Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Are clergy all that different than normal people?

One of the inescapable conclusions that arises from a discussion of some aspect of the Christian ministry be it the clergy housing allowance, job stresses and pressures, employer expectations,or compensation is that we who are or have been in the full time Christian ministry characteristically view ourselves as a unique group. Another way to put it might be to say that those pastors are odd birds indeed.

I appreciate the mostly healthy and informative discussion over the holiday weekend on Our Grand Tax Break, the clergy housing allowance, and I will accept the presumption that my readers and especially those who risk leaving a comment here are well above average in intelligence, witty and engaging, pet lovers, and are nice to children.

That said, these discussions might lead a man or woman from Mars to conclude that, "Gee, these Baptist ministers certainly think themselves to be a special, and different, group of earthlings."

But, is it so?

What I have heard in these discussion of the housing allowance, generally offered as reasons as to why our wonderful government has recognized our unique clergy situation and has magnanimously addressed it with a tidy tax break are these:

1. Low pay. Clergy are amongst the lower paid occupations and therefore need a tax break. One list I checked revealed that we didn't make the bottom 300 in low paying occupations. Average senior pastor pay (salary plus housing) is over $50k, not too shabby. Perhaps we used to be there, no doubt some still are, but as a group, not so.

2. High mobility. In the SBC if you want a larger church the traditional route is to find one and be so compelling that they invite you to leave your smaller church and be their pastor. With education and experience this is the normal career route and it always entails moving. Sometimes the Lord is in it, sometimes not. I hope the former to be more true than the latter. While true, this is not unique to us. Is it not the reality of the 21st Century job market that one-job careers are a thing of the past?

3. High stress and depression. I do not find clergy on the lists of high-stress occupations that I have run across, nor on the top occupations for major depression (but, interestingly, enough accountants seem to make ALL the stress and depression lists), but there is no law against the dear parson assuming a plaintive posture about how tough things are. Every occupational group does it. I don't think that earns us many points with the public, though.

4. Those crushing SECA taxes. Yep. We are dual status entities to the IRS, employees for income tax purposes (give the man-of-the-cloth his funky W-2) yet are self-employed for Social Security purposes. I'm speculating that the average SBC minister with dependents still at home pays very little or no income tax but a bunch of SECA tax.

But, really, brethren, can we drop the old saw about employers paying half of their employees Social Security and Medicare while we have to pay through the nose the full 15.3%? It is a cost of operating a business with employees and does any employer who writes the checks fail to understand what this employee costs him, no matter where the money goes after it leaves the business bank account? Bottom line business. You can bet that your church looks at it this way as well.

We may have a different calling, have different job pressures, and have quirky ways that the government views us for tax purposes but we aren't all that different than normal folks. For every reason advanced as to why we deserve a tax break on housing one can find many occupations with the same claims, yet ordained clergy receive it and not them.

The clergy housing allowance is a welcome tax break that carries a modest savings on income taxes for almost all clergy who use it. The revenue missed by the government is not all that large when compared to our federal budget or deficit. It is a very longstanding feature of the tax code. I don't see any movement that would change it unless some judges get active on us.

While some find it on its face unconstitutional and others resent that non-clergy may not receive it (save for the large exception of the military, which is probably our salvation in regard to legislative action on this), it is just one among thousands of "unfair" provisions in our tax code.

I asked yesterday how you explain this to your church. As a pastor, I would take time with deacons, personnel and finance committees, and occasionally the congregation if an occasion arose to explain what the housing allowance is, how it works, and what it does. I never claimed special anointing to receive it, nor have I ever been asked that my church ordain anyone just so they could receive it. It is our only tax break. It is sometimes abused but mostly of modest help to clergy without a great cost to the citizenry.

The church can give their pastor a small pay raise, courtesy of the gummit, if they do the housing allowance right. They can cut his pay if they refuse to go along. I never heard a peep of objection from anyone in any of my churches.

For those who have had a surfeit of the housing allowance discussion: Go here, and keep clicking. You will feel better soon.

1 comment:

Tim Dahl said...

Are clergy different from "normal" people???

What an interesting question.

I remember a class where a professional pastoral counselor came in to visit with us. He started talking about the "regular" men out there (sorry, he left the women out). He pointed out that the regular man didn't enjoy reading, nor church services, nor singing, nor studying, nor a whole bunch of things! Most of these things were closely related to Church, and in many ways the pastorate.

His conclusion was that "Pastors" are ver odd and irregular people.

Tim ;)