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Twenty-One Things You Might Not Know About Evangelical Churches and Pastors

did you know

Most Americans are quite ignorant about Evangelical churches and their pastors (I use the word “pastor” as a general term that encompasses pastors, elders, missionaries, evangelists, et al.). Here are twenty-one things you might not know:

  1.  Churches, by default, are tax-exempt. Churches do not have to apply for 501(c)(3) status in order to be exempt.
  2. In many states, churches are exempt from paying sales and real estate taxes.
  3. Anyone can start a church. (See How to Start an Independent Baptist Church.) A church is a church if it says it is.
  4. In many states, churches can operate Christian schools, daycares, teen group homes, and boarding schools without ANY government licensure or oversight.
  5. In many states, Christian schools are exempt from all laws governing schools. (See How to Start a Non-Charted Christian School in Ohio and The Anatomy of an Unaccredited Christian School.)
  6. In many states, churches can start colleges and grant degrees without ANY government licensure or oversight.
  7. Anyone can be a pastor. There are no educational or licensure requirements for becoming a pastor. A man is a pastor because he says he is.
  8. In many states, pastors can counsel people without having any training. In most states, pastors are not required to be licensed to counsel people. (Please see Beware of Christian Counselors, Questions: Should People Trust Christian Counselors with Degrees from Secular Schools?, Outrage Over Christian Counselor Post, Biblical Counseling, A Danger to Hurting Church Members,  and Why I Thought I was “Qualified” to Counsel Others.)
  9. Pastors are permitted to opt-out of paying social security tax. This means pastors don’t pay social security tax on their income and housing allowance.
  10. Pastors receive a housing allowance that is income tax-free.
  11. Pastors, in most instances, are treated as employees for income tax purposes and self-employed for social security purposes.
  12. Pastors can drive church-owned vehicles, thereby reducing their taxable income by thousands of dollars a year.
  13. The more expenditures churches pay on behalf of their pastors, the less income tax pastors have to pay.
  14. For many pastors, their effective tax rate is quite low. Many pastors pay NO income tax, especially if they have a number of children.
  15. Pastors can incorporate their ministries, shielding themselves from liability and lawsuits.
  16. Churches can also incorporate, shielding themselves from liability and lawsuits.
  17. Donations of money, personal goods, and property to churches are considered charitable, tax-deductible donations.
  18. Churches are exempt from filing non-profit tax returns.
  19. Churches are not required to do background checks on people who work with children and teenagers.
  20. There is no national database for pastors accused or found guilty of sexual abuse or other criminal behaviors.
  21. Many of the pastors who call themselves “Dr.” have honorary doctorates or doctorates from diploma mills. (See IFB Doctorates: Doctor, Doctor, Doctor, Everyone’s a Doctor)

Bruce Gerencser, 66, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 45 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

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  1. Avatar
    Reverend Greg

    Some of these are true for all pastors, while others depend on the denomination where the credentials are held or state laws. A few differences:

    2. I believe in Ohio any land not in use is subject to property taxes.
    3. In my denomination (Church of the Nazarene), your church must be a part of the denomination. They must abide by the COTN Manual, our governing document.
    7. Pastors in the COTN go through a process, including educational requirements and service time until ordination. We must also take 20 hours of continuing education each year.
    9. We don’t allow opt out of social security in the COTN.
    10. We can receive a housing allowance, but if you are audited you must document your expenses. Social Security is not a part of it. You still must pay it based on the value of your allowance, although many churches reimburse the pastor half of the cost because they are for tax purposes considered self-employed.
    19. We are required in the COTN to do background checks for all staff and those volunteers that work with children.
    I hope this helps. And unlike some pastors, I do very little counseling. I have been certified by Prepare/Enrich and do pre-marital counseling, but I refer people to counseling services (both secular and Christian) for most other problems.

  2. Pingback:The Lousy Education of Many Christian Fundamentalist Pastors: Is There a Doctor in the House? | Flee from Christian Fundamentalism

  3. Avatar
    Brian Vanderlip

    I attend Church of the Blog right here, every morning. Services are held online and rituals like the typing I am doing right now make up part of the church practice. Bruce Almighty stands at the software pulpit, sometimes speaking and sometimes listening. Church of the Blog is not based in money and fame (as are most churches found on real estate) but in an exchange of observations and ideas. As far as I am aware, there is no official text at the center of this Blog but I think the Skeptic’s Bible is fairly prominent at times.
    Presently I am sure that there is no membership roster at Church of the Blog but there is an offering plate called Paypal.
    Should this venue be installed as a humanist church, then I would sign-on.

  4. Avatar

    The fundamentalist Christian school I attended madd a big deal about Harvard not being accredited (and as those were pre-internet days, I don’t know if that was true). Sassy teen that I was, I couldn’t help thinking, but….it’s Harvard, and we were just a small fundamentalist Christian school in Tennessee that censored every topic through the lens of a “Christ-centered approach”… of course, history was whitewashed and very Euro-centric, science was young earth creationism and anything unexplained was “God did it”, and of course an entire class period each day devoted to Bible class or chapel where we were indoctrinated with how bad “The World” is and how we are dirty, filthy sinners. Boy, did I struggle to catch up in some areas when I went to secular university….

  5. Avatar

    this tax evasion should not be allowed. A church is a business like any other. Perhaps it could be considered non-profit but churches suck at the teat of the public when they do not provide what they promise.

    A homeless mission here in my town has to beg the community for money (I support it as an atheist, attending their holiday carnival). However, it should have no need for money at all since we have the hundreds of churches in the area.

  6. Avatar
    Jenn R

    In PA, churches do have to do background checks on volunteers, thanks to the Penn State Sandusky scandal.

    I got yelled at by a pastor one time when I questioned why a church with a more than million dollar annual budget gave less than $10,000 to benevolence ministries. Silly me, thinking that Jesus said “feed my sheep.”

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Bruce Gerencser