Christians, non-Christians, and just about everyone including seminarians believe a few myths about clergy. Today, I will add my feeble voice to setting the record straight. I do not have much hope that it will. Some people will not believe what I say out of prejudice. Others will wonder why any one thinks the way(s) refuted here. I thought about these issues while reading a post about clergy “quiet quitting” church. So here are what I believe are major myths about clergy that everyone seems to believe.
Pastors Do Not Pay Taxes
The claim that clergy members do not pay taxes is patently false. We pay taxes every average citizen pays. I assume the claim is made about the Federal Income Tax and Social Security and Medicare taxes. We not only pay those taxes. We pay a higher percentage than most people do. Let me explain. IRS Tax Courts since the early 1990’s require members of the clergy to pay the Federal income tax as any employee would. In other words, we are not considered self-employed for the purposes of these taxes. We do not get to claim the deductions many self-employed people do. But when it comes to Social Security and Medicare taxes, the IRS considers us as self-employed. Churches do not pay the employer’s half of these taxes. Clergy members pay the full percentage as if we are self-employed people including filing the 1040 SE form.
Clergy pay quarterly taxes due to this same situation. Churches are not required to withhold taxes on the clergy member. A few congregations do. But they are not permitted to voluntarily “match” the self employment tax without the clergy claiming it as extra income. Clergy may “opt out” of the self-employment tax provided they can claim to accept funds for religious services from the government violates their conscience.
Churches are tax exempt including unemployment taxes for clergy.
Pastors Are Free Counselors
Pastors should not present themselves as counselors, social workers, or any other mental health professional without a license. Most pastors are not mental health workers. Some are. But there, unfortunately, are some who present themselves that way. Many people not knowing any better, are victimized by such people. In an era where adequate mental health care is scarce, many church people like the price tag of receiving “counseling” from the pastor.
Pastoral care is not counseling. It is conversation which can be helpful but should not be confused with professional mental health service. I try to be clear about that. But, once in a while, someone claims “it is cheaper than talking to a shrink.” I drily add, “And is worth the price you paid for it.”
Servant Leader Myths
People tend to believe annoying myths about pastors being employees of the church. Denominations have different levels of this type of thinking. Some denominations pretty much destroy all pastoral authority making the pastor or minister as the person who is answerable to the congregation for everything. The pastor is the spiritual leader of the congregation. Churches often forget this by thinking the pastor should be ready to jump any time a church member wants. This myth is very destructive emotionally and mentally for the pastor. But it is also spiritually destructive for the church to have such dependence.
It does not help when pastors show deference to certain individuals in congregations. James 3:1-12 has a lot to say about cow-towing to the money people. Pastors who do this behave as employees. They create expectations of all clergy that are detrimental.
Churches organize based on the structures of corporate institutions of their times. I won’t belabor this point because I talk about it elsewhere. But the present day corporate structure are bodies led by Chief Executive Officers. Essentially, the CEO is a dictator over the company. Many people including some clergy take this leadership model into the church. I once served a congregation where the previous pastor claimed to be the “final authority” of the church.
Pastors working from this model know it is also a model of fear. The clergy person fears losing their place. Fear of losing the audience prompt cover-ups and other evils. The audience (as opposed to congregation) either already knows or learns quickly enough that the leadership model only allows for care of certain people. The CEO pastor keeps certain people happy. Those people in turn keep everyone else in line. Such organizations are the opposite of the values of the Kingdom of Heaven.
People believe such myths because their understanding of church is flawed. Over the centuries the model of church leadership changed with the times to keep it “relevant” to the workings of the world. Having a Christianity without Jesus has always been the pitfall. These myths are about mistaken ideas of privilege, expectations, success, and goals. All of these ideas need purging from our mindsets.