The recent decision by U.S. District Court Judge Barbara Crabb to rule a longstanding IRS provision that makes housing allowances for clergy to be unconstitutional has caused a quite a stir. Some Christian groups see this ruling to be further evidence of the crumbling of a once Gospel-receptive American culture. Some Jewish leaders are concerned about Rabbinical housing. Still others see this as distracting legalese that fails to consider more pressing issues of American society and life.
Nonetheless, the news of Judge Crabb’s decision has spurred a renewed conversation about exactly what the tax-free housing allowance is and what is does for local churches and for local church pastors. Several web articles do an exceptional job outlining the terms and benefits. I want to weigh in on the renewed discussion by providing a personal window into how the housing allowance works in my ministry and what, if this decision holds up through the appeals process, is truly at stake for local churches who rely on this helpful tax break.
A Personal Tale
My wife and I have been involved in local church ministry for 13 years. We have used the tax-exempt housing allowance for 5 of those years. We have never been bi-vocational in that 5 year time period and have been honored and blessed to be part of some significant local churches who have paid us well and more than taken care of our needs. While we are not in the upper echelon of church staff salaries (See Young Jr., Ed), we are also not in the bottom end of salaries either. Thus our perspective comes from what I would consider to be an average pastoral experience.
First, the particulars: We have lived at our current home for about 6 months. Our church ensures that we are able to live among our congregants in one of the wealthiest counties in Texas (Collin) and in one of the best communities in the state of Texas (Frisco). Within this arrangement my wife is able to stay at home and raise our child without having to work outside the home. We work hard to execute a strict financial strategy in order to maintain this family strategy and are not living lavishly by any stretch of the imagination.
Second, consider these statistics from our ministry schedule in just the past 6 months. We have hosted an average of three families from our church congregation (not including staff) at our home for meals every week. We have hosted a weekly small group Bible study at our home and this group event is in addition to the three family meals at our home. Furthermore, we have hosted 3 medium-sized church fellowship events at our home in the form of parties, cookouts, and celebrations. And, we have invited neighbors to our home for dinner as a way to reach out and share the love of Christ with the people living close to us. I think the aforementioned statistics indicate that our home is not merely a personal real estate investment, it is ministry tool. It is an extension of our church campus and a strategic asset that allows us to minister to our church family through hospitality, fellowship, discipleship, Bible study, and prayer in an intimate environment around my wife’s amazing home cooking and my personality and our loving marriage. Our home is so much more than real estate — it is a ministry center.
My wife uses this phrase with respect to our home — we want our house to be a home for the strays, a place for those people who have nowhere else to go. And I personally know many pastors across this country who use their homes for the same reason. Now to be fair, we have families in our church who are not on staff who use their homes in a similar manner without the benefit of a tax break. But it is also true that many of these families make considerable incomes that afford them the opportunity to host families and small groups and fellowship events. Pastors, on the other hand, are often expected to host above and beyond the families in the church on a set income while also leading a non-profit organization, while fund-raising, while preparing a weekly public speech, while counseling church members, while leading the way in ethics, morality, and spiritual balance, and while also demonstrating a healthy work-family balance. And in my experience, we do this joyfully and gladly. We wouldn’t have it any other way.
Many pastors I know understand the social blessing that the tax-code provides and use it wisely to enhance ministry to their local congregations. If the tax-code goes away, most pastors will adjust and move on. But, that doesn’t mean that we are in favor of losing this helpful tax benefit. Taking away the housing provision will not make local church ministry impossible, but it will make this kind of hospitality and care much more challenging.