Two Baptist General Convention of Texas staff members have stepped down following a five-month investigation into possible misuse of funds.
Abe Zabeneh, a church starter and former director of the BGCT Church Starting Center resigned Wednesday, and David Guel, former associate director and south-Texas consultant, decided to retire, according to separate memos to Baptist Building staff from Andre Punch, director of the congregational strategists team.
Both actions are effective immediately.
An unofficial Web log that has been monitoring the probe, Spiritual Samurai, broke the story Thursday morning.
BGCT spokesman Ferrell Foster said the BGCT Executive Board will be given a full report of all matters related to church-starting efforts in the <Rio Grande Valley next week, and media will be informed at that time.
In May the BGCT Executive Board hired a lawyer to investigate possible misappropriation of church-starting funds in the lower Rio Grande Valley between 1999 and 2005. The probe came after suspicion over a large number of reported church starts, and allegations that some of them existed only on paper.
Much of the focus apparently centers on the work of Otto Arango, a church-planting pioneer who developed a technique credited with starting more than 200 churches in Texas in the first five years and nearly doubling the number of churches in the Baptist Convention of Mexico in a single year.
A 2001 North American Mission Board guide for starting church work among Hispanics called Arango’s ministry “one of the most exciting church-planting endeavors in the United States.”
Arango is president of the Piper Institute for Church Planting, a San Antonio-based non-profit organization built on his strategy of rapid multiplication of church plants by establishing church-based training centers for lay people and bivocational pastors.
Anticipating huge response to the approach, the BGCT encouraged him to start an independent organization. It was originally called the Church Planting Institute and housed for a time at BGCT offices.
Currently 34 Baptist conventions of the Union of Latin American Baptists have embraced the Piper Institute strategy and, according to a press release, are ahead of schedule toward reaching their goal of starting 70,000 churches by the year 2015.
In 2004 Arango was elected president of the Union of Baptists in Latin America, one of six regional fellowships in the Baptist World Alliance.
Six years ago the Texas Baptist Missions Foundation gave Arango its “Innovator Award” for creativity in mission.
David Montoya, pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in Mineral Wells, Texas, claims he was first contacted several years ago about reports that some of the church starts reported by Arango and other church planters opened only briefly and a month later could not be found.
Montoya says he tried to alert BGCT officials to evidence of possible fraud, but no one wanted to believe him or seriously investigate until he threatened to go public with allegations of a cover-up in his blog.
Zabeneh and Guel did not respond to e-mail requests for comment. Both are listed among directors of the Piper Institute on its 2005 IRS 990 form that non-profit charities are required to file and a Web site.
The BGCT Executive Board is due to see results of the Valley investigation at a called meeting Oct. 31. Executive officers of the board and senior BGCT staff were scheduled to get it a week early, Oct. 24.
According to the Baptist Standard, costs for billable hours for the work are near $100,000, and the total cost could reach $150,000.
One Wednesday staff announcement, obtained Thursday by EthicsDaily.com, said Guel “shared with us today that he has decided to retire.” The other said Zabaneh “tendered his resignation” that morning and “intends to pursue other endeavors at this time.”
Punch didn’t say why the two were leaving, but invited staff to contact him with any questions.
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.