Tuesday, November 26, 2013

What To Think About the Minister's Housing Allowance.

I'm not sure if I've ever used this site to address an issue having to do with the United States Tax Code, so this will, I believe, be a first.  But before you browse on, or think you can use the following to put yourself to sleep, indulge me for just a bit, especially if you are a pastor or a church leader trying to make sense of a recent Federal ruling that could potentially affect the minister's housing allowance.

Last Friday, Federal Judge Barbara Crabb of the western district of Wisconsin, ruled that the housing allowance is unconstitutional, on the grounds that it violates the establishment clause of the 1st amendment.  The lawsuit, brought by the ever-annoying Freedom From Religion Foundation, charged that the U.S. government violated the so-called "separation of church and state" by granting this provision to ministers.

Though enforcement of this ruling has been stayed until all appeals are exhausted, this decision, if kept in place, will have a far-reaching impact on more than 40,000 religious leaders around the country, most of whom could see as much as a 10 percent reduction in their take-home income as a result of new taxes.  Of course, in the midst of this a really good question is on the minds of a lot of people--including many Christians who simply don't understand the rationale behind the housing allowance.  Why should a pastor be allowed to exempt from his taxable income expenses related to housing when very few others in the public are allowed this same benefit?  So, whether you are a pastor, a casual observer, or an involved church leader wondering what all of this could mean, I'd like to take a few paragraphs to explain why this measure was put in place to begin with, the complexity of ministerial income and taxes that make it necessary, and the reason I think Judge Crabb's ruling itself may violate the First Amendment.

First a little history.  Exemption of religious property from taxes has been a long-held standard among civilized nations for many centuries, and American expressions of this in our tax code are in many ways the legacy of these civilizations, which date all the way back to ancient Rome.  Governments have historically seen a great benefit to society that comes from religious practice, and as a result have sought to lessen the financial burden on religious entities.  For the United States, two significant moments serve as examples of this disposition; the first in the 1921 Revenue Act, which exempted church-owned property used to house ministers from income taxes.  However, as the years passed, and fewer churches intentionally got into the housing business, they would instead provide a housing allowance to pastors, which could be used to secure private living space off church grounds.  Recognizing the disparity between pastors who owned their own home who paid taxes on that income, and those living in church-owned housing who paid nothing, Congress amended the tax code in 1954 in a way that would allow ministers to exempt the portion of their income used for housing from federal income taxes.  In short, the housing allowance emerged from the earlier practice of easing the burden of churches, who often struggle to compensate clergy properly.

Over the past 60 years, a few challenges have been brought to this exemption, and they tend to be ignited when a pastor seems to abuse the exemption.  Most recently, Steven Furtick's $1.6 million home caused quite a bit of outrage among Christians as well as non-Christians, and understandably, some asked what justification could be given for allowing that property to remain tax free.  To be sure, the housing allowance can be abused, and when it is, pastors should pay the price for using the title "Reverend" to take advantage of others.  But occasional abuses of a law don't invalidate the law itself.  More than six decades after the tax code was amended, the overwhelming majority of the 40,000 religious leaders in the United States still find themselves in similar economic circumstances.

So why should church leaders, and denominational leaders like me stand up for the minister's housing allowance?

It serves to correct economic disparity.  Nationwide, ministers of the Gospel are compensated at a level that is significantly lower than other professions which require the same level of education and expertise. (Most pastors possess, at a minimum, an undergraduate degree, and a 90-hour [three-year] Master of Divinity degree, or approximately 7 years of higher education)  Certainly there are exceptions to this rule, and unfortunately, TV cameras seem to only catch those who enjoy great wealth.  But on average, pastors are compensated 20% less than the average income of those with similar education and experience in other fields.  I honestly don't know anyone in my network who got into this for the money, but if you do, you should fire them for being stupid.  Generally, there just isn't a lot of money to be made in this line of work.

