Steeple Accounting Services helps churches keep the books

Staff Writer
Columbus CEO

Green ledger sheets from the pre-digital era were the tinder for Mary Lou Turnbull's fiery love for accounting, which eventually led to her life's mission-keeping churches out of financial trouble.

"My Dad did books in the back to take care of the farm," says Turnbull.

"I remember leaning over his shoulder and looking over the ledger sheet-those green ledger sheets. It was just fascinating to me the way you had to extend it across and everything had to balance."

Turnbull is also a woman of faith, "but, I try to keep my own religion out of my business. It doesn't really matter what denomination you are or what denomination I work with: They're all the same on the numbers side."

Churches are unique in the financial world, says Turnbull. Because of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, churches are not required to provide an annual report. The lack of government oversight creates an opportunity for fraud. Churches also use volunteers as opposed to paid staff. Volunteers tasked with running the books may not have been properly trained, says Turnbull. And because a church is faith-based, the people responsible for reporting fraud may not do so because, put simply, she says, it's against their beliefs.

"When constituents have decided to contribute to your cause or ministry, they want to ensure that funds are being spent accordingly," says Turnbull. "Because of the high reliance on volunteers, churches may not have the 'in-house' expertise to use proper accounting procedures, keep up to date on recent IRS requirements and produce credible financial statements. That's where Steeple comes in."

Turnbull owns Steeple Accounting Services, part of the Women's Small Business Accelerator program in Westerville. She has built a national clientele of 200+ since opening her doors two years ago with the goal of: "Let's try and keep people out of trouble." Services include fund accounting education, fraud investigation and record reconstruction services through in-person visits or desktop streaming.

Though not a CPA, Turnbull is a certified church administrator and fraud examiner with 18+ years in church accounting, records and administration. "What I do is a very strong and thorough review. And that's why I try to be really clear. I never say an accounting audit. I give (clients) a review letter and I point out areas they need to improve."

Turnbull helps identify gaps in financial accountability for small and medium-sized churches and creates a report that notes where fraud could occur. She also helps straighten out church books and accounting software to prevent fraud or errors from happening ever-or again.

Rev. Craig Hauschild of East Heights United Methodist Church in Wichita, Kans., says Steeple helped correct accounting missteps and errors. "As a larger church, we have an array of fund accounts that we have to track. Her expertise gave us a new perspective on how to simplify yet keep the integrity of the various designated accounts."

Hauschild's church utilized Turnbull's desktop streaming services-where she remotes into the church's computer system using Citrix software, and provides feedback on their books in real-time, as well as generating a report.

"It seemed she was right there in the office," says Hauschild. "Her ability to remote in to our system worked wonderfully."

Turnbull's work is, well, a blessing, to many small and medium-sized churches which can't afford to hire an independent CPA or employ other external accountability means.

"Often church leaders are not aware of what's going on right under their noses. Employees and volunteers may not knowingly be doing things wrong, but a clean-up of inaccurate records is far more costly than doing it right in the first place," says Turnbull. An accounting review can spot discrepancies before they become problems. "A second pair of eyes might just save you money and prevent fraudsters from taking advantage of loose internal controls," she says.

Rev. Becky Piatt of Church of the Saviour in Westerville agrees.

"To hire a CPA would be a cost that we frankly couldn't afford on an ongoing basis," says Piatt. "Mary Lou's unique training and skills provides all that we need at a fraction of the cost."

Piatt and her team met with Turnbull to help them straighten out their books-an absolute necessity for any church with a mission.

"Churches are funded solely by individual donations; so it is important to be thoughtful and responsible with the money entrusted to us," says Piatt. "Our mission is to be loving servants of community for Christ. In approaching our finances in a responsible, meaningful way we are able to do that in great ways."

Steph Greegor is a freelance writer.