Friday, April 11, 2014

Obama arguing on our side on the housing allowance

Our wonderful Sacred Clergy Tax Break, known as the ministerial housing allowance, you know, the one ruled unconstitutional last fall by a federal district judge, is on appeal and the government is arguing on our side to overturn the decision.

While that it is not at all surprising for the government to appeal a decision that they lost, it might strike some Southern Baptist clergy, very few of which express any support for our current president and administration, as ironic that we are depending on the Obama administration to plead our case.

The executive summary of the government appeal filing for busy clergy is this. The government offers several arguments. First, that the plantiffs in the case do not have standing to sue. This is rather technical and tedious. Second, that the 1954 law that provided cash housing allowances to be excluded from income tax liability on the same basis as income for those ministers living in church owned housing is constitutional because it sought to equalize treatment of ministers and make the government neutral towards such things. Third, that the allowance is constitutional in that its purpose is to avoid entanglement of the government in religious affairs.
If my executive summary falls short of the glory of lawyers due to oversimplification, sue me. If you wish to delve deeply into the filing and arguments I recommend reading my CPA housing allowance expert blogging buddy, Peter J. Reilly's article on it. He has multiple links and fuller explanation.  

Along with the government's filing on the case, numerous amici filings have been made, including one that is joined by our SBC Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. We're with the Unitarians, Moravians, Muslims, and Krishnas on this, brethren. 

Let's look at the broad picture here. There are always a number of important church-state issues bubbling up in the courts. It is important to tens of thousands of modestly paid ministers who would be somewhat harmed by having to pay an additional sum of taxes but churches and their ministers could adjust to this if necessary without the religious welfare of our country being harmed. 

My view is that of a number of experts whose conclusion is that the housing allowance law is not unconstitutional but neither is it required to uphold our first amendment religious freedoms. Look at it this way, clergy already pay social security taxes (though there is an allowance made for those who have a religious objection to this, one that few ministers choose to employ and be exempt from these taxes) and the part of their ministerial income not excluded by the housing allowance is taxed. It's tough to argue that taxing all of our income like is done for other working stiffs is somehow a violation of the first amendment.

I appreciate our own D.C. lobbing outfit, the ERLC, making a modest effort to be involved in this, that's what we pay them over $3 million per year to do; however, if there is an ethical issue along with the constitutional issue in this housing allowance discussion, it is the reality of a growing number of ministers who are very highly paid, who live in, literally, mansions and who exclude huge sums of income from taxation through the housing allowance. The fraction of such ministers doesn't form the basis for any constitutional argument here but it doggone well ought to form the basis for an ethical argument, and one that we should make. There is no reason I can see not to cap the housing allowance in similar fashion to how it is done for military personnel who are paid a housing allowance. Thus far, I have heard no prominent Southern Baptists even raising the question of the ethics here. 

When the matter of the housing allowance is discussed among SBC clergy, what I almost always see conveyed is an attitude of entitlement. We get it. We deserve it. Keep your hands off it. My view is that it has been part of the equation for almost a century and should be kept. If the government needs some additional tax revenues, this isn't where the big bucks are. 

I'd recommend to my SBC clergy colleagues that they look at their ministerial housing allowance income tax exclusion for what it is - a nice tax break. 

Thursday, March 27, 2014

SBC Elders, excommunications, and the marginalizing of women

I served three wonderful, quite traditional SBC churches in my 30 years as a pastor. These churches had a pastor, deacons, committees (later "teams"), the usual, typical organization. Deacons both served and provided some degree of leadership and guidance. Women were more faithful in attendance and did most of the work. Nothing unusual about that.

No church I ever served, nor have supplied in since retirement, has had elders. But having elders is the administrative structure du jour in Southern Baptist life, especially among our younger brethren. Fine, pastor-elder-overseer, are all biblical, as is deacon.

So, why am I always reading about certain things follow along with a church that moves from a traditional pastor and deacon polity to an elder model?

Consider the following scenario:

A church has a pastor and deacons. A move is made to rename the pastor as an elder and allow him to have a few selected, perhaps congregationally approved, fellow elders. Deacons are made irrelevant, dispensed with, or restricted to very strict ministry tasks absent any leadership role. Soon after the change, various church members are excommunicated, excluded from membership. Also, the roles of women in the church are severely restricted.

A good change? Bad change? Neutral? Take your pick.

The church I have in mind is the nationally known Westboro Baptist Church, the "God-hates-fags" church whose leader Fred Phelps was excommunicated shortly before he died. The churches regular spokesperson was his daughter who, after the elder change, dropped from high visibility.

If elders are useful for Westboro, can they be similarly employed in SBC churches?

