A young friend of mine who is a PhD university professor was recently denied tenure. The reason was that he hadn’t attracted enough grants to the university to cover all of the costs of his research. When I first heard the news, I was, of course, disappointed. I have a great deal of confidence in this person’s abilities and I think it will be a huge loss to the university and to the students that he will likely be moving on soon. It seemed grossly unfair that university professors are judged by their ability to attract income to the university. Upon reflection, however, I realize that pastors are judged by their ability to attract income to the churches they serve.

I’ve been very fortunate in that category throughout my career. Even though I have served congregations in places with declining populations and in other challenging environments, I’ve always been able to produce positive financial growth in the institutions I serve. That used to be the case. In my current call, we took a backwards slide in 2008 when the recession hit the US economy. The decrease in income wasn’t caused by something over which I had control, but it still left me scrambling. I pulled in the reins on spending, went without a pay raise, and made other adjustments and was able to produce a surplus as the country and our community rose out of the depression.

However, a decrease in income is back and this one is one that I don’t think I can reverse. And I don’t even know if it is possible to come up with a balanced budget by tight spending controls. The reasons for the decrease are complex. Certainly one factor is that our congregation has lost some significant donors through death. This, however, has happened in the past and we’ve always been able to make up for those losses by enabling others to step up to the plate. We attract a few new members and discover a few significant donations and move on. That is not, however, the only reason for the decrease in income. It probably isn’t the main reason for the decrease. I know this because I serve on the boards of directors of other nonprofit corporations and they are all experiencing similar trends.

One factor is the new tax bill. Charitable donations in the size that our organizations receive are no longer deductible from taxes. Of course tax deductions aren’t the only motivators for charitable gifts. People give because they believe in the work that churches and other nonprofit institutions do. But some of that giving was motivated by the added incentive of tax deductions under the old tax rules. I’ve read articles that say that approximately 30% of giving was the result of the promise of a tax deduction. That means that the new tax law is equal to a 30% decrease in income for institutions who have no donors who give $25,000 per year or more. That covers most of the nonprofit organizations with which I am affiliated. And so far, it appears that the experience is approaching that level of decrease in giving.

It isn’t quite that bad in the church, but people are just starting to get their taxes done for the first year of the new tax law and according to a random sample of people with whom I have visited, the picture is not pretty. I’ve spoken with plenty of people for whom the new tax law, which gives huge tax breaks to wealthy people, means an increase in taxes of as much as doubling their federal income tax. The new tax law does not favor self-employed people. The increase in the standard deduction didn’t begin to make up for the loss of business deductions in the new law.

And, guess what? Pastors are self employed under tax law. You’ve got it. My colleagues and I lost our business deductions. We lost our charitable gift deductions. And most of us went without raises this year because our institutions are hurting.

I didn’t go into this calling for its financial rewards. There are other jobs where one can earn more money for lighter duties and shorter hours. I have been happy working in the Conference of the United Church of Christ with the lowest wages for most of my career. I don’t need to keep up with “the Jonses.” I don’t need new cars. I don’t need a luxury lifestyle. The congregations I have served have been honest and fair and the work has been deeply meaningful. I have never wanted to extract from the mission of the church more than is required. I want the church to stay engaged in outreach and serving others. I have not been unhappy serving a congregation that does not give merit pay raises and that doesn’t give a cost of living raise every year. I’ve worked hard to cover when other employees have left in frustration over what they perceive to be low wages. I’ve convinced others that our calling is service, not wages.

The circumstances of where we find ourselves mean that this year and next will be among the most challenging of my career. It isn’t about my wages, but about the overall financial picture of the church. I don’t want to be the overseer of decline. But there are factors in the financial performance of the church that are beyond my control. A few church leaders are beginning to understand the size of the challenge and they will help me communicate the situation with the rest of the congregation. As has always been the case, God will provide what we need to live abundantly and gracefully and to do the work that we have been called to do. This isn’t the end of the world. It is an opportunity to learn better ways to do the work of God. I know, however, that it will require creative thinking and hard work and more than a little bit of fund-raising. I know it will not be easy.

Jesus never promised that the path of discipleship would be easy. He invited those who are able to pick up a cross and follow. May we discover courage and faith for these times.

Copyright (c) 2019 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!