A post by Cracked.com that churches would have a tax bill of 83.5 billion dollars if they paid taxes generated a rather heated thread on Facebook. While I do not know the trustworthiness of that web site, I decided to stipulate their reporting as true for the purpose of critical thinking on the issue of whether churches should pay taxes. The 83.5 billion was contextualized by the statement that it would pay for all the food stamps for every person on welfare; 76 billion. Again, I did not attempt to verify their statistics.
One of the most poignant posts was the question, “How would preachers afford fancy cars for themselves and their kids?” Another was the testimony of a young college student whose parents ceased financing him because of an unnamed offense. He “went church to church in Chattanooga…and not one of them would help me find shelter or some sort of ride to the college or my job, resulting in me dropping classes and failing my first time around. I was young, willing to work, expecting no free rides, got no help at all.” The implication is clear. Many believe churches squander the money they receive. Churches were seen by some, certainly not all who posted, as being greedy and uncaring while claiming to be just the opposite.
There are over sixty churches in Siloam Springs. How many pastors of these churches have been seen driving fancy cars? Few churches in town have an average worship attendance over one hundred and fifty and so lack the ability to pay salaries larger than many school teachers and white collar city government employees receive. The pastors I am familiar with wear many hats. They are professionally trained counselors, personal coaches, and teachers. They are expected to be active in their community while attending to the many needs of their congregants. They understand budgets and manage the daily business affairs of their ministries. They are the constants, leaders, and visionaries in the midst of an often mobile group of people. They are hope givers even when they hear far more criticism than praise. They tend to be amazing referees in the many issues that threaten to tear groups of people apart even after years of relationship building. Their days are longer than eight work hours more often than less and they are on call 24×7. Many times they are expected to put their families first, spend deep hours in devotion, and yet never turn down a request on their time. Many others in the community work long hours, have complex responsibilities and are required to have specialized training if not college degrees. Seldom, however, are they held to as high a standard as clergy. Nevertheless, few can afford to drive “fancy cars”. This is hardly a picture of greedy and uncaring.
The churches I know are not capable of meeting every need that presents itself. Not every request is a need. Jesus did not satisfy every need around him. He said he only did “what he sees his Father doing”. God has many ways to help a person. Sometimes it is through the church. Sometimes a church fails to do what God calls it to do. Few, if any, honestly do not care about helping others.
While I cannot affirm or deny the post claiming churches were four times more efficient than the federal government, I have seen hundreds of church people volunteer at the hospital, Genesis House, Manna Center, Hunger and Thirst Ministry, Kind At Heart Ministries, etc. Some cooperative programs such as the United Methodist Committee on Relief are 100% effective. Millions of dollars given to help Hurricane Katrina victims, for example, did not have any overhead deducted because church people on a regular basis pay for the organizational costs required to plan, staff, and execute disaster responses. While unchurched people volunteer, the percentage of volunteers is heavily weighted on the side of those motivated by their relationship with Jesus Christ. Church people are imperfect but demonstrate deep caring for those within and beyond their churches through the giving of their time, talent, and finances.
The Disney Family Channel is reported to offer a figure of $170 per person spent on soft drinks, which represents $56 billion dollars per year in sales in the USA. Another claims the US Department of Labor offers up the fact that the average American adult spends $230 on alcohol per adult person, which roughly would be $70 billion annually. That is $126 billion dollars a year spent on two popular beverages. How many would that feed and house? If the point of taxing churches is to best use available resources the discussion should be expanded.
Should churches pay taxes? Not all taxes are levied in order to accrue revenue. Taxes often have the direct or indirect purpose of encouraging or discouraging particular behaviors. Consequently, cigarettes are taxed heavily to discourage their use. One reason churches are not taxed is to encourage and enable them to help those outside their walls by providing after school programs, affordable childcare and eldercare, food and clothing, free or low cost training in areas such as budgeting, parenting, and addictions, and free counseling.
Should churches pay taxes? If the highest efficiency of people’s time, talents, and finances in the pursuit of helping people is the goal, they should not.