death & taxes

I did my taxes yesterday. Clergy taxes are ridiculous. I’ve done them for ten years, now, and while I understand the operating principles behind how they work (thanks to the deep wisdom and clarity of Deb at Oskin Tax Services), the process is not exactly efficient or logical.

Clergy are common law employees who are exempt from FICA and must pay Self-Employment taxes on their income. FICA – the taxes that get withheld from your paycheck if you’re NOT clergy – ends up being about 7.65% of income. Self-Employment tax – how working people non subject to FICA withholding pay into the Social Security system – is 15.3%.

Hear that: your pastor pays TWICE the tax that you do.

Yes, there are other relevant details about clergy tax oddities – we can claim part of our income as an income-tax-exempt housing allowance. This is historically connected to the practice of housing clergy in parsonages. But we still pay self-employment tax on that portion of income. It is, all things considered, not a great deal.

rejected, again.

It’s pretty gauche to complain about income and taxes in this particular moment when 15 million more Americans are struggling to find enough to eat than were at this time last year and several of my neighbors are depending on an extension of the eviction moratorium lest they lose their house. And also, part of my work is to support part-time pastors in the Church of the Brethren. 77% of our congregations have part-time pastors, and a troubling number of those pastors are teetering on the edge of becoming food insecure or mired in poverty themselves.

In the Church of the Brethren, full-time, salaried congregational pastors have only been common practice for approximately two generations. Historically, congregations were led by unpaid, volunteer leaders called from within the community. And still, in 50-75 years, we’ve managed to ASSUME that not only should every church have a full-time pastor but also that those pastors belong to their congregations, body and soul. I cannot tell you how unhealthy these assumptions are.

In the last couple months, I have heard conversations requiring part-time pastors to be available 24/7. I have heard people quote full-time hours as 58/week, which means that a half-time role would still be responsible for 29 hours – nearly impossible if that person is also working a second, half-time job to make ends meet. I have read job descriptions that attempt to cram three positions’ worth of responsibilities into 19 hours/week. And surely, you’ve heard the old saw: “there’s no such thing as a part-time pastor!”

It is true that pastors don’t work 9-5 hours. Ministry happens on life’s timeline, and illness, death, grief, pain, and joy don’t confine themselves to the workaday world. But expecting pastors to be available 24/7, loading their plates with more tasks than any being could possibly carry, refusing to acknowledge a pastor’s other commitments, responsibilities and need for rest: this is wrong.

And, on top of these unthinking and unfair expectations, churches subject their pastors to DOUBLE the tax rate that they pay on their own income.

If churches decide to employ people, then they are bound to treat those people with fairness.

Scripture has a lot to say about this:

Exodus: “Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy…you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns.”

Jeremiah: “Woe to him who builds his house by unrighteousness, and his upper rooms by injustice, who makes his neighbor serve him for nothing and does not give him his wages.”

Deuteronomy: “You shall not oppress a hired servant who is poor and needy, whether he is one of your brothers or one of the sojourners who are in your land within your towns. You shall give him his wages on the same day, before the sun sets (for he is poor and counts on it), lest he cry against you to the Lord, and you be guilty of sin.”

(…for a start.)

I *love* what I get to do as a congregational pastor. I *love* my congregation. My congregation is very careful to follow published guidelines around salary, checks in with me regularly about my hours, invests in mutual ministry…and they know that the way they compensate me is not exactly sustainable by itself. I can be a half-time pastor because I have a second job that provides some health insurance and pension benefits. I am a single person without a family, without debt, and without significant health struggles. And even with all that privilege, this arrangement is not sustainable for the long-term.

Here’s my plea: treat your pastor better. If you can’t pay them a living wage, taking into account the tax burden they bear, then reduce their responsibilities. Figure out how to do ministry together without dumping everything on the paid employee. Take responsibility for learning how clergy taxes work. Ask your pastor what ministry you can get involved in. Regularly audit how many hours your pastor is working for you. Remember that in this country, people actually died for the right to contain a working week to 40 hours and stop expecting your pastor to work 60 hours in order to keep their job.

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