Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Our Sacred Housing Allowance winds its way through the courts

If you run across a general news report on the minister's housing allowance you should conclude that something is going on that might not be good. As long as we fly under the news radar with our Sacred Clergy Tax Break, that wonderful tax benefit by which we clergy may exclude tens of thousands of dollars from income taxes, we may relax. But, if its in the news it is likely because of (a) a legitimate but immensely compensated minister is excluding hundreds of thousands of income from taxes and living in a multi-million dollar mansion, or (b) we are in the courts defending the tax break from being taken away.

Recent news concerns the latter, the oral arguments having been heard by the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Last year a federal district judge in Wisconsin ruled unconstitutional part of the tax code that provides the clergy housing allowance.

Associated Baptist Press has a good story, Court hears challenge to clergy housing allowance. Baptist Press has an optimistic piece here.

The salient point is that if allowed to stand, especially if it makes it to the Supreme Court, minister's who live or rent in homes not owned by churches will lose the ability to exclude income on that basis.

I have always benefited from the HA. I don't think it to be an establishment of religion and thereby unconstitutional. I hope the appeals court overturns the district judge's decision.

That said, the arguments made to the appeals court are interesting and informative. I note the following:

  • The original plaintiffs, the Freedom From Religion Foundation, note that most of the arguments made by the groups supporting the HA are economic - if taken away many ministers will face economic hardship. Give the FFRA credit for seeing clearly here. 
  • Some of the arguments supporting the HA are rather weak. For example, the HA equalizes different religious traditions in this respect, that is, traditions that allow ministers to buy their own housing are not penalized thereby in comparison to traditions (Roman Catholic for one) where the church owns housing. I don't see this a particularly compelling.
  • Another weak argument is that ministers who own their houses have upon them certain expectations that require them to use their domicile for certain church purposes. Well, some do. Some don't. It should be noted here that those who live in parsonages receive the HA under a provision not threatened. Most of us know that living in a church-owned pastorium, almost always next to or near the church, places many duties that are at the "convenience of the employer." That's why most of us celebrate when churches move away from pastoriums to paying a cash housing allowance. I own my house. The church has no claim on it even though I am a hospitable guy and am happy to have church groups out. I am not compelled to do this.
  • Churches get special treatment not by the government's largess but in order to reduce the entanglement of church and state. This is a persuasive point, in my view. Imagine some bureaucrat making a determination about your housing allowance. No thanks.
The whole thing can get quite complicated. I'm only giving the executive abstract for busy clergy.

My clergy colleagues should take the stance that the cash housing allowance is a tax break. Thank you, Uncle Sam. We have ours. You have yours. If there's a move to close all the breaks and loopholes, we will be happy to be part of that conversation.

We should also make the admission that in some small number of cases the Housing Allowance is unethical, unfair, and abhorrent. Million dollar Minister lives tax free in mansion while Average Wage Willie pays taxes on all of his. Phooey. If a pastor or ministry leader receives millions in clergy income, he or she doesn't need a tax provision that excludes potentially hundreds of thousands. Our SBC Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission should wake up and at least make an honest examination of how ethical and fair it is to have examples of this among us. 

There's no telling where this will go, how long or how far, but Plodder will predict that the decision will be overturned, probably because of some legal arcana about standing.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Cooperative Program gifts that bypass state conventions

One of the eyebrow raisers about David Platt's selection as the new president of the International Mission Board was the fact that his church gave a considerable amount ($100,000) directly to the SBC Executive Committee Cooperative Program Allocation Budget. In doing so his church bypassed the Alabama Baptist State Convention which would have lopped off more than half of that amount.

The usual routine is for a church to send their CP gifts to their state convention which keeps most of the money (varies by state but well more than half on average) and sends the remainder to the Executive Committee which by an approved allocation formula keeps a tiny slice and sends the rest to the mission boards, seminaries, and Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.

Churches have always had the option of handling their CP gifts by sending them directly to the EC but not many have availed themselves of it.

This may be changing.

Shown below is the percentage of direct gifts to the Executive Committee CP allocation budget (those that bypass state conventions) as a percentage of total Executive Committee CP gifts:

2011-2012                 2.2%
2012-2013                 2.4%
2013-2014 (YTD)    3.0%

The route Platt's church has taken is not followed by many churches nor for much CP money, about 3% of the total for the eleven months of this fiscal year; however, the proportion is growing. The total amount of CP monies given directly is small, a little over $5 million so far this year. The EC hasn't released the number of churches who give in this manner.

The popular younger SBC minister website, B21, has an article by Jon Akin, CP: Another Way? In this article Akin suggests sending that CP check to the Executive Committee with the instruction that they send 50% back to the state convention for the sending church.