My own association can serve as an example.  In 2011 our staff conducted a compensation study (which we do every five years) which segregated pay scales by county (my association includes churches located in 7 counties and 2 states).  The highest income levels for pastors were in Howard County Maryland, where I also live, and the mean income (salary and housing) for Senior Pastors in this area in 2011 was $58,463.00.  For some, that sounds like a lot of money, until you realize that these men are working in the area designated in 2012 as having the second highest median income levels in the entire country--just over $108,000!  Additionally, Lifeway's compensation study is nationwide, and reveals an average income significantly less than the figure above.

Additionally, it is not uncommon in an area like ours--where a  modest single-family home can't be purchased for less than $400,000-- for housing allowances to exceed $35,000.  For an area like ours, a $35K housing allowance is really not that high.  But with that allowance, the standard of living for pastors, while still not coming close to that of someone making over $100K, can be brought more in line with the rest of the population.  Otherwise, most churches, because of their own financial constraints, are paying someone as much as 40% less than the average income in a given area.  I'm guessing most people reading this, if they were making 40% less than the average income in their area, wouldn't be able to live in that area--unless some special provision was made for them.

It eases the burden of complex tax regulations regarding ministers. While the housing allowance for ministers is currently free from federal income taxes, it is not exempt from Social Security taxes.  Additionally, ministers are considered "self-employed" for the purposes of Social Security.  So, while your employer is paying half of your Social Security and Medicare taxes, leaving you with only a 7.5% burden, pastors and other religious leaders pay the full 15%.  Once you do the math on this, paying a $60,000 salary to a pastor means he is only taking home $45,000 after federal income taxes and Social Security taxes if the housing allowance is removed.  And we haven't started talking about state and local taxes yet.   I've often heard the "tax break" line, even in churches, and its a myth.  Once you have navigated through all the various regulations on ministers in the tax code, it becomes apparent that they get no significant tax advantages over anyone else.

The U.S. tax code is especially complex when it comes to ministers.  I'd personally love to see it simplified one day, but in the mean time, I don't think pastors should be penalized just because the way their compensation is viewed by the IRS isn't well-understood by most.  Stop looking at the TV preacher and thinking all pastors are in that situation.  99% are not.

It is fairly given to leaders of all faiths.  Judge Crabb's ruling was based on a single rationale--that it violates the establishment clause of the Constitution.  Candidly, such a rationale makes me wonder how Judge Crabb passed 3rd grade reading comprehension, let alone graduated from law school and found her way to the federal bench.  The First Amendment states that Congress is forbidden to pass a law that establishes a state religion.  But when you consider that the ministerial housing allowance applies to Baptists, Presbyterians, Lutherans, Catholics, Buddhists, Jews, Muslims, and any other recognized religious leaders, it becomes apparent that Congress hasn't "established" anything by providing a housing allowance in the tax code.  Additionally, housing allowances are still allotted today for Peace Corps volunteers, members of the military, and those involved in foreign service to the country.  Yes, even Atheist leaders can now be categorized as religious leaders.  And let's be honest, Atheism really is a faith position.  So, where exactly is the establishment of religion to which Judge Crabb objects? Ironically, it may be in the ruling she handed down.  Differences in denominational convictions relative to church and denomination-owned housing could mean that this ruling widens the disparity that existed between various expressions of faith prior to 1954.  Joe Carter of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission says it well. "By her decision Judge Crabb has--albeit unintentionally--incorporated a form of denominational favoritism into the tax code.  In her attempt to prevent an imaginary violation of the Establishment Clause she has inadvertently created a real infringement."

99% of the more than 40,000 pastors in our country aren't rich, and never will be.  They work tirelessly and selflessly in the everyday mess of people's lives for significantly less than they could make if they simply chose another line of work.  They do this because they believe it is what they were created for and called by God to do, and the minister's housing allowance isn't an unfair advantage.  For many pastors, its how they can afford to serve their communities, and bring their own standard of living up to everyone else's.

