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Pastors and Taxes

Last year at this time, I remember getting into a discussion with pastors’ wives on Wittenberg Trail about taxes.  What shocked me was how many of these women said they paid taxes, and how much they said they paid.  These were families that were making about the same as us and possibly significantly less, and all of them had more children than me.    For the record, we have a parsonage, my husband makes district guidelines for Indiana, and we have two kids.  While state taxes here are quite a burden, I don’t know that we have paid Federal income tax since he was ordained.  If we have, it probably was only one or two years, and less than a thousand dollars.

Pastors actually get a bad deal when it comes to taxes.  They have what is called dual status.  This means that Social Security considers them self-employed, which means that they pay ALL 15 % of the Social Security tax There is however a theological exemption from Social Security that is only available to clergy, but it is generally not recommended, since the LCMS for example, runs their retirement system taking Social Security checks into account.

The IRS on the other hand, considers pastors to be employees, which means that the tax benefits that are available to those who are self-employed do not get extended to them.

The only true shelter that pastors get is the Housing Allowance.  But what I am finding is that a lot of pastors’ families do not understand the housing allowance.  Basically, this is what it is:  the amount of the pastors’ income that is used each year to purchase, maintain, or otherwise care for the home is nontaxable income.  This means rent, housing insurance, taxes, furniture, utlities, cleaning supplies, decorations, appliances, internet, cell phones, electronics, repairs for any of the above, paper towels, etc.  all fall under housing allowance.   As an accountant once told me — if you moved into an extended stay hotel, everything that would be in that room is what you deduct.  Here is a form that describes that:  Housing Allowance.

Every year, you look at what you think your expenses will be, and you ask your congregation to put on file at the voters meeting or whatever, what part of your income will be housing allowance.  If it looks like it will be more, have it adjusted at the next voters meeting. If you don’t meet it, you will pay taxes on that part of the income, however if you go over, you don’t get to go beyond what was already determined.  At tax time, you add up what you’ve spent from saved receipts and bills.

During years that are high expense, such as the year a house is bought – with fees, taxes, down payments, moving costs, and so many other things, many pastors have put their whole income under housing allowance.

Many regular accountants don’t understand the nuances that are involved with clergy taxes.  The W-2 is different, especially if there is a parsonage.  It really is good to have someone who is a specialist in this.

My personal recommendation is Witmer-Wood Tax Consultants. They take clergy from all over the country, are no nonsense, and conscientious.  Even if we were not in Indiana, I’d still send my taxes into them to be done.   A couple of the people that I talked with last year went to them after the fact and they went back over their taxes and corrected the errors of previous several years.  I know for a fact, since our W2’s are never done right, they’ve  definitely made up for $125 fee  (they are not paying me in any way shape or form.  I truly love them).  They know church taxes inside and out, and have also helped congregations get their books in order.

(I am not a tax expert, this is my personal experience, so take it for what it is worth and ask an expert as well, but make sure they KNOW clergy tax code)

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Back to School

When we lived in Pasadena, I was working on a Masters degree in Marriage and Family Therapy.  Right at the point where I was pretty much done with classwork, but still had my practicum, intership, and thesis to do — I had Maggie.  A break was in order.  And then, Jeff got the call here to Indiana.  There was really no question that this was where God wanted him, and by default — me, so we went.  It also put us near Fort Wayne, so Jeff had a Masters degree he needed to finish — and now that it is done, it’s my turn again.

Unfortunately, I will have to redo a lot.  Masters programs are usually pretty chintzy on how many credits they accept from other Masters programs.  At this point in time, that’s okay, because after being out of it for so long, I feel like I’ve forgotten much more than I’ve remembered.  Sometimes, its interesting just to learn something twice, from two different approaches.

So, in two days, I’ll officially be a student again.  I’m excited.  It’s an online program this time, but even that will be interesting.  Maybe I can get my work done while my kids are doing their lessons.  (Okay, I’m dreaming, I know).

Return to Normalcy?

