Thursday, July 17, 2014

Taxing Churches Might Be Good

    There is much talk about removing the tax-exemption for churches and that might be a good thing. 

    Please understand, I am convinced that taxing churches would probably be bad for our communities.  While they would see a modest increase in property taxes, they would also find themselves with a number of large, empty buildings that are notoriously difficult to resell or re-purpose.  At the same time, they would lose meeting places for a host of civic groups (from Rotary Clubs to Cub Scouts) as well as Election Day polling places.  For these, and other reasons that I explained in my blog (Taxes: Should the Church Pay?), taxing churches would cost our communities more than they would gain. 

So what good could come from taxing churches?

Quite simply, it would be good for the church.

    Under the present system, other than the cost of construction and maintenance (which are considerable), there is no cost, no penalty, to the church for overbuilding new space or for under-utilizing existing space.  Too often, the church suffers from an edifice complex, in which they feel better about themselves if their building is bigger than the church down the street. 

    New churches build bigger than they need and old churches stay in buildings long after they can no longer afford them.  Older congregations that are losing membership typically occupy a building that they own.  The mortgage, if any, was paid off decades ago.  Those shrinking congregations inhabit buildings that would hold three to five times their number but they remain for reasons of sentimentality and tradition and because, other than maintenance, there is no cost to staying.  While the church remains in the community and may allow others to use some of their space, the majority of the church budget is dedicated to maintaining the building and not to the mission of the church.

    But we NEED the room!  Do you really need that much room?  O sure it’s nice to be able to fit your entire congregation into the sanctuary all at once, but how much extra does it cost to have three (or even five) worship service each week instead of one compared to how much it costs to maintain a building big enough to house everyone all at once?  In my last appointment, there was a Baptist church across town that only seated fifty and so they had to have tow or three series to accommodate everyone.  They longed for a building as big as ours, which seated two or three hundred, but we knew that the cost of maintaining ours was a nightmare.  Maybe it makes sense to have a big building if you use it all week long and have multiple worship services during the week, but how is it good stewardship to have a building that sits empty six days every week?

    For larger churches, paying property taxes may cause them to rethink how they use their buildings and encourage them use their space more efficiently.  And if some churches can pay their taxes and still maintain colossal edifices (and their members are willing to contribute to that), then so be it.

    For small churches it is entirely possible, in fact likely, that the imposition of property taxes would cause many of them to walk away from their buildings and become house churches.  I don’t think that’s a bad thing.  As a house church, freed from the burden of paying to maintain and heat a building they couldn’t really afford, they could now use those funds to accomplish the mission of the church.  To feed the poor, clothe the naked, heal the sick, and carry the gospel to the four corners of the earth. 

    For a church to spend its wealth maintaining a building for the sake of pride or tradition at the expense of the mission is sin.

And if paying taxes can drive the church back to its mission…

…that would be good.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Taxes: Should the Church Pay?

    I regularly hear from folks who think that the church should pay taxes.  Despite the fact that the church is not exempt from all taxes (only property taxes and some sales taxes), the theory is that by removing churches’ tax exemption, local, state and federal government would receive an enormous increase in revenue.  But is that true?  My best answer is maybe, but probably not. Here’s why:

1)      Many churches are operating at the edge of solvency.  It’s sad, but it’s no secret that most churches were built before the long decline in attendance that we have seen for the last several decades.  In our denomination, probably ten to twenty percent of our churches are struggling financially.  Many of these small churches have a budget that is barely enough to pay the pastor and keep the lights on and yet occupy relatively large buildings.  If these churches were told they had to pay an additional $5,000 to $10,000 per year in property taxes, they would simply lock the doors and go home.

2)      Church income is a moving target (Part 1).  In every church that I have served, we have had members who objected to our church sending money somewhere.  Either they objected to sending money to overseas missions, or they objected to sending money to support the expenses of our district or conference offices, or they objected to paying to support denominational missionaries, or any number of other things.  In many cases, these folks either withheld their gifts, or found ways to give gifts directly to the projects that they did support.  If the church were subject to taxation, I have no doubt that a great deal of what appears to be “church income” would suddenly vanish.

