Monday, July 4, 2016

The strange world of autonomy and the clergy housing allowance

What a great country! Aside from a thousand other reasons, add our sacred clergy tax break the Housing Allowance which has and continues to give us a pretty good exclusion for a chunk of our cash pay. I'd speculate that the average Southern Baptist pastor is able to exclude around a couple thousand dollars a month from being reported and taxed under our income tax laws. I'm just guessing about the numbers. A pastor of an averaged-sized church with a stay-at-home wife and a few runny-nosed, exemptions , er...children, running around the house likely pays no income tax at all. 

I think the HA is secure for the foreseeable future, although there is a new legal challenge to it. I like it, use it, and think it to be a nice, modest, tax break that is appropriate and helpful.
But our world of autonomous churches makes for some interesting scenarios that arise over exactly who can qualify as a "minister" under the IRS rules on the matter. 

GuideStone answers the questions most of us have in their Commonly asked questions about minister's housing allowance. As to who is eligible for it, the Q & A says:
The Internal Revenue Service usually uses one of two tests to determine if a minister is a minister for tax purposes. The IRS normally uses the Wingo or Knight test. In deciding if a person is a “minister” for federal tax purposes, the following five factors must be considered: (1) the person must be ordained, commissioned, or licensed; (2) administration of sacraments; (3) conduct of religious worship; (4) management responsibilities in the local church or a parent denomination; (5) considered to be a religious leader by the church or parent denomination. In general, the IRS and the courts require that a minister be ordained, commissioned, or licensed, and then they apply a "balancing test" with respect to the other four factors. The more factors that a person satisfies, the more likely he will be deemed to be a minister for tax reporting purposes.
Here is where lawyers and CPAs make their money. Chase this as far as you want in legal cases and ruling but here's the simple version: You can decide for yourself (or your church for itself relative to its staff) who is a minister for tax purposes. But...the minister/taxpayer better be on pretty solid ground, as determined by the IRS, or face some bad and expensive news down the road. Because of that, GuideStone says if there is any question, you should consult with a knowledgable tax preparer or lawyer. I agree. Lest anyone isn't clear, this article isn't written by one of those.

The most of us are ordained, administer the ordinances ('sacraments' is one of those dirty words to us Baptists), conduct religious worship, have more management responsibilities in the church than we want, and are considered to be a religious leader by the church. Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes to the five IRS questions. Slam dunk. Exclude the income and don't look back (but do it right in regards to the church budget, designations, limits, and documentation or get slammed).

But what about other staff ministers? I have in mind church staff who are not the senior pastor but who exercise pastoral responsibilities. What about non-ordained but licensed staff? What about non-ordained but commissioned staff?

Good questions.

Our cherished autonomy puts every church in a position where denominational leaders, theologians, and entities are unable to dispense rulings that settle these matters. The ordination, licensing, and commissioning of individuals has not a syllable in the Baptist Faith and Message, which wouldn't interfere with churches' actions on these even if it did. A church may ordain, license, and/or commission anyone for any purpose in any manner they choose. What's this mean to the IRS? Nothing. The IRS will look at the five questions above. 

But this is the question that arises out of our peculiar circumstances: Would a woman church staff member qualify for a housing allowance?

If ordained and functioning like her male counterparts, almost certainly, yes. 
If unordained and not functioning like male staff members, almost certainly, no.
If unordained but licensed or commissioned (or even unlicensed or commissioned), maybe. Depends.

I see a lot of things today that I didn't see thirty or forty years ago. I see the ordinance of baptism being handed over to non-senior pastor church staff, no big deal there. But lately I see and hear of parents, grandparents, and even friends of the baptizee doing the actual dunking. Female staff members sometimes baptize candidates. Female staff members, sometimes administer the Lord's Supper, though not, perhaps, to the entire church assembled, rather to a smaller sub-group of members. Female staff certainly manage church matters and conduct worship, including the, uh, talking part though most commonly to sub-groups within the congregation.

What is to prevent a conservative, loyal, cooperative Southern Baptist church which has the view that from licensing or commissioning a woman staff member and that staffer being paid in an equivalent manner to her male counterparts? Nothing, of course, although my guess is that the majority of Southern Baptists would consider ordination to be the break point in this. No ordination - no housing allowance. No ordination - you really aren't considered a spiritual leader by the church. But that is up to the church, not the denomination. So, about that female staff member...

She is licensed, or perhaps commissioned in whatever formal manner the congregation chooses.

She administers the ordinances. Seems to me that one baptism, or one service (could be a women's gathering) of the Lord's Supper would demontrate this.

She conducts religious worship. Might be any or all of the congregation in most any fashion.

She has management responsibilities. 

She is considered to be a religious leader by the congregation.

She meets the IRS tests. She should be able to arrange her compensation to include the housing allowance if she so chooses. 

But, seems a number of SBC congregations, I read, are way ahead of me on the matter and have taken steps to qualify and give their female staff the housing allowance. If they are doing the same work (music, student ministry, discipleship, missions, preschool, etc.) that their male counterparts do, it is shameful if such is denied to them. The minister's housing allowance is a tax break, not a doctrinal standard.

Notably, no SBC entity - not Guidestone, not my state convention, seems to address this directly.

