Wednesday, December 10, 2014

US Senator: Wealthy musicians, athletes, clergy exploit tax loopholes to drive up rates for rest of us

What do Kanye West, Lady Gaga,  Hollywood superstars, and mega-paid athletes have in common with clergy?

They are all targets of retiring Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn's report on special tax breaks. There is a group of several hundred such breaks set to be extended by congress. While the housing allowance we clergy receive does not need any legislation to be extended, it's locked in brethren, it is of the type Coburn assails as being a special giveaway that clutter our mammoth tax code and that should be eliminated or adjusted.

Ah, the company we clergy are keeping these days. Who would have thunk it?

Look for us to be found among such company under headlines such as,

"The Worst Tax Loopholes in America, revealed"

"Greatest Hits Collection of Tax Breaks"

Specifically and pointedly included in the special giveaways for business, wealthy sports owners, Hollywood superstars, mega-compensated athletes and rock stars is, you guessed it, our beloved...

"...parsonage housing allowance," which he [Coburn] said enabled clergy to build million-dollar homes for themselves while double dipping on tax breaks, collecting housing stipends as tax-free income and then getting the extra parsonage break.

There's absolutely no argument that the statement above is accurate. Some clergy do build or buy million-dollar homes for themselves and are able to exclude hundreds of thousands in income from any income tax. There's no question it is a fabulous special giveaway for the men and women of the cloth, both millionaires in mansions and humble plodders in hovels.

Even though the big loophole money is not in our housing allowance, if clergy are receiving attention on this and are being grouped with Lady Gaga and Kanye West maybe it's time we at least spoke up against the abuses of it.

Here are things that ought to bother all of us about the current system and our involvement in it:

1. There's no cap on the allowance. This is what Coburn focuses on. Why should a fabulously compensated minister living in a Gatsbyesque mansion be rewarded with tax free income? Why, indeed. Is he a jobs creator plowing back capital into a business that expands employment and production or just a garish consumer? Should our tax code reward consumption in this manner or encourage productive economic activity? Let the brother or sister spend all they choose in whatever manner they wish - but pay the stinkin' tax on it. Don't saddle the rest of us with the resultant tax losses to make up.

2. Like it or not, fair or not, we are all being grouped with people and classes of consumers that most of us find offensive. What about "seek first the kingdom of God"? What about "blessed are the poor"?

3. Not one Southern Baptist leader - not Frank Page, not Russell Moore, not any SBC president has a syllable of objection on record to the housing allowance exclusion as presently codified. If you can find some, please let me know. There is no defense of some uses of the allowance. Why the silence from those who ought to object? Self-interest? Concern about drawing attention to it? Some lame, convoluted church-state concern?

4. What bothers me personally is that, invariably, when the matter is discussed I find hard-working, meagerly-paid, obscure and humble SBC clergy spending energy defending their colleagues who are in the millionaire mansion crowd and assailing any, like me, who dare criticize our Sacred Clergy Tax Break. Why? Are we lovable dupes?

Makes no sense, brethren, but maybe you've figured out a way to explain all this to the family in your church who struggles to pay for their humble abode while you and your colleagues get tax excluded income to live in better housing. Maybe if you explained how you and Kanye West are brothers-in-tax-giveaways it will help the explanation. Maybe not.

Maybe I ought to take in a Lady Gaga concert, since we are in league with her. Probably couldn't afford the ticket.

Wealthy musicians, athletes exploit tax loopholes to drive up rates for rest of us

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

SBC Pastors and mental the numbers

I'm a numbers guy and find these numbers about pastors to be interesting:

1 in 4
One in four pastors acknowledge that they have struggled with a mental illness such as depression.
Since this is a self-reported statistic (LifeWay Research asked pastors, 1000 of them by a telephone survey earlier this year), it is not at all surprising that, anonymously, one in four pastors would report such a struggle. I'm guessing that some of the other three in four lied by not admitting some level of struggle with a mental illness such as depression. Any pastors conference, any small group of ministers who meet regularly will see depression exhibited by the brethren. 

It's tough these days. Most churches are flat in growth or declining. Most churches receive less in receipts than in earlier years. There are more marginal SBC churches that struggle to keep a full time pastor and he is often meagerly paid. He worries about the church. He worries about paying both church and personal bills. His family suffers twice. It's depressing.

No surprise that many of us go through periods of every Monday.  But the more significant number concerning depression is...

1 in 8
One in eight pastors reported being diagnosed with some form of mental illness.

The same LifeWay Research survey showed that one in eight protestant pastors (the survey was not limited to SBC pastors) report a diagnosis of mental illness. This means that the pastor went to a health care professional - physician, psychiatrist, psychologist - and left with a medical diagnosis of mental illness. 