3)      Churches are a moving target.  While my denomination (The United Methodist Church) has just under 800 churches in our East Ohio Conference, the majority of them are quite small.  I don’t recall the exact figures but something like 60 percent of our churches have 40 or less in attendance.  Nationally, half of all churches have 75 or less, and close to 70 to 80 percent have 100 or less.  Those who favor taxing churches may not appreciate that churches are not like other “businesses.”  While finding space for 100 people would be harder, finding room for forty (or twenty) would be easy.  If these small churches were required to pay property taxes, a great many of them would simply abandon their buildings and meet in one another’s homes instead.

4)      Church income is a moving target (Part 2).  In my grandparents’ church, in order for the pastor to be paid, those in attendance had to specify that a part of their offering was to go to him (or her).  If the offering was small, so was the pastor’s paycheck.  In reality, this idea could be applied to almost everything in the church.  The church exists as a corporation as a matter of convenience.  It’s just easier for us to make a single donation to the church and have the treasurer pay the electric bill and the pastor’s salary, and all the other bills.  But we don’t have to do it that way.  If the church were taxed on the donations that it received, it wouldn’t take very long for most churches to make a different plan.  Pastors are already considered to be self-employed by the IRS so it would make little difference if church members paid them directly instead of through the church account.  Almost overnight, church “income” could go to zero.  The hardest things to figure out would be the utility bills and the tax bills, which, as I already noted, would go away if the church decided to walk away from their buildings.

5)      Taxing churches would increase suffering.  When churches are doing what they are supposed to be doing (and admittedly, not all of them are), the benefits that they provide to the community may be more than any taxes that they would pay.  Each church typically supports many other organizations, food pantries, homeless and battered women’s shelters, clothes closets, health clinics, prenatal care centers, others in poorer parts of the country such as Appalachia, Indian reservations, and the inner city, as well as giving generously toward the victims of natural disasters.  Because this giving is not a fixed cost (like taxes) but comes from a church’s discretionary budget, any increase in taxes will necessarily take away funds that otherwise would have been given to these sorts of projects.  And remember that taxes can’t be used to replace the funds lost by these organizations, because most of them are run by churches.

    Overall, I just don’t see much benefit to the community from removing the tax exemption from local churches.  It would hurt the poorest among us and in the end I don’t think it would generate that much money.

 (Next: Taxing Churches Might Be Good)

Monday, July 14, 2014

Youth Questions: How Does God Speak to Us?

Note: Not long ago I asked our youth to write down any questions that they had about faith, the church, or life in general and I would answer them during later group meetings.  This is the first of that series.

Question: I don’t get the whole “God will tell you what to do” thing (ex. What career, etc.)

    It’s been a while since they were popular, but not too many years ago, everyone was wearing bracelets and t-shirts that said “WWJD” which stands for “What Would Jesus Do?”  Wearing them was supposed to be a daily reminder to make the kind of choices that Jesus would make in your place. The difficulty is not in wearing the bracelets and not in remembering to ask ourselves what Jesus would do, the difficulty is really in having some idea of what it is that Jesus would actually do.

   This question deals with the same problem.  Too often adults like to tell young people that “God will tell you what to do” or “God will lead you to the right career” or the right job, or whatever.  But how does that happen?  Few of us have ever heard God speak in an audible voice, so how is God supposed to tell us these things? 

    Honestly, the adults in church are probably just as confused about this as you are.  In answer, let’s begin by reading 1 Corinthians 2:6-16…

We do, however, speak a message of wisdom among the mature, but not the wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are coming to nothing. No, we declare God’s wisdom, a mystery that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began. None of the rulers of this age understood it, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. However, as it is written:

“What no eye has seen,
    what no ear has heard,
and what no human mind has conceived”—
    the things God has prepared for those who love him—

10 these are the things God has revealed to us by his Spirit.