Stand up for your pastor on this issue.

For a more thorough history and rationale of the Housing Allowance, see Joe Carter's post here.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Talk With the World, Not Just About It: Reflections on the Global Faith Forum

Greetings from 30,000 feet!  I'm writing while on my way back from the Global Faith Forum at Northwood Church in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, where I just enjoyed an amazing weekend with many, many world-class leaders.

I'm grateful to Bob Roberts, who has been a friend of several years, but also a great coach to me over the past two years as I have tried to lead our network of churches in engaging the Muslim community in our area.  It all started just over two years ago, when a Maryland state legislator who attends one of our churches called me, and asked if I would be willing to meet with members of the Turkish Muslim community.  At the time, my state and a province in the Republic of Turkey were working on a "sister state" agreement, and this lawmaker asked me to participate in conversations that would alleviate misconceptions that, at that time, Turkish Muslims and evangelical Christians had about each other.  At this point, the sum total of my knowledge about Islam came from two weeks of a 16 week religion course I took in seminary back in the 1990s, which is to say that I knew nothing of substance about Islam--at least nothing beyond the core beliefs of their faith!

This is when I called Bob, and for the past 24 months, God has taken me and a few of our pastors on a roller coaster ride in this new and still-emerging relationship.  I'm still a conservative, evangelical who believes the Bible is the final written revelation of God Himself.  I still believe everything about Jesus, heaven, hell, redemption, atonement, resurrection, and the second coming that I did when I started on this journey.  But if I've learned anything over the past 2 years, it is that the way we engage the world needs to radically change if we want that story to get a hearing, and if we want to make the kind of impact on the world that Jesus expects.  Global Faith Forum is one of a few models for how I think this conversation needs to take place.

Bob has created a healthy environment in which strong convictions can continue to be held and openly shared, but also in which friendships among those of the world's religions are not contingent on whether they become like us.  In this environment, serious conversations that affect  the world can take place with the trust necessary to work together, and move forward toward a better world.  Once you have been honest about your differences regarding eternity, talking through issues related to this present world don't seem so tough.  The first panel discussion compared and contrasted Jewish, Islamic, and Christian views of just warfare.  The second focused on the various understandings of the role of women in each of these faith traditions--and those discussions were led by women on the platform!  Yep, Christians, Jews and Muslims had an open, public, honest conversation about warfare and women, and no one became enemies!  Subsequent issues were equally intriguing and challenging.  Leaders in business, medicine, education, and government were present, and were equipped to better understand the world and how to make a positive impact.

With Ayatollah Ahmad Iravani, who teaches Islamic Studies at
Catholic University, Washington, D.C. 
Various professionals in communications, including Christianity Today Editor Mark Gali, spoke on the importance of messaging in today's world, and last night, the topic of reconciliation touched on ways that our various faith communities can play a critical role in helping to alleviate conflict around the world.  Prior to that meeting, I had the privilege of spending the afternoon with Ayatollah Ahmad Iravani.  With a short window now open for the United States and Iran to ease the tensions that have existed between our countries for more than 60 years, this Baptist preacher was very interested in what an Iranian-born, Ayatollah who is now an American citizen would want to say to Christians in the U.S.  Be patient, I'll let you know what he said in a subsequent post!

This morning, I was honored to participate in a panel discussion on using faith in community engagement, and it was great to hear Andy Braner, Suhail Khan and others share stories of how they are using their professions to bring reconciliation in their spheres of influence.

So why would a Baptist pastor responsible to mobilize 60 Baltimore-Washington area churches for Christian missionary work travel to Texas with Christians and Muslims from my area to a meeting like this?

