People, there are probably more depressing things in the world than calling up your parents, reading them Bob Smietana's Tennessean article about the challenge to pastors' tax-free housing allowance, getting to the point where the story reads ...
And a federal appeals court ruled this past year that the parsonage exemption applies to only one house. That ruling came in the case of Phil Driscoll, a Christian musician and minister who runs Mighty Horn Ministries based in Greensboro, Ga. Driscoll, who has served jail time in the past for tax evasion, had claimed more than $400,000 in housing allowance for a second home.
... and hearing your mom make a noise like a wounded bunny, but good lord, I do not want to know what those things are.
When I was in high school, we lived in a house that had a large mold stalactite growing down from the ceiling in the living room over the TV, which was especially impressive and worrisome once you realized there was no plumbing in that part of the house. There was just some constant, unrepaired leak from the outside somewhere that kept the mold flourishing. The women of the church liked, at first, to make surprise visits to "make sure my mom was keeping the parsonage to their standards," which caused my mom and I to laugh hysterically, since one wonders what the "standards" of cleanliness are in a house with a six-inch mold stalactite. Should we have left all our garbage on the floor? Piled toenail clippings where visitors had to step on them? (The surprise inspections stopped, strangely enough, after my tarantula Eddie escaped.)
This same house had a porch so rotted that my mom fell through it once and — in my opinion the best part — when they finally tore down the house to build another parsonage, my dad discovered that the whole top floor of the house had burned at one point. Rather than tearing down the house, the congregation just rebuilt a new second story onto the charred timbers. (Methodist ministers get sent to churches for all kinds of official and unofficial reasons. My dad was sent to that church to force them to build a new parsonage.)
Don't get me wrong: We've also lived in some beautiful old homes, with winding staircases and charming alcoves, houses that have ruined me for, say, ’50s ranches with uncertain ceilings. I'm just saying "Oh, tax-free housing!" isn't the $400,000-second-home perk for every minister. Pastors who live in church-provided housing not only, as Jay Voorhees points out in the story, don't build up equity and are often left trying to buy their first house as they're in the process of retiring, it also means that they're stuck with the house the church has. Five kid and two bedrooms? You find a way to make it work. We lived in a house once where it was obvious that the old unfinished attic had been used as a bedroom by former residents. Or just you and your wife, but a big old house with six bedrooms? Well, hope you don't mind that you don't have the furniture to fill them.
You can see why pastors with families would rather have the allowance.
The thing that really impressed me about the story is just what a good job Smietana does at getting at the complexity of pastors' tax situation. When my father first started out in the ministry, the tax laws were such that he was considered self-employed. Period. When I talked to him tonight, he said he preferred this because his taxes were simple enough that he could do them and he could take a number of deductions.
But now, pastors are a weird hybrid. In some ways they're employees of the church, and in other ways they're self-employed. Now my parents don't dare do their own taxes, because they're so complicated. And they've lost some of their old deductions. It's something of a joke that ministers are ripe for auditing, because there's almost no way for someone to not fuck their taxes up. If the IRS looks, the IRS will find something wrong.
My dad seemed not so troubled by the story, probably because we've always lived in parsonages provided by the church and he's never had a housing allowance and now he's mostly retired, so it won't affect him. But my mom was bothered.
"So, basically," she said, "because some people with more money than they know what to do with acted like fools, regular ministers are going to get squeezed?"
Sure sounds like it.