Object to the comparison? I'm just reporting and connecting dots here. For all the talk about how spiritual, biblical, helpful, and superior an elder form of governance is, what I often see is a power grab by the pastor and a few cronies accompanied by an almost inevitable marginalization of women in the church.

Any SBC church that has a move towards elder leadership ought to get intense scrutiny from membership with both of these in mind. If it is merely a change in vocabulary, then fine, I'm probably on board but the devil is in the details and I would put those under a magnifying glass. My experience, certainly anecdotal, puts me in the position of being instantly suspicious of any pastor whose leadership in this area moves in this direction.

My advice to church members is this: Raise both eyebrows and see that both ears perk up when your pastor brings up any change that involves elders.

My advice to church search committees is this: You cannot afford not to bring up and thoroughly discuss with any prospective pastor the matter of elders. While doing so, at least one committee member needs to be educated enough on the issue so as not to be either finessed or bulldozed by the candidate.

Avoid a lot of grief, brethren/sistren, by paying attention here.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Rebranding the Cooperative Program

The Cooperative Program, once our shining (and growing) funding jewel, is a declining brand and there is no sentient person anywhere in the Southern Baptist Convention, in any of the state conventions, and among any of the hundreds of Baptist associations who will dispute it.

So what?

So, our cooperative work cannot continue if the decline persists. Think of it. We have gone from an average of over ten percent of church undesignated receipts given to the Cooperative Program to a little over five percent - cut in half and that half represents hundreds of millions of dollars. Suppose we move from over five percent to around two percent? State conventions, the seminaries, the two mission boards will do without more hundreds of millions of dollars.

More important than the decline in money is this: how serious is a one or two percent CP church about cooperative ministry? How much thought and interest do they give to our common work? How much do they concern themselves about participating in our common work? At one or two percent my thinking is that they will just not give it a lot of thought.

The Cooperative Program needs to be rebranded. If the Executive Committee is serious about the CP, something more than the usual, tired proposals for bolstering the CP needs to be considered. If the state conventions, and they are the ones who have suffered the most from the decline, are serious about the CP, they need to do more than round up the usual promotion methods and ideas.

We are doing the same things we have always done in regard to Cooperative Program promotion:

  • Ask churches to give more. What could be more simple than that? "Just give us more of your budget," says the Executive Committee. I have no issue with Frank Page's One Percent Plan and commend him for it; however, it is a "Just give us more" plan. 
  • Lament, with accompanying grave expressions and handwringing, that Southern Baptists especially younger Southern Baptists,  just aren't familiar with the CP, else they would give more. I dispute that. Seems to me that the more that is known about the CP, particularly about the division of funds, the less it is liked. 
  • Brainstorm on how the CP can be made more personal. After all, the giving is to a program and only indirectly to missions personnel, church planters, seminary profs and all the other ultimate recipients. While this has to be done, I don't see a lot of enthusiasm here. 
If the Cooperative Program is to be considered a beloved legacy brand for Southern Baptists then let's get people who know how to best manage a declining brand and let them handle it while all the entities who receive CP funding plan for the years ahead with the expectation of continued declines in CP funding.

If the Cooperative Program is to be considered a vibrant, vital funding mechanism, then let's get people who have fresh ideas, bold ideas, and let them have a go at it. Their success rate cannot be any less than what we have had for the past several decades.

The CP is approaching the century mark. Next year will be its 90th birthday. It may be that it's halcyon days were in the 20th century and it is not just past its prime but is past its applicability and appropriateness for the Southern Baptist Convention of the 21st century. 

Do you like my clock above? Not for sale, thank you. It belonged to my grandmother and I suspect it is somewhat older than the Cooperative Program. It still keeps good time if anyone can stand the constant "tick tock" of the pendulum. It's nice to have around and is a treasured family item. It's not all that useful anymore.

The Cooperative Program...? What do you think?

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Historic, antique book: 1885 Story of Baptist Missions by Hervey available for sale

I have this very old copy of Winfred Hervey's The Story of Baptist Missions in Foreign Lands From the Time of Carey to the Present Date that I would like to sell, very reasonably, for some fish bait or convention money.

This is the Chancy R. Barns edition, 1885. It is a partial leather cover and has condition problems in that the spine cover is missing and some chips and wear. Check my photos. The text is very clean.

The book has some quite interesting stories. John L. Shuck in 1845 is called "foremost of the foreign missionaries of the Southern Baptist Convention."

The book has been reprinted. My price of $25 is cheaper than the paperback copy price. Shipping will cost about $4.

Email me if you are interested. Some missions historian would appreciate this book. I just don't have the room to keep it.