1. Incarnation.  Jesus not only told we who claim to be His followers what to do.  He also modeled how to do it, and post-resurrection tells His disciples in John 20 "As the Father has sent me, so also do I send you."  A simple glance at the life, message, work, and methods of Jesus reveals the way in which we should engage our world.  Jesus didn't remain on the precipice of heaven and preach a sermon.  He incarnated Himself among us, walked in our world with us, broke a number of rules of social propriety in order to reach us, and went to those everyone else was either afraid of, or thought were unworthy of redemption (and they were, but so are we!)  My friends in other faiths will tell you that I'm not shy about sharing Jesus, and expressing my desire that they know Him as I do.  But they don't need me to just preach a sermon.  They need to see the Gospel incarnated.  They need to see me doing what Jesus commands, in the way that He commands it.
2. Trust. Whether it is two diplomats seeking to stave off an international disaster, or a community with various factions that need to understand each other, trust is the first and most important thing you need, and you can't have trust without relationship.  Many of my Turkish Muslim friends are men with whom I would trust my wife, my children, and my bank accounts, and I think they would tell you the same thing about me.  I genuinely love these men, and trust them.  It has taken time to build that trust.  No, you can't build it in two days at a conference in Texas, but you can certainly get started developing the kinds of relationships necessary to watch it grow.
3. Peace.  I'll be honest.  When I watch the way some followers of Jesus so quickly and willingly beat the drums of war, it would make me think Paul had never penned the 12th chapter of Romans.  "If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone." (Romans 12: 18).  I'm not a pacifist.  I do believe there is evil in the world that at times requires the use of lethal force.  But I'm equally convinced that we in the Christianized west have so twisted just war theory that Augustine would not recognize it if he were alive today.  I don't believe my Muslim friends and I are currently on our way to heaven together.  But God has placed us on the earth together, and commanded that those who claim to follow Jesus do everything within our power to live in peace.  How can we do that if we aren't even willing to know our neighbors?

We need more venues like the Global Faith Forum, and I'm thankful for a guy like Bob who will stick his neck out in the middle of the Bible Belt in order to start these conversations.  Stay tuned, because our churches are working to bring a similar event to the Baltimore-Washington area next fall!

Monday, November 11, 2013

Typhoon Relief, World Hunger, and Other Reasons I'm a Baptist

This week, I'm at the annual state meeting of my denomination, The Baptist Convention of Maryland/Delaware.  Last night, I watched from my Delaware hotel room as the first responders began their work in the wake of Typhoon Haiyan, which has left more than 10,000 dead, and more than 100,000 displaced from their homes in the Philippines.

As these two events--a denominational meeting and an international disaster--intersect, I'm reminded of just a few of the many reasons why I'm a Southern Baptist.

It's been less than 100 hours since Haiyan bore down on the east side of the archipelago, and our partners at Baptist Global Response are already at work bringing relief to those so drastically affected by this storm. They will feed the hungry, rebuild homes, schools, and hospitals, provide medical care, and share the message of Jesus.  And all of this is made possible by the gifts of individuals and churches to our relief work.

There are some great relief organizations out there, and I don't intend by this post to berate them, or enter into a competition with them.  But I am often genuinely puzzled at why so many of our churches--when looking for a way to provide relief and feed the hungry--don't avail themselves of the most effective delivery system in the history of Protestant Christianity.

In particular, churches and groups within churches are often searching for a way to touch real human needs, but in their search often gravitate toward whichever organization developed the fanciest mailer--regardless of how much of their donation has to be used to actually print those mailers.  When you give to BGR, or to the Baptist World Hunger Fund, 100% of every penny is actually used to bring relief.  The Cooperative Program covers all the costs associated with overhead and as such, giving to BGR or World Hunger means no administration, no staffing, and no "off the top" skimming from a fundraising organization.  You give a dollar, and the whole dollar makes it to someone who really needs it.

Second, when you give for world relief through these channels, you are supporting a brand that has garnered national and international respect.  BGR is at work in places around the world where our own diplomats sometimes have difficulty working.  And next time you are on the Gulf Coast, or in Long Island New York, ask those residents if they would rather have FEMA, or SBC Disaster Relief help them out in the event of another Hurricane.  They won't have to think long!

