Understanding a Pastor’s Pay Stub

Most pastors make a practice of living by faith. So much so that they even take it by faith that they’re getting paid correctly. But pastors should know that payroll is a tricky part of being a church treasurer, and the pastor’s paycheck is the trickiest of the tricky. So how do you know if you are being paid correctly? In the last year, I came across two churches that incorrectly paid their pastors only to find out 12+ months later. Not fun. Even worse, the IRS added to the “not fun.”

I included a quick worksheet that was mainly aimed at helping church treasurers but would be helpful for pastors to verify and understand their paycheck. As President Reagan used to say, “Trust, but verify.”


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How do pay your pastor in QuickBooks

Being a church treasurer is not a job for wimps. The church is working in the world of faith, but try cutting a check that is backed by faith instead of dollars. Try telling the IRS that the mistake on the tax forms is okay because of faith. Treasurers are the ones in middle trying to advance the work of faith without getting in trouble with the law.

Getting the pastor setup correctly in payroll is a big victory. Most payroll software wasn’t designed with pastors in mind. They were an afterthought so that’s why it’s sometimes tricky. Here’s the big things that often cause issues:

  • What to do with the Housing Exclusion? The housing exclusion is the part of the pastor’s salary that is designated for housing to reduce taxable income. You usually need to break this out.
    • Example: Salary of $45,000 with $5,000 housing exclusion: Enter $40,000 for salary and $5,000 Clergy Housing (Cash)
  • What to do with Tax Withholding? Pastors are employees for IRS purposes but self-employed for Social Security purposes. That means you SHALL NOT withhold for Social Security and Medicare. It’s optional to withhold for income tax.
    • There is usually a check box or button to make the pastor exempt from Social Security and Medicare. Find that and click it.
    • Ask the pastor if they want income tax withheld and how much they want withheld per paycheck. They should fill out the W-4 to confirm this by writing “EXEMPT” in Step 1.c…even though that’s not an option. Then enter the amount to withhold per paycheck in Step 4.c.

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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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