The Spirit searches all things, even the deep things of God. 11 For who knows a person’s thoughts except their own spirit within them? In the same way no one knows the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. 12 What we have received is not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, so that we may understand what God has freely given us. 13 This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, explaining spiritual realities with Spirit-taught words. 14 The person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God but considers them foolishness, and cannot understand them because they are discerned only through the Spirit. 15 The person with the Spirit makes judgments about all things, but such a person is not subject to merely human judgments, 16 for,

“Who has known the mind of the Lord
    so as to instruct him?”

But we have the mind of Christ.

    What we learn here is that, as believers of Jesus Christ, we are connected by the Spirit of God to the source of infinite wisdom.  When we became believers in Jesus Christ, put our trust in him and were baptized, something happened to us.  Baptism isn’t just about what we do, but also about something that God does.  When we became followers of Jesus and were baptized, God sent his Spirit to inhabit us, to live inside of us.  What Paul is saying is that because the Spirit of God lives inside of us, and because the Spirit of God knows the mind of God, God is able to speak to us and to tell us things that we had no other way of knowing.  We are, through the Spirit, connected to the infinite mind of God.

But we can carry that thought a little further and peel back another layer. 

We can also know the mind of Christ in an even deeper way.

    If you have a close friend, you can probably finish each other’s sentences.  You can stop and buy them lunch or an ice cream cone without asking them what they want, because you know what they would order.  You have taken up space in their mind, and they have taken up space in yours.  This is what it means to “have the mind of Christ.”  When you read the Bible and spent time in prayer on a regular basis, you begin to know Jesus in a deep and personal way similar to the way that you know your best friend.  When that happens, although you might not know what kind of ice cream Jesus would order, you do begin to know what sorts of choices that he would, or would not, make.

In Romans 8:5-6, Paul says…

Those who live according to the flesh have their minds set on what the flesh desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires. The mind governed by the flesh is death, but the mind governed by the Spirit is life and peace.

    Because the Spirit of God lives within us, and, as we begin to grow closer to Jesus and increasingly “have the mind of Christ,” our minds become set on what the Spirit desires.  What we want begins to look more and more like the things that God wants. 

    Finally, there is a scripture that people often people take out of context and claim for themselves.  In Jeremiah 29:11, God makes a promise specifically to Jeremiah and the people of Israel who have been taken captive into Babylon, but even though it is a promise to them, it reveals God’s heart toward his people.

11 For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.

    We can’t say that God made this particular promise to you and that God wants you to be rich, but we can say that God does not make plans to harm you.  We know that God wants what is best for his people.  For these reasons, we “borrow” Jeremiah’s promise and we’re not too far wrong.  That doesn’t mean that bad things won’t happen.  After all, this promise came to Jeremiah after he watched the destruction of his nation and his people carried off into slavery.  What this means is that even when life doesn’t go the way that you thought it was going to go, even when bad stuff happens, God is in control, God has a plan, so instead of complaining about how God abandoned you, you ought to be looking for what God might be trying to teach you through those particular circumstances.

    While God wants what is best for you, sometimes in order to get from where you are, to where God wants you to be, God may take you through some painful places.  I used to be an engineer.  I had a good job, a nice house and a good life.  But when God called me to leave engineering and become a pastor the process was painful. I spent two years unemployed, we moved, sold our house, and I spend five years in school fifteen years after I thought I was done with my education.

    God may not call you to be a pastor or a missionary, but God has given each of you skills and gifts that are unique to you.  Each of you will go places and meet people that no one else will.  Wherever you go, and whatever you do, God has sent you there.

