Housing Allowance for Pastors Still Constitutional…For Now

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Pastors and church leaders around the country breathed a sigh of relief on Friday, March 15, when the Seventh Court of Appeals ruled that the housing allowance for church ministers does not violate the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause.

For months, church leaders nervously awaiting the appeals court ruling, after a Wisconsin district court ruled that the tax exemption was unconstitutional. The Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) had argued that the housing allowance was clearly a handout and represented an “advance on religion on behalf of the government.” 

In Friday’s ruling, the 7th Court of Appeals disagreed, stating that the housing allowance provides opportunities for “churches to advance religion, which is their very purpose.” Judge Michael Brennan wrote that the exemption does not “connote sponsorship, financial support and active involvement of [government] in religious activity.” 

What is the Housing Allowance? 
 
According to current IRS tax guidelines, churches can compensate ministers who are “licensed, commissioned and/or ordained” for expenses directly related to the cost of living. (https://www.irs.gov/faqs/interest-dividends-other-types-of-income/ministers-compensation-housing-allowance/ministers-compensation-housing-allowance

 This housing allowance has allowed pastors to serve congregations that may have otherwise not been able to afford a pastor.  The allowance is similar to the exemption provided to military members and other workers that are displaced for their employment. 

What Happens Next? 
 
While the current ruling is indeed a victory for religious freedom, the ruling may not be the end of the story. FFRF is currently considering an appeal, which would surely drive the case to the US Supreme Court.  

What Can You Do? 
 
It’s important that we as church leaders continue to be above reproach, especially when it comes to financial management. While the housing allowance is a blessing to minsters, the allowance should never be abused. Be sure that your pastor’s compensation is calculated correctly, and only include expenses that meet proper IRS guidelines. To learn more, visit https://www.irs.gov/taxtopics/tc417. 

Are You Compensating Your Pastor Correctly? 
 
We’ve found that many churches are compensating their pastor incorrectly, or they are not confident they are doing it correctly. We can provide a FREE analysis of whether your church is handling your bookkeeping correctly and if you are paying your pastors and staff appropriately. Click here to schedule a quick call and let us know that you want to be confident that you’re handling your pastor’s compensation correctly! We’re happy to help!  

5 Ways Your Finance Team Is Hindering Ministry Growth

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To be clear, we’ve written many times about volunteers in church and how they can be the biggest blessings.  In reality though, we can also probably share horror stories of where volunteers have created some headache and heart-ache for your ministry. 

As a church finance company, we obviously deal mostly with treasurers, financial secretaries and finance teams (stewardship committees if you will).  In the many years we’ve been doing this, one things has become abundantly clear, there are some real ways your finance team may be hindering ministry growth. 

The great news is that if you know these 5 areas, you will be better positioned to not let them affect your ministry. 

1. The Mission and Vision are Not Front and Center

I’ve written earlier about how to budget to your mission and vision of your church. Scripture tells us in Matthew 6:21, Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.  I see this as a very clear statement on priorities.  Even more clear is the statement on treasure and what how that guides your soul.  You’re  a church leader so I don’t need to preach to you but just be reminded, where we prioritize our focus and resources will reveal where our heart is.

So how does this affect our finances in church? 

In the previous post about mission and vision and budgeting we’ve laid out the reasonings for that focus.  For this purpose with your finance team, that mission and vision needs to be the guiding principal of the meetings and decisions made. 

I’ve seen too many teams get overly focused on the numbers without remembering the mission.  Church finances can be tough.  You have very little control over your income, and for many of us, that income is tight!  Sometimes when money gets tight, it causes us to make rash, hasty decisions or to easily forget our ultimate mission and reason we were entrusted with those funds. 

For your finance team, keep the mission and vision of your ministry at the forefront of everything you do. 