Perhaps they should.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Great Commission Giving: The metric that can't get any respect in the SBC

One would think that giving by SBC churches to the Cooperative Program, Lottie Moon offering, Annie Armstrong offering, state mission offering, associational offering, their local association, state convention, mission boards, seminaries, children's homes, Baptist colleges, ministries for the aging, hospitals, recovery programs, disaster relief programs, direct partnership projects with our International and North American Mission Boards, and a range of other Southern Baptist national, state convention, or associational causes would be something to be praised and commended. We would all be for such giving, right? No one would object to celebrating such giving, right?

Not quite right. All of the above giving is what makes up Great Commission Giving, the giving metric that just can't seem to get any respect among us.

Here's what the The Great Commission Resurgence Task Force Final Report said about Great Commission Giving:

We will recognize the total of all monies channeled through the causes of the Southern Baptist Convention, the state conventions, and associations as Great Commission Giving.
We call upon all Southern Baptists to celebrate every dollar given by faithful Southern Baptists as part of Great Commission Giving, including designated gifts given to any Baptist association, state convention, and to the causes of the Southern Baptist Convention.
We affirm that designated gifts to special causes are to be given as a supplement to the Cooperative Program and not as a substitute for Cooperative Program giving. 
 ...we will call upon Southern Baptists to give as never before, to support the Cooperative Program as never before, and to celebrate every church’s eager and sacrificial support of Great Commission Giving at every level.
Here are the totals for Great Commission Giving since the giving category's inception, in millions of dollars:

2011        696
2012        744
2013        777
2014        638
2015        613

Aha! GCG has been dropping for the past couple of years, right?

Wrong.

From the get-go, people complained that GCG would divert money from the Cooperative Program; thus, some churches and state conventions have refused to report GCG. In the most recent statistical report for the SBC, five state conventions do not ask for a number for GCG and LifeWay gives an orphan chart for "Other 2015 Items - Not Asked By All State Conventions" that duly footnotes the five state conventions that do not ask their churches for a figure for GCG.

Maybe the thinking is that if I don't like GCG, I can ignore it altogether and maybe it will go away.

Add to state convention recalcitrance the utter confusion among pastors and churches about exactly what is meant by Great Commission Giving and you've got a recipe for a generally worthless statistic. I regularly read pastors talking about GCG who convey an understanding that GCG is one category of giving and CP is another. GCG includes both. 

Well, no one tells Southern Baptist pastors, churches, or state conventions what to do, what to ask, or how to count. 

We don't have the means to determine an accurate, convention-wide figure for Great Commission Giving. Even if every state convention clearly defined what it is and asked for it in their Annual Church Profile report, it's a certainly that pastors and churches would respond with their own definitions of GCG. Some would include CP in the figure, some would not. 

But I doubt that the most strident critic of the statistic would argue that GCG is not growing. We have a record Lottie Moon offering for 2015. The Annie Armstrong offering is close to the record. SBC churches collected $406 million more in 2015 than the previous year. Since GCG is mostly CP + LM + AA, and those three total to more than the $613 million reported as GCG for 2015, GCG is increasing. It looks like many in the SBC just don't want anyone to know it. If that constitutes a Cooperative Program growth strategy it is a pretty pathetic one.

Frankly, it doesn't really matter if LifeWay cannot collect an accurate figure for GCG. Southern Baptist churches are trending towards designated giving while keeping the Cooperative Program about the same, perhaps with a tiny fractional increase. That's the way it is. That's the way it has been for a generation and a half now.

Pity the poor GCG. Although it is growing, it just cannot get any respect. But at least it gets talked about. 

Whatever happened to Great Commission Baptists anyway?


Thursday, June 16, 2016

Convention winners and losers

From my distance, 597 miles, here's my winners and losers on the convention just completed in St. Louis.

Winners

1. J. D. Greear. He lost the most contested race for SBC president in many years but his withdrawal was a statesmanlike decision. He leaves St. Louis with a Mississippi barge load of goodwill that didn't arrive with him.

2. Steve Gaines. Hey, he won and is the voice and face of the SBC for at least the next year. Congratulations.

3. Dwight McKissick. He submitted the resolution on the Confederate Flag and spent a good bit of time over the past weeks explaining and defending it on SBCVoices. Although his original was heavily amended by the resolutions committee, it was and is his baby. Nothing in recent days has elevated the SBC as has this resolution.

4. James Merritt. Merritt had the moment, offering an amendment on McKissick's resolution on the flag. Good for him and well done.

5. Russell Moore. When asked about religious liberty, he gave a full-throated defense. We know there are always some among us who would drop kick religious liberty in a D. C. second. We need a guy who will stand up for it. Moore did his job and did it well.

6. Dave Miller. Miller is the new Pastor's Conference president. He and others came up with a plan that was persuasive enough to pry attendees away from the usual celebrity leadership. Just don't call him a small church pastor. His church is well above average attendance.

Losers

1. The resolutions committee. I know these people have a hard job but to report out McKissick's flag resolution with a timid and tepid call “to limit” the display of the flag and to “consider” stopping flying it altogether, completely missed the mark. 

2. Rick Patrick and unnamed amateur parliamentarians. By making noise about a possible challenge to the parliamentary ruling on what constitutes a majority, the main thrust of which was to declare Steve Gaines president without the additional vote that was announced and scheduled, an ugly cast was put on the convention. It concerns me that these people don't see clearly enough to understand the disaster that would have occurred.

3. Judge Pressler. I  didn't see it and don't want to see it. If Baptist royalty has to stand in the same line as Baptist commoners, that's not a bad thing.

4. Dave Miller. Guy has a new part time job and the pay is lousy.