Years ago when I visited people hospitalized at Baylor University Medical Center, I would occasionally see a rather eccentric gentleman picketing on the sidewalk in front of Criswell College on Gaston Avenue. The guy always carried a sign that read, "Churches Should Pay Taxes," or something to that effect.
I suppose he didn't realize that Criswell college was not a church, but a private, Bible college. However, he was correct that it enjoyed tax exempt status as a non-profit organization.
Forgive me for bringing it up again, but you know, the guy raises a good question with his little protest.
What if churches had to justify or prove up the legitimacy of their tax exempt status? What if there were forms to fill out and accountability standards to achieve in order to maintain what amounts to a tax abatement on the real estate churches own and operate?
Non-profit hospital systems are required to pass such tests to maintain their non-profit, tax exempt status.
For-profit businesses that receive tax abatements from taxing authorities, be they city, county, state or federal, do so because of the public benefit that they generate in the form of jobs, economic development, tourism, etc.
Why not churches?
What if churches had to account for their actions in the community?
What would the reports reveal? Would anything change in the community if churches had to report on substantive work accomplished in the neighborhoods where they work?
There is lots of talk and press these days out of the White House Office of Community and Faith-Based Initiatives about the important role of churches and other communities of faith in the hard work of transforming communities. You would think the time might be right for every congregation in the nation to offer a full accounting of the work being done in, for and with the community that would merit what under current policy amounts to a permanent tax abatement without review.
Now that would be a faith-based initiative with some real punch!
I know we have to submit a Form 990 annually to the IRS. It is our tax form as a non-profit. We list all revenue. We list the top salaries in the organization. We report on what our activities were for the year. It is an accounting to justify our tax exempt status.
Hmmm. What would the IRS reporting form look like for churches?
Possibly a modified Form 990 would work. Same reporting standards: revenue, top salaries, and report on activities. How about a line item on assistance extended to persons in need? How about the number of homeless persons housed either by the church directly through programs or members or via cooperation with a partner organization? How about children cared for in day car and after school activities? How about leadership development? How hunger relief? Hours spent mentoring students? Number of latch-key kids cared for in safe environments? Dollars donated to organizations who do make all of this and more their standard operating mission on a daily basis.
I am not suggesting that churches don't do good work.
I am just wondering what if they had to think it all through and report it out to community leaders?
I wonder what would happen if finance committees and pastoral leadership had to really think about every dollar spent in view of the challenges facing our cities?
I guess I am wondering about the benefit of churches becoming fully-functioning members of the community as institutions.
What about your church? Would such reporting requirements change anything in your congregation?