Mark D. Stephens, CPA

Pless, Pless & Stephens, CPAs, PA, Durham, N.C.

When I was 9 years old, my mother looked me straight in the eye and said, “You’ll be a preacher someday.” I laughed it off. How could I know she could see the future?


It took almost four decades for my mother’s prediction to come true. On a visit to a retirement center where I was offering tax preparation to the residents, the director asked me to help them find a preacher for their chapel. I was friends with the minister at my church, so I asked him to give a service. He did, but afterwards, he turned to me and said, “The chapel service is yours. You take it.” That was in 1994, the beginning of my ministry. Two years later I was asked to take on the ministry of a small church in Duplin County, N.C. I stayed there for nine years, and while serving, I also finished my formal studies to become ordained in the United Methodist Church.


In 2005 I was asked to come back to my home church in Durham, N.C., to minister to a small congregation of about 60, down from the 600 it boasted in its heyday as a metropolitan church. But it is growing. We are attracting a younger crowd with our onsite Sacred Grounds Coffee Shop and our weekly Saturday night concerts.


Being a pastor has always been my part-time vocation. My full-time job has always been as a CPA. However, I didn’t get into accounting in the usual way, either. I took a detour. My home life was complicated. The solution my dad and I decided on was for me to quit high school and join the Navy, where I trained to be a storekeeper. My job required me to maintain ledgers, order supplies, and keep the budget in line. It reminded me of the tax work my dad used to do as a sideline to farming tobacco and working as an X-ray technician.


The Navy and the Vietnam War caused me to grow up. I finished my GED and decided to go to college when I finished my military stint. Unfortunately, North Carolina state schools did not accept a GED, so I begged my way  into Elon College, a small private school, where an accounting professor (a retired Navy captain) pushed me toward an accounting curriculum; it was a good fit. I liked Elon, but my monthly VA allowance of $100 wasn’t enough to pay for private tuition. Success at Elon, however, qualified me to transfer to Pembroke State University during my second year.


After graduating from Pembroke and passing the CPA exam (on my first try!), I took a job with a local CPA firm, where I worked for several years. Eager to advance, I asked about partnership opportunities within the firm. I was told I would never qualify for partnership with that firm. That turndown was incentive for me to go out on my own and prove myself.


One of my first clients was a real estate developer who was being investigated by the IRS. A partner at my former firm heard I had taken on the case and called me up. He said, “You can’t handle that; you don’t know enough.” I told him, “We’ll see.” I got the case settled with no taxes owed. It was a fine beginning, which has allowed me to enjoy a successful career.


I think I am the most fortunate person in the world. I am one of those guys who enjoys the pleasures and benefits of two distinct professions. With the exception of displaying my ordination papers next to my CPA certificate and having figurines of several of the disciples decorate my desk, I keep my vocations separate from one another. I suspect, though, the listening skills I have developed as a minister have helped me as a CPA, and my CPA knowledge has helped provide a sound business system for my church.


When I left my dad’s 7-acre tobacco farm more than 50 years ago, I never thought I would end up where I am today—one of three partners in a thriving practice that employs 13 team members. It’s been a long and wonderful journey.


—As told to Linda Segall (, a freelance writer based in Jacksonville, Fla.


Year-end tax planning and what’s new for 2016

Practitioners need to consider several tax planning opportunities to review with their clients before the end of the year. This report offers strategies for individuals and businesses, as well as recent federal tax law changes affecting this year’s tax returns.


News quiz: Retirement planning, tax practice, and fraud risk

Recent reports focused on a survey that gauges the worries about retirement among CPA financial planners’ clients, a suit that affects tax practitioners, and a guide that offers advice on fraud risk. See how much you know with this short quiz.


Bolster your data defenses

As you weather the dog days of summer, it’s a good time to make sure your cybersecurity structure can stand up to the heat of external and internal threats. Here are six steps to help shore up your systems.