I work part time as a field interviewer for an organization affiliated with the University of Chicago.  These last few months, I’ve been working  on a project that has mostly been evenings…shift work.  Usually, I go to people’s houses and interview them, or meet them somewhere, and its a combination of at their convenience and mine, so its 3 hours here, 2 hours there, 4 hours somewhere else, at different times.  I find that easier to work with.  I find shift work difficult, especially from home where I can hear life going on in the rest of the home.

For some bizarre reason, the “regularity” also throws me completely off on every other aspect of life.  Maybe because it is just draining, maybe because I am a poor planner and like spontaneity,  I don’t get meals done, and it gets BAD.  I mean BAD.

I want to eat well, but I end up positively relying on fast food.  I have dietary issues…such as needing meat protein, or I start feeling lightheaded, not to mention that I should be avoiding wheat, but don’t do that well either.  I’m domestically handicapped.  I love to cook but stink at cleaning, organizing, planning.

So, any ideas on what might help?  Just wondering.  I have probably another month of this at least.  😛

Second Nature – Michael Pollan

Jeff and I have been thoroughly enjoying reading Second Nature: A Gardener’s Education, by Michael Pollan.  I’ve learned so much in his exploration of himself through his desire to help things grow.  I’ve loved his sense of balance — it rebels against the ideology of sapping all that you can get out of the environment, but avoids the preachiness of environmental wacko-ism as well that states all that is wild is good, and all that is man is evil.

Instead, he takes the position of man in partnership with plants.  He points out that there is almost nothing growing in the United States that was not brought here by man –even tumbleweeds (therefore, reacting against European plants as invasive)…and that man’s role is as gardener, in partnership with growing things.   He documents how he starts out his work as gardener in sympathy with Thoreau’s position that weeds have just as much right to grow as the things he plants, but comes out of it with the belief that weeds are not just plants that weren’t chosen to grow in the garden, but are genetically endowed with traits that help them to grow and survive where the soil has been disturbed, and sometimes have a strong advantage over plants that have been bred by people to produce food, look beautiful, or serve other kind of purpose — so much so that he realizes that since he has planted these plants, it would not be fair for him to not defend them from weeds and creatures that want to eat them — because by planting them, he has thrown in his lot with them.  In doing so, he realizes, he has truly found the middle ground between environmentalist and factory farmer.

He came to this conclusion when he planted a patch of wild flowers and realized what was growing were not the flowers he planted…instead, chokeweed and many other weeds were growing in that disturbed soil.  He started looking up the weeds in field guides, and realized, all of the 30 something types of weeds that he planted didn’t grow in forests, didn’t grow in undisturbed meadows…they grew on roadsides, abandoned fields, gardens, and plowed fields.  They only grew in places where man has disturbed the soil.  Without the soil being turned over, they don’t grow.  Even weeds needed man.

Throughout the book, Pollan keeps going back to that middle ground  — whether it is about his own land, a set of woods nearby, or national parks, Pollan presents an alternative view to what we hear most often — either man has dominion over the earth and the right to do whatever he wants, or when man touches nature, he corrupts it.  He presents man as caretaker, steward — he uses the whole book to set up the paradigm of man as GARDENER

What amazes me really is while Pollan goes through the book with plenty of evolutionary allusions,  he was constantly pointing to Genesis 2 for me.  It was so clear.  I wonder if he knew how close he was to really describing the first vocation that God gave man — gardener…and how Genesis 2 and 3 describe that role before and after The Fall.  In many ways, it was beautiful.

His humor was insightful — whether he was describing (and decrying) the role that the lawn plays in American culture and the lack of a true concept of  GARDEN as a closed in space, like it is in Europe, or describing the various personalities and agendas that are in the various seed catalogs, or the innate sexuality of a true rose — not the hybrid tea roses that we have today (or being  brought to the point of napalming his garden invader)…Pollan’s approach rings true regarding the true nature of the relationship of man and growing things — and going beyond what he wrote, it rings SO true because he is addressing the first vocation God ever gave man — steward over the earth – gardener.

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Since President Obama came to office, the cries of partisanship have increased dramatically, including toward and from the very mouth of the man who would be the one who promised to be a bipartisan leader.

