Someone in Your Church’s Corner

By Ken Sloane

United Methodists (and many other denominations) have been anxiously watching a courtroom drama that has been unfolding within the legal system in Wisconsin.

The case was to determine whether Section 107 of the IRS Code, which treats housing allowances for clergy as non-taxable income and parsonages as a non-taxable benefit for federal income tax purposes, was, in fact, unconstitutional.

The suit, brought by an atheist watchdog group, The Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF), could have been a devastating blow to local churches and clergy. For some pastors,the decision could double their taxable income; local churches would be forced to increase pastoral salaries to ease the burden on pastors. And in Wisconsin, where the suit was filed, the court ruled in favor of the FFRF.

Thankfully for all of us, attorneys working on our behalf at the General Council on Finance & Administration (GCFA) of our United Methodist Church (along with attorneys from other denominations) appealed this decision to the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals – the level of the federal court system immediately below the U.S. Supreme Court. The SeventhCircuit overturned the decision of the lower court. The only option left to the FFRF was to appeal the Supreme Court.

This past week, Religion News Service posted the following report, which is good news for churches and clergy across the U.S.:

(RNS) — The Freedom From Religion Foundation has dropped its long-running fight against the clergy housing allowance permitted by the U.S. government.

“We have full confidence in the legal merits of our challenge of the discriminatory pastoral housing allowance privileges,” the Wisconsin-based atheist watchdog announced last week (June 14).

“We did not feel the same confidence, however, in how the current Supreme Court would rule in our case, had we appealed. After ‘counting heads,’ we concluded that any decision from the current court would put the kibosh on challenging the housing allowance for several generations.”

The FFRF said it hopes its strategy will allow the issue to be reconsidered when the high court has a different makeup.

What could have been a disaster for your local church, or my local church, probably didn’t cause either of us to lose a night’s sleep. Why? Because GCFA was in your corner and in my corner. A general agency of the UMC was doing what we need our agencies to do: watch the bigger picture, so we can concentrate on the local picture.

Too many times, I hear or read the question, “Why do we need general agencies?” And the story of this successful avoidance of a disastrous decision is just one example. In the broadest sense, the agencies are there to keep their eye on the bigger picture (global mission, justice issues, training and curriculum, etc.), so you can focus on engaging the people in your community andbuilding relationships so that disciples might be made.

And don’t we all sleep better when we have someone in our corner?