Families First Tax Credit for Clergy

Disclaimer: This is general tax advice so don’t sue me. The question I was left with last week was: Can the church claim a payroll tax credit if their pastor is out because of COVID? After doing much research and calls, I came to the conclusion that the church cannot claim the tax credit.

The primary reason for this is the pastors confusing tax status. The IRS considers them to be employees, but the Social Security Administration considers them to be self-employed. This credit is tied to payroll taxes which are under the Social Security Administration.

This does open it up that the pastor might be able to claim this tax credit on their personal tax return. This could be a nice bonus for pastors…as long as they keep documentation of their time out. My preliminary estimate is that pastors could get around a $2,000 credit on their taxes. Here’s how I calculated it:

  • $50,000 in Self-Employment Income (Base Salary of $42k + Fair Rental Value of Parsonage of $12k – Salary Withholdings of $4k)
  • รท 260 Work Days (The IRS assumes self-employed folks work just 5 days per week 52 weeks a year. Isn’t that cute.)
  • x 10 Days (if you were out two weeks, you would get 5 days/week.)
  • = $1,923 Tax Credit

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Families First Tax Credit for Lay Employees

Disclaimer: This is general tax advice so don’t sue me. I had almost forgotten about the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) until I got a call from Bismarck McCabe UMC. They were on top of things and knew more than I did. The only question we still have is if clergy are covered.

Long story short, FFCRA gave employees an extra 80 hours of sick leave (or proportional if part-time) if they or a member of their family was directly affected by COVID. This is different than being affected by the shutdowns. You can see more about this in the links below. To help pay for this sick leave, you can claim a payroll tax credit! This is good news for churches that already file a quarterly Form 941.

Here’s what makes this credit so good:

  • Dollar for Dollar: You get reimbursed 100% for this sick leave in most cases. This includes health insurance costs.
  • Includes Health Insurance Costs: While few lay employees receive health benefits from the church, that portion can also be applied to the credit.
  • Refundable: This credit is refundable. A lot of our churches don’t pay in much for payroll taxes so it’s nice to know that, when the credit is larger than the taxes, you’ll get a check back.

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CARES Act: Church paying Pastor’s Student Loans

During the first three months of the COVID crisis, the big concern was if churches were going to have enough money to keep operating…to pay their pastor, utilities, and mortgages. As time goes on, many churches are finding out that their finances are doing great all things considered. Now that they are able to catch their breath, they may want to thank their pastor with more than words or a card, or even a hot dish.

The CARES Act allows you to make payments toward your employees’ student loans (including your pastor’s) with tax-free money! I love the phrase “tax free.” This is only available during 2020. You still have to jump through some hoops, but it’s not too bad. The video will explain it.

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Budgeting: Planning for “Fixed” Costs

After you calculate the bottom line…how much income your church can expect to receive, the next step is to tackle the fixed costs: Personnel, Property, and Denominational Dues. In a typical church, these costs account for 75-85% of the operating budget…so it makes sense to tackle them first.

One thing to keep in mind is that these costs are not necessarily set in stone. As the church’s strategy for ministry changes, this often affects the staffing and property needs. But, for the most part, these are pretty stable from year to year. The most difficult part of this section is the decision on giving raises to church staff. Are they being paid a competitive rate…or even a legal rate? If we can’t afford a large raise, is there anything else that churches can do to tangibly show their appreciation?

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Does the church need to do the Form 941?

If you’re a new church treasurer, and, after three months, you finally are feeling comfortable cutting paychecks for your pastor and lay employees. Then the IRS comes in demanding information on the Form 941. Does a church really have to fill out this form? That depends.

The short answer is, if you just have a pastor and are not withholding Federal Income Tax, you do not have to do the Form 941. If you do have to file the Form 941, it’s not horrible. I walk you through it. I’m mainly focusing on small and medium-sized churches that don’t have to monthly remit payroll withholdings. For larger churches, chances are you have payroll software that fills this out for you.

Check out the video below:

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Paying a Lay Employee…manually

Like I said in a previous post, payroll is the most intimidating part of being a church treasurer. What makes it worse is that most churches just a handful of employees…maybe a part-time custodian and secretary. It just doesn’t make financial sense to shell out much for payroll software when your payroll is minimal. Without payroll software, how do you run payroll manually…especially when you have a lay employee or two.

Don’t worry though. While payroll for lay folks is painful, it’s not impossible. I show you how to calculate the withholdings and share with you a spreadsheet like the one I’ve used in the past for this purpose.

Check out the video below:

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How do you pay your Pastor?

When I became a church treasurer, the scariest part of the job was payroll. I was a CPA. I worked as an auditor for the State of North Dakotas. I knew about taxes and payroll liabilities and all that fun stuff, but I’d never actually cut a payroll check before. To make matters worse, no university trains people on clergy taxes. I was completely unprepared for cutting my pastors paycheck.

I’m not alone. I’ve helped train in numerous church treasurers and this is almost always the biggest concern. What I’ve found out is that cutting a paycheck for your pastor is less complex than cutting a paycheck for a lay employee. You need to understand the Housing Exclusion and how your payroll software (if you use any) handles that. Once you get that, it’s smooth sailing…no FICA…usually no Federal Income Tax Withholding.

Check out the video below:

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