I judged that alternative to be too unwieldy to gain much traction (mainly because of the kickback from EC to the state, makes no sense to add that step) but the option of sending money directly to the EC is growing. Because of his election as IMB president, David Platt's former church is now the poster church for that methodology.

You can like it. You can dislike it. It is part of 21st Century SBC reality.

There are some things growing in Southern Baptist life, brethren. Here are three:

1. Direct gifts to the Executive Committee CP allocation budget, small amounts but growing.
2. Great Commission Giving (see my piece, UPDATED: Great Commisstion Giving vs Cooperative Program Giving, How's That Working Out?). GCG is growing fast but we haven't had much in the way of data reported, just three year's worth.
3. Designated giving received by the Executive Committee, mainly Lottie Moon and Annie Armstrong offerings which show slight increases. The EC now receives more in designated giving than in CP giving.

This is where we are. I see nothing that will change it.

Monday, September 1, 2014

So what does Platt/IMB say about our Cooperative Program?

David Platt is our newly elected leader of  our most important entity, The International Mission Board.

What does his election say about our main channel of cooperative giving, The Cooperative Program?

Here's what a few prominent Southern Baptists say:

"Missions going and giving is bigger and more expansive than the Cooperative Program."
     - Herschel York, IMB trustee, David Platt is President of the IMB (and that's a good thing).

"As the president of an entity funded through the C[ooperative] P[rogram] almost entirely, I would be insane to celebrate the election of someone I thought wasn't committed to CP."
     - Russell Moore, President of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the SBC, Why I'm Glad David Platt is the New IMB President.

"If Cooperative Program support was not considered important in this season of Southern Baptist decision-making, let us make certain it will be in the seasons to come."
     - Bart Barber; pastor, former SBC vice president, and trustee of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, David Platt is MY new IMB President.
"For that ever-increasing group that feels uncomfortable with traditional CP giving, the election of David Platt  will more likely lead to renewed interest in - rather than discouragement from - traditional cooperative giving." J. D. Greear, What David Platt's IMB Presidency Signals About Our Future.

"When I think about what happens in the Cooperative Program, what happens in the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering, I see different churches from all over North America give, and the result is that missionaries are able to go...It's not cooperation for the sake of cooperation; the goal is seeing more people reached with the Gospel." David Platt, Platt Looks Ahead to Mission Challenges.

Here's what I say:

  • Don't be looking for a general increase in Cooperative Program giving by churches. What may be hoped for is that churches that have followed Platt's general approach to mission giving, give a small amount through the CP but concentrate major giving directly to IMB and Executive Committee, will be affirmed in their methodology.
  • Look for the first state convention executive to tiptoe up to a breath of mild criticism of Platt and his lack of commitment to the Cooperative Program. If Platt's church found anything in the Alabama Baptist State Convention that garnered their monetary support (other than a small amount to the children's home) it wasn't reported. If anything is evidenced by his church's mission giving pattern it is that the state convention was unimportant. Since state convention budgets are shrinking due to declining CP giving by their churches, and there is pressure on them to keep less of that CP dollar and send more to the SBC Executive Committee, no group of SBC leaders should be more concerned than the state executives.
  • Try and grasp this: Platt's church is projected in 2014 to give $1,018,000 in giving dedicated specifically to the IMB ($300,000 to Lottie Moon and $718,000 directly in "special designated gifts"). To be added to that are gifts that are through the regular CP channel and direct to Executive Committee portions of which go to IMB. Not many SBC churches give these amounts to IMB. To those concerned about percentages, not dollars, not many churches give this proportion of their revenues, I estimated about 12%, to Southern Baptist international missions. 
  • The alternative channel of cooperative Southern Baptist but not Cooperative Program giving, writing checks to the SBC Executive Committee instead of one's state convention will likely be boosted by Platt's election. 
  • Partnership of churches directly with the IMB, Platt's church predominant method of international missions giving ($718,000 of the $1,114,000 given to the board), will be enhanced by his leadership of the IMB. It is unthinkable that the method Platt found best for his church he will jettison as leader of the IMB. 
  •  State conventions success in selling the CP has come by their promoting international and to a lesser extent North American missions. In addition to emphasizing the Lottie Moon offerings Platt's church utilized the two additional methods noted above (direct gifts to the EC and "special designated gifts" to IMB). The more the CP is decoupled from international missions the less attractive it becomes to Southern Baptist churches and individuals.
  • The warning against returning to "societal giving" has become louder, but emptier. Trustees of the IMB apparently have few concerns about it.
  • We are more concerned about encouraging a new generation of Baptists to be involved in, to give to, and to support Southern Baptist cooperative mission efforts than to give to and support the Cooperative Program.
What the election of David Platt says about our Cooperative Program is this:
We like it. We support it. We have no alternative for general support of the market basket of Southern Baptist missions and ministries. But we recognize that it is unlikely to fit the mission needs of the 21st century.  