Both sides, throw partisanship around like each side is being a stubborn 3 year old child.  And in many ways, there is a lot of that behavior there.

But here’s the thing.  Parties are formed on principles.  The Republican Party is the conservative party.  Conservative idealism holds that Americans do better through less restriction, stronger free market, smaller government, lower taxes, strong defense.

They are directly opposed to the agenda that the Democrats are putting forward.   Controlling 1/7 of the economy by establishing government run health care  isn’t something that fits under the Republican view of how the world should run.  It goes against the very fabric of how they believe America should exist.  Honestly, anyone who bears the name of Republican is not doing their job if they are willing to look at compromise on this.

The idea that the Republicans are not willing to work with them is false, though.  The Republicans have put forth the ideas of  TORT Reform, allowing people to buy insurance across state lines to free up competition to drive down prices, and other things.  Honestly, things that would be a good start, even if the Democrats still thought that government control was still the best answer.

But in the end, when you have two completely opposed philosophies of how America should be run, there is going to be a place where no compromise can be made and talks break down.   Republicans should NOT be willing to discuss compromises in socialization of our economy.  Both sides should be willing to put forward their principles and discuss the merits and problems of each side, but in the end.  If one side thinks government control is the answer, and the other thinks that it is ethically and politically wrong, there is no compromise.

Helping Children in Church

How children should behave in church, and what limits should be set can be quite a contentious issue.  Personally, I like children in church.   I don’t even think it is tantamount to a crime to hear them babbling or fussing in church.  Over the years as a pastor’s wife and a La Leche League Leader, I’ve heard so many stories about getting the evil eye by simply walking into the sanctuary with a babe in arms or a toddler.  Obviously, if your child is proving to be a distraction or too loud for others to hear, it is a matter of consideration to take them out and deal with it. What that means is defined by your family perspective on it and the age and temperment of your child.

But I am a firm believer in “faith comes by hearing,” and children certainly belong in the presence of their savior, and need to be a part of the body of all believers from the instant they are baptized.    I am always scared that nurseries, children’s church, or Sunday school during church give one of  two (or both) messages to children:  That they don’t belong in the presence of God, or that they should be involved in activities that are more fun than church.  Either message can be incredibly damaging to their faith.  We segregate so many aspects of life according to age, I don’t believe worshiping our Lord and receiving His gifts is an area where we should be doing this.

That being said, having children in church can be a challenge.  I ought to know.  As a pastor’s wife, I am a single parent on Sunday.   With so many men who are not involved in church anymore, and so many babies not born into  nuclear, married families—many women are put in the position that if they want to go to church, they have to take care of their kids alone, and so many of them put off the challenge of having children in church until an age when they might be easier to handle.

I don’t think there is an age that is “easier to handle.”   Babies and toddlers are truly a challenge, but they don’t get easier, they just change how they fight against it, if they are not used to it.

I don’t want to make it seem like I believe this is easy.  There were days I stayed home because I wasn’t up to the fight of keeping Maggie in the pew that day or dealing with Chris’s moods (he definitely was NOT a morning person.  A wonderfully friendly person would go up to him and say “Good morning, Christopher, and he would glare at them and yell “NOOOO” and then bury his head in my shoulder).  And there were days when I wonder why I was there because I didn’t hear a word of the sermon, wasn’t able to go to communion, etc. and I was exhausted or in tears the rest of the day (which is why having a husband or family there with you is wonderful.)  But as I sit with my kids in church now, and even watch them frequently go to church even when I can’t, simply because they want to, I know that it was worth it.

So here are some things that did make it easier for me:

1.  Sit in front. Most parents have a tendency to sit in the back because they don’t feel like the whole church sees when their children act up, and they can make an easy exit.  But scooch down to your child’s level.  They can’t see anything besides the back of people’s heads.  They don’t see why they are there.  They often behave a lot better when they can see what is going on.

In our church, there are side aisles, so while I sat up front, I didn’t necessarily sit front and center, so I could still make an easy exit.  There even was a door off to the side to a hallway.  But even if you don’t have that, it is less distracting to everyone than you think if you need to walk down the aisle (side) or the nave.

