previously served as a pastor, church musician, and seminary educator.

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