Should You Blame Steven Furtick for Higher Taxes?
A federal judge strikes down pastors' housing allowances. Lawyer cites mega-church "mansions."

A federal judge in Wisconsin has ruled that providing clergy with a tax-free housing allowance is unconstitutional. U.S. District Judge Barbara Crabb's decision could affect pastors across the country if the ruling is upheld by higher courts.

At the center of the controversy is a law passed by Congress in 1954 permitting clergy to designate part of their salary as "housing allowance." This portion of their income, used to pay for rent, a mortgage, property taxes, and other expenses related to housing, is not subject to federal income taxes (although it is subject to social security taxes).

Why is a 60-year-old law being overturned as unconstitutional? The suit was filed by the Freedom From Religion Foundation which argued the tax break is given to clergy on the basis of religion, which they argue is a violation of the First Amendment.

Whether or not pastors will keep their housing allowances will be determined when higher courts review the ruling from Wisconsin. With declining church attendance, rising numbers of "religiously unaffiliated" Americans, and federal and state governments facing enormous debts, there is a growing concern that the tax benefit for pastors may end soon.

According to the 2012-2013 Compensation Handbook for Church Staff, Christianity Today's bi-annual survey of compensation levels based on 4,600 participating churches, the average salary and benefits for a senior pastors is $82,938. This figure, however, does not account for the many pastors in non-senior roles who earn far less but still benefit from the housing allowance. In other words, pastors are not paid like Wall Street CEOs or live lavishly among the 1%.

The perception created by the lawyer for the Freedom From Religion Foundation, however, was one of luxury and abuse. She argued that the clergy housing allowance cost the federal government $2.3 billion in taxes between 2002-2007, and that the benefit is misused. "When you're dealing with some of these mega-church pastors with huge mansions," she said, "they can be paid an enormous amount in housing allowances."

The notion of pastors being paid millions of dollars tax-free to live like celebrities may not prove or disprove the constitutionality of the housing allowance law, but it could be a powerful argument in the court of public opinion. The recent reports about Steven Furtick's 16,000 square foot house and the lack of financial transparency at Elevation Church certainly don't help the thousands of over-worked, under-paid pastors around the country who depend on a housing allowance.

Of course Furtick is not the only pastor to get negative media attention for his compensation or lifestyle. The regular flow of stories about private jets, huge homes, and extravagant purchases by a handful of pastors may be enough to turn sentiment against the housing allowance.

November 25, 2013

Displaying 1–5 of 5 comments

Kacey

December 11, 2013  10:36pm

If the median income in the U.S is 51,000, then pastors earning over that don't deserve tax free housing allowances any more than nurses, teachers, police officers, social workers, fire fighters, emts...etc. All these professions earn under the average pastors 81k...and all of these professions are equally important to society. It is a SLAP in the face to ask us to donate 10% when honestly, many of us work harder than you and don't get the perks. I see you writing your sermons in starbucks while my friend's husband clung to a tree after rescuing someone from a flood. Don't tell me his job isn't as important and doesn't deserve your perks. Join the masses, and maybe the masses will respect you and come back to your churches.

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Steve Grove

December 03, 2013  2:14pm

The other part of the equation is that church ministries often save the government(s) a lot of money because of the work they do with poverty, social issues, job retraining, senior's care, mental and emotional well-being, etc. Maybe there needs to be an earnings cap on those pastors who make more than x amount of dollars. In Canada the clergy residence deduction is no more than 30% of your total income (only the income from being a pastor is counted - regardless of how low), and no more than fair rental value. Steven's case is more about the celebrity culture we have in church. We like to raise "successful" pastors (read - "mega-church") up on a pedestal, and so we buy all their books, and copy what they do. Steven's income has a large part to do with his writing, which if he was in Canada would not be allowable for clergy residence. Rick Warren makes a buck a year at his church (my understanding) because he also has a large income from his other interests (writing and speaking). The question may be better is how much is too much? Do these "rich" Christians model the same generosity and sacrificial giving that they call their church adherants to? It is one thing to have money and be called to minister to others with a lot of money (who wouldn't talk to you unless you have money), and another to let that money become an entitlement. Money is just a tool and can be used for good or bad; but the love of it is the source of all kinds of evil. You can't love money and God. And for the complainers, how many of them are "righteously" indignant because, while not admitting it, are jealous. They have never had a lot of money (and there may be good reasons for that!), and so anyone who has a lot of money is doing something wrong. Let God worry about that.

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PaulD

November 27, 2013  1:09am

When I served as an elder some years ago, the senior pastor explained to me that the rationale for the benefit was to achieve parity between Catholic and Protestant ministers. Since Catholic priests receive free housing, it was thought only fair that Protestant ministers should get some sort of break. It will be interesting to see how this affects the Catholic Church, if at all.

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Leonard

November 25, 2013  12:31pm

Dear URL, Is your title fair?

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elegance

November 25, 2013  8:15am

Of course, that fact that a person can be a U.S. Congressman for a mere 2 year term and be guaranteed full salary and health insurance for life because of the 'public service' they endure doesn't cost the federal government (or taxpaying pastors anything).

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