Friday, August 29, 2014

David Platt is a logical choice for the IMB

David Platt represents a generational change in major Southern Baptist institutional leadership and is a logical choice for the International Mission Board.

Platt is 36 which means that he was born about the time I started seminary. I'm feeling a little old. His election by trustees, most of whom I speculate are far closer to being long in the tooth as I am than to his generation of Baby Busters or Millenials, should be seen as making sense if we value our task of carrying out the Great Commission.

A few observations:

  • Platt has a track record of church growth and heavy commitment to taking the Gospel to places where it is not ubiquitous as it is here in the states. More on how his church expresses this in their spending below, but his preaching, writing, and speaking express his taking seriously the Great Commission.
  • It may not be noted prominently elsewhere but while other Southern Baptists address liberalism, postmodernism,  secularism, or any of a number of favorite complaints du jour, Platt is among the few among Southern Baptists and American evangelicals who speak seriously about materialism. The idea of carrying out the Great Commission while spending considerable sums of our resources as Christians on personal consumption is, well, radical. Southern Baptists need to ruminate on our levels of personal and denominational consumption in the light of the needs of the world. Platt has street cred on this. Most other prominent Southern Baptists do not.
  • Considerable numbers of younger Southern Baptists are highly engaged by leaders and pastors like David Platt and J. D. Greear in ways that they are not by older, more traditional megapastors like Johnny Hunt or Ronnie Floyd.
  • While critics think a leader who can boost the Cooperative Program to earlier levels is preferable, realists recognize that the challenge has moved from that to the more fundamental task of retaining and enlisting a new generation in Southern Baptist mission efforts. Platt, whatever his critics say about his view of the Cooperative Program (see below), has to be commended for doing the latter.
  • The IMB is dead in the water in regard to the levels of overseas field personnel. The cry has not been for God to send workers into His harvest fields but for workers already called and prepared to just be patient to see if we can scrape up the funding to put them where they believe God has called them. Someone who thinks we can just fiddle with the funding formulas is not going to motivate Southern Baptist churches and individuals to do much more than they are doing.

Platt is not without critics.

  • He's a Calvinist. Well, I haven't read a lot of his material but I suppose so. Based on what I have heard and read, would to God that we had more like him whatever label one might feel justified in applying. I don't see the rabid, destructive Calvinistic bent in him that is present in some others among us. Critics are calling for parity in major SBC hiring decisions. OK, here you are -  an entity leader who is not a Southern Seminary grad and who has, so far as I am aware, has not worked for Al Mohler. 
  • He doesn't support the Cooperative Program. He does, but at a token level. Figures about his church's giving show a small amount given through the traditional CP channel, the state convention, but much larger amounts given directly to the Executive Committee for distribution to the mission boards, seminaries, and other SBC level entities. Southern Baptists as a whole have not been serious about the limitations of our almost century old giving system, the venerable and beloved Cooperative Program which is mainly a state convention funding mechanism. While Platt doggone sure ought to support it as IMB head, it puts $100m in their budget every year, let's be honest and face up to the reality that we are in the fourth decade of declining CP church support. Platt and others like him didn't cause this and cannot cure it. Platt is representative of a broad subsection of Southern Baptists who have looked at the Great Commission, looked at the money distribution of the Cooperative Program, and thinks it makes little sense to try and advance the Great Commission by giving to the traditional CP where most of the money stays in the southern state conventions.  
  • He lacks administrative experience. Not exactly, his church is a megachurch with a megastaff; however, the IMB is our largest entity, has the largest budget and the most personnel. The IMB has it's own universe, its own sub-culture, its own institutional personality. Some of this no doubt needs to be changed. I presume that he is sensible enough to rely on the abundance of administrators already employed by the board and respect the wisdom of some of the graybeards and wizened old hands wandering around Richmond as he works through the issues facing the organization.
Being elected as a trustee of the International Mission Board is the plum trustee assignment for the Southern Baptist Convention and there are about 100 of these trustees (far too many but that's another topic). I think it not unreasonable that those who are nominated and elected are the best connected Southern Baptists around, the most committed to our convention and work. If this group, collectively, is willing to take a risk in the most visible and important hiring decision in the SBC, then it stands to reason that they believe the reward, the potential for such risk, is sufficient to steel them in their decision in the face of criticisms they know will come. 

We sometimes take a decision like this, one that we have subjected to considerable prayer and seeking of God's will and justify it on the basis of subjective, rather vague spiritual giddiness about God communicating His will for the choice we make. Fine. I understand the spiritual shorthand used to explain our decisions; however, I am far more impressed by the concrete record of David Platt's character, commitment, and past leadership that whatever feeling search committee members may have had. 

They made a good decision.

God bless him in his task.