2. Bring quiet toys, non-messy snacks, and a drink in a bottle or sippy cup (or discreetly nurse).  The fact of the matter is, young children don’t have the attention span to deal with nothing but church for the whole service, and having something quiet to do helps, and if nothing else, it helps you.  Chris used to love to stack hymnals, and when he got done, he would put them in a new stack.   Plastic animals,  stuffed animals, Hot Wheels (if your kid is not the kind that goes Vrroomm) or coloring books can be a help.  And also, kids behave better when their blood sugar is even.  Something like Cheerios  is generally fine.  And, having a drink right there means there is one less reason to take them out which means you get to hear more.

3.   Pay attention to what is developmentally appropriate. For instance, a baby or toddler will have difficulty sitting still.  He is not being rebellious or difficult, his mind is just hard-wired for movement at that age.  Also, take into account temperament.  My son Chris could sit still and become absorbed in books at an early age.  At the same age, Maggie needed to move.

I would take my kids out if they couldn’t sit still, but somewhere around late two or early three,  it became clear to me that it wasn’t that my child COULDN’T keep from being active, he just didn’t want to.  This was then more of an  issue of limits rather than ability.  When this became the case, leaving the sanctuary meant that we went and sat perfectly still in a chair for 5 minutes out in the parish hall.  They then learned that since snacks, coloring books, etc. were still in the church, they could actually do more in church than they could if we left.

Children are even hard-wired to challenge limits.  My rule was they could play quietly in the pew, but couldn’t leave the pew.  Maggie would go to the edge of the pew, get “that look” in her eye and then bolt.    We’d do the chair in the parish hall thing and then I’d ask,  “are you ready to go sit in the pew now?”  Often, especially at first, we’d be right back in the parish hall in five minutes.  After a while, it became a non-issue.  As frustrating as this is, it is actually quite normal, and is part of their learning to think for themselves.  Your job is to set good limits and make them stick!

I know a discussion on my homeschool board had where some parents with each five minutes their child was good they’d give them a pile of tokens and then take one away for each infraction during church.  With  my kids, just leaning over and whispering to them, “you are being SO good” was enough.  If I were doing tokens and such, I’d be inclined to give them one every five minutes that they were good rather than take them away.  Some kids will do anything to keep from losing one, and with my kids — Maggie probably would’ve cried, and Chris would’ve debated with me why he shouldn’t have lost it.

3.  Try 1-2-3 Magic. This is a book or video you can generally get in the library or at Barnes and Noble/Borders.  When I was working as a social worker, this was one of the programs we taught to parents who were in the DCS system.  IT takes the emotion out of it, which is nice, and sets clear warnings.  I was going out of my mind with my daughter who bounces off the walls, and when I started using it, it helped SO much.  It worked great in the home, but it worked MARVELOUSLY in church.   Maggie was three, and very active.  She’d forget to whisper if she had to tell me something, I could just hold up one finger.  Three minutes later, she might start trying to walk out of the pew.  I’d gently grab her wrist (my reflexes were getting pretty good by this point) and bring her back and hold up two fingers.  If something else happened that was not right, within that fifteen minute time period, she got a time out.  At first, I went out with her, but eventually, I could just have her stand right in the hallway, in view through the doorway, and then just wave her back when I wanted to.  I wasn’t missing church anymore because of  her!!

It also wasn’t long before we rarely ever got to three.

So, what worked or works for you?  I’d be eager to hear, and I’m sure it would help other parents as well.

Holy Communion Quote

“Lutherans don’t get into transubstantiation or consubstantiation or ‘how can the finite hold on to the infinite?’– We don’t worry about any of that.  How do we know Jesus’s body and blood are really there in the bread and the wine?  Because He said so.  If I’m in the Sunday School teaching the children why the body and blood are really there, I would tell them “because Jesus said so.”  If I go to the [Lutheran] seminary and the great doctors of our faith are discussing the same thing, the answer is STILL simply “Because He said so.”  — Rev. Jeffrey Horn, sermon 2/7