Think of it. In your association of 32 churches, you have several that are pastored by men with a diagnosed mental illness. I judge the survey to have been among pastors, not just senior pastors, so add a few associate pastors to the group of mentally ill.

This is not a surprising proportion considering the prevalence of mental illness in our society; however, chances are your typical layperson would be surprised. Pastors have an aversion to talking to their church about any mental health issue they might have, though they freely share any other illness. Stigma is the word here. Odd that the term used to label the marks on Christ's body whereby we were made whole we think to be against our welfare in the context of mental illness.

The problem is that there is a powerful belief among Southern Baptists, especially pastors I think, that if you are mentally ill that there is something wrong with your Christian life. One notes that heart disease, prostate trouble, or orthopedic woes do not similarly signal a spiritual problem in the patient. 

I've been blogging about pastors and depression for some years. This piece from a couple of years ago suggests some things that pastors can do. One thing I have not been dissuaded from is that what pastors generally cannot do is admit to their church that they are seriously depressed. They do so and become damaged goods; however, at some point the pastors is more at risk by not being open about his struggles and should find a way to involve the people responsible for his welfare, his congregation. This is a delicate matter. 

The high profile examples of depression and suicide (Rick Warren's son, Frank Page's daughter) has made thiss matter to have a highly visible profile in SBC life. LifeWay's Facts and Trends magazine, sent to every church, perhaps every pastor, has good information on it. 

I attend a minister's conference occasionally. About 20 guys are in attendance, mostly retired like me. The incidence of serious mental illness is lower after middle age, so maybe one or two guys has a diagnosed mental illness. Most of my interaction with other pastors comes online. I'm guessing that quite a number of them are depressed and not a few have such a diagnosis. 

Some will read this. To them I say, there's no long term profit to struggling with depression alone and not seeking medical help. There may well be grave consequences for not doing so. 

Stigma or no, hie thee to the doctor brother.

You have my prayers.

Friday, November 21, 2014

A personal mission for David Plat in regard to young, male, sniveling wimp SBCers

It has been almost two full years since I put up a post about how our International Mission Board's Journeyman program, the two to three year overseas program for single college graduates aged 21-26 is completely dominated by females. My humble 2012 post:

Young, male, restless conservative SBC seminarians: SNIVELING WIMPS

The irreverent phrase that not-so-gently stepped on the little twinkies of our young, single, male seminarians was, "SNIVELING WIMPS." How impolite, and impolitic of Plodder to call the few, the called, the proud, the chest thumping, set-the-world-on-fire young male Southern Baptist seminarians 'sniveling wimps'. Why do that?

Here's why: You can't get these guys to go overseas and serve the Lord in some of the more difficult places where the Gospel is needed the most...but you can get girls to do it. In 2012 fully two-thirds of Journeymen were FEMALES, not males, making that program the most inappropriately named program in the entire SBC.

The IMB, best I can tell, stopped reporting gender statistics for this program.

The 'sniveling wimps' article was, I think, my most viewed piece, mainly because Danny Akin tweeted it. He agreed with me on this if not on a lot of stuff.

Here's a recent comment I received. I've tweaked it a bit. The commenter was and is anonymous.

I'm a girl about to start my journeyman term. And let's just say out of the 30 or 40 single people being trained (a figure that includes journey people, apprentice, and career appointments) there are five single guys is WAY harder for girls to go overseas single than guys...and WAY harder for single girls to come back from overseas...still single. 
The places in the world that need the gospel NEED male witnesses. Desperately....and so many things single women can't do in so many other cultures, especially in some parts of the world where the need for the Gospel is greatest. 

The excuse of the single males is that there are other things to consider...those men...clearly don't follow Jesus in a way that puts trust or faith in Him. 

Hey, single guys! Yeah, you Biblical He-Manhood and Subservient-Womanhood types. Here a bit of womanhood that should make you ashamed of yourself. You want patriarchy? Try being a real male and being open to serving in places as hard as this girl. Even if you do, you will have it easier than her because of the male-dominated cultures in these places. Nobody cares how well you conjugate greek verbs and how glorously expound the scriptures. Evidently, you haven't expounded The Great Commission sufficiently for you to believe it yourself.

So, what's Plodder's personal mission for David Platt? There are two parts to it.

1. Lend your voice to addressing the issue of young males wimping out of Journeyman service. These guys think you walk on water, Mr. Radical. Give 'em both barrels on this and see what happens.

