When asked about the clergy housing allowance policy, which excludes organizationally approved housing expenses from a minister’s taxable income, 93 percent of evangelical leaders said that the policy is fair, according to the January Evangelical Leaders Survey.
“While some may question whether ministers should get a tax break on their housing — a policy that dates back to the early 1920s soon after the income tax was instituted — most evangelical leaders don’t question its merit,” said Leith Anderson, President of the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE).
Many leaders spoke of the benefits of such a program to the society. John Hopler, Director of Great Commission Churches, said, “The government has historically believed that the society will be benefited if the church is strengthened. The clergy housing allowance and charitable deductions for contributions to churches are two ways in which the church is strengthened, leading to the overall betterment of the society.”
Paul de Vries, President of New York Divinity School, agreed. “Churches provide many benefits to the rest of society. This tax break is a fair, token encouragement,” he said.
Doug Beacham, General Superintendent of the International Pentecostal Holiness Church, noted that many clergy serve in small churches and don’t receive a competitive salary and that the tax benefit extends beyond Christian clergy to those of non-Christian faith groups who have a comparable status.
Since the 1920s, there have been a few updates to the clergy housing allowance policy. In 2002, Congress clarified that the exclusion is limited to the fair rental value of the minister’s housing. Still there are concerns that a small number of ministers live in employer-provided homes with high values or receive allowances to live in high-value homes.
A small minority (7 percent) do not think the clergy housing allowance policy is fair. Among them is David Neff, Editorial Vice President of Christianity Today, who said, “The clergy housing allowance policy is inherently unfair, because it constitutes a tax subsidy for one particular class of religious worker. Many workers in religious nonprofits do not have this same tax privilege. And those who lead various kinds of educational and humanitarian nonprofits also do without it.”
“While the IRS policy is still in force, clergy should take advantage of it, but churches need to be prepared for the day when they will need to support their clergy without this perk from the IRS,” he said.
The Evangelical Leaders Survey is a monthly poll of the Board of Directors of the National Association of Evangelicals. They include the CEOs of denominations and representatives of a broad array of evangelical organizations including missions, universities, publishers and churches.