So, if you've been watching the news the past few days, want to help, but are struggling with where to send the money, let me help you with that decision.

Click here to donate to Baptist Global Response.

Click here to donate to the SBC World Hunger Fund.

Wednesday, November 06, 2013

What's all the Fuss About Furtick?

This morning, someone called my attention to this article from The Christian Post about Charlotte mega-church pastor Steven Furtick. It seems that a fairly large slice of western Christendom is up in arms about a young pastor of a fast-growing church building a $1.7 million home for his family.  Subsequent questions have also surfaced regarding the financial dealings of Furtick and Charlotte's Elevation Church, which now boasts seven campuses throughout the metro-Charlotte area, as well as multiple video venues around the country.

Most of the vitriol, it appears, has been suppressed for some time.  For at least two years now (The "Elephant Room" conferences catapulted Furtick into the national spotlight) Furtick has garnered strong critics because of everything from his methodology to the company he keeps (Most notably, he was criticized for claiming Bishop T.D. Jakes as a ministry and preaching mentor.)

Reading the above-referenced article got me thinking:  What would I do if Elevation Church was linked with the Association I lead?  My history--which briefly intersects Furticks if you go back around 15 years--makes that question uniquely personal.

I first met Steven when he was a junior Christian Studies major at North Greenville University, when I served as an Evangelism professor on that same campus.  At that point in his life, he was an upperclassman who could have invoked the privilege of much nicer accommodations, but instead remained in the dorms affectionately called "the projects" by the freshman and sophomore athletes who were forced to make their beds there.  His decision to remain in such less-than-desirable dorm space was motivated by the relationships he was developing with many of the athletes--a number of whom he introduced to Jesus.  The day we met, he had no money for lunch, because he had spent it all on snacks the week before for his dorm buddies.  Steven was practicing "incarnational ministry" long before Alan Hirsch ever published a book on the topic.  When I think about his ministry today, It would appear that those same values continue to motivate everything he does.

It was a number of years after these events that Elevation Church was planted.  As I've watched the story of that church unfold from a distance, I've seen things that make me shiver, and things that bring me to thank God.  There are things Furtick says that I wouldn't say, and things he does that I wouldn't do.  But as I think about it, those things are probably also true for nearly every church that cooperates in my network.  What troubles me more than the concerns raised by the Post article is the binary way so many within the church today seem to react to mega-churches and those who lead them.  Some are ready to make room for a fourth member of the Trinity, others ready to etch "666" across the foreheads of these pastors.  I haven't encountered Steven Furtick for many years, but I'm betting he's somewhere in between those caricatures, just like all the rest of us. In fact, I think Steven Furtick provides us with a large model of the kind of loving critique we need to give each other.   So with that in view, what would I say to him if we were back in that Travelers Rest South Carolina BBQ joint we met in years ago?

1. I would thank God for his ministry.  Paul communicated to believers at Philippi his awareness of the wrong-headed motives of some preachers, yet thanked God even for them because "whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed."  (1:18, ESV).  I could write a series of blog posts about all the things with which I disagree, but when I look at Elevation Church, one singular, undeniable fact overrides everything else:  more than 10,000 people have given their lives to Jesus since that church was planted.  The same evangelists heart that motivated a young college student to stay in a freshman dorm now resides in a mega-church pastor whose desire to see people meet Jesus has not changed.  Whatever else good or bad may be said about Steven Furtick and Elevation Church, I'm most thankful for this.