    When you have the mind of Christ, you will naturally be drawn to the things that God wants for you.  And sometimes, God gives you choices.  I have had friends go crazy trying to discern which of three job offers “God wanted” for them until a good friend and mentor suggested that maybe all of them were “God’s will” and God was allowing them to pick what sounded like the most fun and rewarding.  When you have major life choices to make, it is important to spend some time in scripture, prayer and in silence, listening to what God might have to tell you.  And sometimes after doing so, you will know what you should do, but other times, if you have done all these things and God is simply not sending you a message one way or the other, feel free to use your best judgment and pick what you think is best, or what would be the most fun.

After all, God loves you and wants what is best for you.


Other questions and answers in this series can be found here: Ask the Pastor

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Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Cyborg Adventure: Activation!

    Two days ago, on June 30, 2014, I again visited my surgeon’s office and finally received the outside part of my implant.  This event is normally referred to as “Activation.”  It is the moment when the external electronics (the processor) are added to the internal implant and the electrodes which were implanted deep in my inner ear.

    Despite my repeated warnings that there would be a long learning curve, I think that some people still expected my hearing to miraculously return to normal.  I knew that wasn’t going to happen, and it didn’t.  Even so, the chief audiologist (who was in charge of the activation) felt that it went quite well.  During the activation, the electrodes (there are twelve) were turned on, one at a time, making a tone that increased in volume.  While it did so, I was to point to a chart that indicated my perception of the loudness until it reached a point where it was uncomfortably loud.  That happened eleven times but on one of the electrodes, no matter what “volume” it was at, it felt uncomfortable.  It was strange.  While it did not “sound” loud, I could still “feel” the volume as if I was listening to a bass drum and could feel the “thump.”  According to the audiologist, eleven out of twelve was very good as some people can only discern the levels of volume on a handful of electrodes the first time.

    After all of the testing, and programming was done, we spent over an hour going over all of the accessories and attachments that come with the implant.  I had heard others with a cochlear implant talk about “the briefcase” that they received at activation, and discovered that “briefcase” is not a metaphor or an exaggeration.  I received a real, physical briefcase that was full of spare parts, batteries, wires, and other things as well as an entire shopping bag full of other pieces and parts.  I also have a thick stack of instruction manuals that I am supposed to read over.  Despite spending considerable time going over this with the audiologist, I will be spending a fair amount of time looking over all of these things again and figuring out how and when to use them.

What’s it like?

    For now, as my brain reorients itself to this new way of hearing, the world sounds strange.  I have heard the words “robotic” and Electronic” used to describe it and those certainly apply.  Sometimes people around me (and my own voice) sound like they’ve been sucking helium or are imitating Mickey Mouse.  It’s weird.  The good news is, even though the world doesn’t sound like it’s supposed to sound, I can hear things that I haven’t heard in years.  When we came out of the doctor’s office and started the car, it beeped to remind us to fasten our seat belts and I heard it.  I had no idea that our car made that noise and had never heard it before.  I can hear my phone ring, and water running in the sink, and the click of my computer mouse and I haven’t heard those things in a long time.  Yesterday, as I went out to retrieve the newspaper, I might even have heard a bird sing, though I’m not sure because it sounded weird.

So what’s next?

    As expected, I received a list of exercises that I need to do as “physical therapy.”  I am to take my hearing aid out and, hearing only with my implant, say the alphabet out loud, or count out loud.  I am to have my family read children’s books to me as I read the words so that my brain can begin to relearn what the sounds are.  My cousin, who also has a cochlear implant, said that “weird” will last for a while but my audiologist told me that in six months they hoped that I would be able to hear (understand) as well as I could before my surgery.  After that, they said that I could expect continuing improvement for up to a year, and possibly even two years.

    I knew before we started that this is not a quick fix and, while in some ways things are already better, I know that this journey is going to take a while.


Earlier posts about my hearing adventure:

Surgery and Recovery                                        June 6, 2014

T-minus Two Weeks and Counting                    May 5, 2014
Cyborg Adventure: Realistic Expectations         April 15, 2014
Managing Expectations                                     March 24, 2014
A New Cyborg Adventure                               March 12, 2014
Reflections on Going Deaf                                June 30, 2011

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