2. Too Many Hands In The Pot, Cooks in The Kitchen, Wrong People On The Bus or Whatever Analogy You Want To use

Another area we’ve seen finance teams become a hinderance is when there are no defined roles for the people on the team.  I know in most churches we delve out roles based on whether the person is breathing, but for something as important as finance we should go a step further. 

Just because someone owns a small business, works as an executive or even better they are a CPA doesn’t default them qualified for your finance team.  In fact, it is often those people that we find causing the most issues among finance teams.  Yes, on the surface it makes sense that they’d be good for the role, but we often find that success or experience in the secular world doesn’t always translate to success in ministry, especially financial ministries.   

Now, don’t read that wrong, there are some very faithful people that have had success in the secular world that go on to be great church leaders, but from experience, those stories are not the norm. 

This point could probably be an entire post for itself so I won’t go too much deeper. 

For your finance team, put a system in place to almost interview people for the role on the team.  Putting a process in place now will save you in the future. 

3. Unclear Expectations Of The Team

This point will go in line with the previous one but this is more related to the team as a whole.  For some reason, the finance area of a church has become a kingdom for some people.  I’ve seen too many treasurers on a power trip that feel it becomes their job to dictate the finances of the church.  I’m not sure why that happens but it’s a story we’ve seen countless times. 

I’ve also seen the finance team that becomes more powerful than the pastor or the elders. 

Without clear expectations for the team, they are open to their own interpretation of their roles in the church.  It goes back to the old adage, he who holds the purse strings controls all. 

Your finance team needs to know that their place is to review the current financial reports, analyze those and make recommendations to the pastor and/or elder(s) on what they find.  That is a healthy balance for a church.  When the finance teams dictates and directs the elders, that becomes unhealthy and is a recipe for disaster. 

For your finance team, be sure each member knows the role of the team and where they fit into the big picture of the ministry as a whole. 

4. Too Many Ideas Overcomplicating The Process

In church finance, there are a lot of ideas and stories out there that start out with something like “Well at my last church we did … “. 

I tell pastors almost every day that if you ask 5 different accountants how to handle church finances and especially payroll, you’ll likely get 5 different answers. 

Because of this, we often run into finance teams that have people coming with ideas and experiences from previous places.  While this is great to have a diversity of ideas, it often complicates things.  Especially when some of those previous ways are wrong. 

In our experience, most churches are over-complicating things.  Our company is called Simplify Church for a reason, we as church people (or people in general) are pretty good at making things harder than they need to be.  Ministry is tough already, let’s not voluntarily add complications that cloud our mission. 

For your finance team, keep simplicity in mind.  Vet ideas through a filter and seek counsel.  We consult with churches all over the country and have found many are quite simply overcomplicating things. 

5. Lack of Leadership

Ok, this point my bite a little bit. 

The final way your finance team may be hindering your ministry growth is from lack of leadership.  Far too many pastors feel unequipped to handle the finances and in turn rely on the finance team.  The problem with that is then the finance team doesn’t have clear direction or leadership from the person who is shepherding the church.  It won’t take long to find out where that ends up. 

There are areas where you should rely on others and use their skills and gifts.  However, leadership is providing direction and counsel in that process.  

Pastor, if you’re not invited to the finance team meetings, that needs to change immediately.  The finances of the church will have a direct impact on your ability to lead the church and guide them.  If you don’t have an idea of the financial picture, you don’t have an idea on where the ministry is at, or where you can go. 

It’s imperative that the pastor of the church have a direct role in leading the finance team and holding them accountable to the mission and vision. 

For your finance team, take the lead and guide them.  Be their pastor in stewarding the funds and resources of the church.   

As you can see, or may have experienced, the finance team of your church can be a huge asset, or a big hinderance.  Hopefully you find the previous to be true and your finance team is a huge blessing to your ministry. 

If you’re looking for ideas or need some help in navigating putting a team in place, or fixing a team problem, don’t hesitate to reach out to us and we’ll hop on a call to discuss.  We love the local church and will do everything we can to give as much insight as possible.