2. You must be aware by now that some among these hundreds of single girls who answer God's call and serve in difficult places have not been adequately taken care of. What I mean here is that in my limited exposure to a number of 'Journeygirls', several were plopped overseas in a foreign culture and after a short while were isolated, left to live alone, with a support structure and system in place that some judge to be inadequate. This is risky, and irresponsible. The IMB is dodging bullets here. This is also unacceptable. One of the presumptions Southern Baptists have about our wonderful International Board is that we have vast resources and are diligent about taking care of our people. I believe that to be true in general. I'm pointing out a crack in the airframe here. It can be easily fixed.

I have confidence in you to lead in such a way that these are addressed. You are in my prayers.

As for my SBC colleagues who are young, male, restless, sniveling wimps...step up, brethren. We can't all be megapastors superstars and seminary profs.

[And, if the anonymous Journeygirl would email me at, my wife and I would consider it a honor to pray for you as you go.]

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Lack of Restoration for Fallen SBC Clergy

Dave Miller, moderator of SBC Voices, former SBC Vice President, a leading pastor in Iowa, and almost always a sagacious and insightful blogger has a nice article on clergy restoration.

Can a fallen leader be restored?

The piece is built off of the fall of a nationally prominent former pastor, Mark Driscoll.

Miller's conclusion is that, in time, a fallen leader can be due time.

I don't disagree with him (although I would offer a couple of scenarios where a wise former pastor would leave the pastoral or church ministry permanently) but I would point out this:

There is no effective program, system, or protocol for clergy accountability in Southern Baptist life and, therefore, there it is extremely rare that any minister is held accountable to other ministers or churches. The logical outcome of this is that there is no restoration for fallen SBC clergy because there is no body or group that can hold them accountable. 

If a pastor or staff member destroys his ministry by committing adultery, stealing from his church, or any of a number of other sins that cause him to be dismissed from his place of service and leave the ministry, if he is "restored" or not, if he requalifies for active ministry, if he is certified to have overcome the issues that caused his failure, almost always it's up to him and him alone.

He says, "I'm ready to return. I've settled my problems with the Lord. Here's my resume."

Of course, this is a function of our cherished autonomy and autonomy has its drawbacks. In the case of wayward clergy, accountability, and restoration autonomy has failed us as a loosely tied, collective body of churches and ministers completely.

The failure point is in the disconnect between ordination by a particular church and the distance, ministerially and often geographically, between that church and the modern itinerant pastoral ministry.

  • Local churches ordain men called to ministry in ways that are often casual and perfunctory. The church pastor usually drives the process and however he chooses to conduct it is acceptable to the church. That pastor will leave the church after a few years at most.
  • The newly ordained minister will likely leave the area to be educated and serve. His ties to the ordaining church may become tenuous in time.
  • The ordaining church, should they become aware of moral failure is highly unlikely to initiate any action involving a restoration process, suspension or revocation of ordination.
  • Many ordinands choose a church other than their "home" church in which to be ordained, often by a more visible and reknown minister presiding. It is a matter of prestige for these latter churches to ordain large numbers of men. They are unlikely to have much incentive and perhaps lack the resources to follow the men they ordain and hold them accountable, much less have a system of accountability and a process of restoration.

In over three decades of ministry in SBC churches, I have been involved in exactly one revocation of ordination and I was not aware if there was any attempt at restoration prior to that. I have heard of a few others. I am aware that there are some avenues for fallen ministers to voluntarily submit themselves to a program of restoration. 

To be candid and blunt: we have a system that lacks accountability. There is only one point at which a minister is held accountable and that is at the church he serves. They can fire him. They cannot disqualify him from moving to another church.

Where this is especially grevious and harmful is seen in clergy who have abused children. There are several prominent cases where ministers who sexually abused children were forced to move but easily found places of service in another area or state, sometimes to repeat the same behavior.

If ordaining churches do not exercise accountability over those whom they ordain, if associations do not have sufficient involvement in influencing the process, if state conventions and the national convention are powerless to hold ministers accountable, who does it?

No one.

You want to be restored? It's simple. Pronounce yourself restored and move far enough away from where your reputation was destroyed so that no one knows.

People have often complained about nosy bloggers who involved themselves in places they don't belong. We should rather thank God that there are some individuals who think that holding ministers accountable is important to us all and that they have a means to do so. 

I see no workable solution in all this. It would be nice if there was a body of SBC clergy, a guild that had some standards for membership, that was respected and relied upon for clergy certification. 

Brethren, we are professionals in our system of ministry, like it or not, accept it or not. Too bad there is no professional organization open to us whereby we would have some broad, SBC wide accountability.

Not an ice cube's chance in Gehenna of that.