2. I would encourage sound ecclesiology that uses exclusively internal leadership.  In the first months of a new church's life, we often encourage planters to form an outside "advisory committee" of pastors of other churches who can act as a sort of de facto "elder board" until the church can raise up its own indigenous leadership from within.  Among the responsibilities of this committee are usually the setting of salaries and the approval of annual budgets.  But over time, these outside advisors are to be replaced by leaders who rise up from within the body of Christ and demonstrate themselves Biblically qualified to serve as elders and deacons.  Those offices are not optional, nor is it suggested anywhere in the New Testament that they can be filled by outsiders, and any local church--regardless of size--still using outside pastors to lead it after 7 years is asking for major dysfunction.  Soteriology and ecclesiology are inextricably linked in Scripture, and sooner or later, dysfunction in one will inevitably cause dysfunction in the other.  As a guy who provides counsel to more than 60 churches, I'd want to look at Steven Furtick and beg him--for the sake of continued evangelistic effectiveness--to revisit what the Lord of the church has to say about how His church is best and most effectively organized to execute its mission.  I praise God for the numbers, but numbers alone are not the sign of a faithful ecclesiology.

3. I would encourage financial transparency.  For one thing, its the law.  Any non-profit entity operating in the United States is required to produce financial statements to anyone who asks--member or non member.  Additionally, any refusal to disclose financial information automatically raises suspicions that you are hiding something unethical.   If people ask for information, give it to them.  And if they want to know your salary and benefit package, then make it public.

Doing this will accomplish two things:  First, it will eliminate any criticism that suggests the church is hiding unethical and/or sinful behavior.  Second, it will hopefully open up an honest conversation about pastoral compensation.  Let me tell you something that might shock you:  I don't think its a sin for a pastor to receive a large salary!  I really don't! (and full disclosure: my base salary is considerably under $100K, and I live in the Baltimore-Washington, D.C. area, so this isn't a statement made in self-defense!).  Elevation is an organization that receives around $20 million annually.  If we heard that the C.E.O. of a $20 million corporation was making $2 or $3 million per year, it would barely illicit a yawn.  So why do we get so upset when we learn that the pastor of a large, successful church is himself financially successful?  When we make surface-level judgments based solely on the size of someone's salary, we have bought into the worldly game of assessing someone's spirituality based on what they possess.  We are just judging in reverse. The story above of the college junior out of money because he spent it on snacks to get his buddies into his dorm to tell them about Jesus demonstrates that Furtick didn't get into this line of work for the money.  Enough with the envy.  Let's have a reasonable conversation about this issue.

But hiding the salary you collect from a non-profit entity only further exacerbates that suspicion.  For your own good, and for the good of your church's reputation, when someone asks how much you make, tell them.

4. I would encourage him to keep it about Jesus.  I'm not usually moved by the "guilt by association" gang.  Furtick and others have often been accused of heresy simply because they keep company with some pastors who hold to questionable theology.  Has Furtick said things I wouldn't say?  Oh yeah.  But if he has ever uttered full-blown heresy, I've not heard it.

I don't judge people merely by the company they keep.  Doing so would force me to name Jesus Himself a heretic, and I think there are a few people out there who need to back off of the "look who he is hanging out with" rhetoric and start judging men by what comes out of their own mouths.

But when it comes to that which comes out of your mouth, I've seen too many men change messages mid-stream.  D. James Kennedy died more political pundit than pastor.  Rod Parsley, who once preached the Gospel with abundant clarity, now preaches the prosperity Gospel of American capitalism that has and will continue to send untold numbers of people to hell.  Other examples can be given, but my point is this:  it is possible to start well; to start faithful; to start in complete commitment to Jesus, and still end miserably.  The only way to prevent that shift is to keep your nose between the pages of Scripture and your eyes more on Jesus than men.

Steven Furtick may not be doing everything right, but best as I can tell, his eyes are still on Jesus, and I believe that will take him, and Elevation Church, to some great places in the end--if he can manage to keep focus.

So to all those who think Furtick is some sort of mortal threat to western Christendom, save your flame-throwing, because I'm not buyin it.  To those who are ready to canonize him, offended that anyone would suggest that there may be a few glitches in his ministry, he's just a kid from lower-state South Carolina whom the Lord is using in a great way.

Let's don't treat people like this as though they are infallible, and let's don't treat them like Satanic enemies either.  Let's treat them like what they are--brothers.