Should churches, as not-for-profits, access the Australian Government’s JobKeeper scheme in order to keep staff if their giving decreases during the COVIC-19 shutdown and beyond? That’s a question that I have heard doing the rounds. Is it the right thing to do? Is it the wrong thing to do? What is at stake if we put out our hands for government money?
First the positives of saying “yes” to the JobKeeper allowance of a flat fortnightly $1500 per employee should a not-for-profit’s income fall by 15 percent.
- Church members pay taxes. It’s often a gripe from hard secularists that churches don’t pay taxes, and that churches and religious organisations are getting through the not-for-profit loophole and should be taxed. Now there are some very wealthy churches, mostly off the back of property. But that’s not the norm. And in fact those who give to a church also pay their own taxes and are giving out of their already taxed money. Many churches have very little in the budget at the end of the year anyway, so it’s a moot point. They’re generally not hoarding up stacks of cash.
- Church employees pay taxes. Although they can more readily access better fringe benefit plans than many secular employees, church employees pay taxes too. Indeed many churches curtail the percentage of fringe benefit their employees can access, in order to ensure that as citizens they pay their dues for the cause of the common good. Employees in churches are subject to general employment rules and regulations. For churches to decide to refuse their staff employment benefits at this time would be to treat them unfairly. Church employees have similar leave and entitlements as other people who attend the church. They also have similar levels of accountability.
- Church employees are not our faith experiments. If you can’t take the income hit yourself, don’t ask others to do it by proxy. To say that a church employee should have faith that God will provide at the very time members of the church are benefiting from the JobKeeper scheme would be to single them out for a faith experiment that you are not willing to make yourself. It’s the classic “secondhand teabags for the missionaries” policy, and is akin to the misguided philosophy that we should send our children to a state school in order for them to be evangelistic. If you can’t take a faith hit for the team yourself, don’t ask others to do it by proxy for you.
- It’s a lifeline. You know the story of the man who prays for God to rescue him in a flood, and then refuses the lifeboat and the rescue helicopter that turn up because, you know, “God is saving me”, and who then dies and asks God why God didn’t save him? Don’t be that church. There is a growing tide of economic destruction in our society and the government we have has been put in place by God to manage it. Honour the government (and pray for it) by obeying the law (in this case shutting down our churches) and use its benevolence to our advantage. In Acts 22 Paul uses his rights as a Roman citizen to halt what would have been a very painful scourging.
- We have obeyed a law that will cost us financially. It’s not merely the loss of income that will affect our churches as jobs shrink across the economy. The closure of church buildings in obedience to the law, is a huge matter. By its very nature – and name – the church is gatherings of people. Take that away and things become much harder. Some churches are stupidly disobeying the law, bringing risk to themselves and others physically, and bringing risk to the honour of the gospel. Online church is a holding pattern, and we have obeyed the law of the land (as have many businesses) to our potential detriment. The edges will fray, people will drift and focus will be lost, that is bound to happen despite our best intentions and most fervent prayers. It’s early days for lockdown – especially of larger crowds – and our energy and enthusiasm for online church is still there because we’re still in the “cute” stage of lockdown., But although we are not “neglecting” meeting together (as Hebrews 10 warns us, we are committing not to meet together, and that may have a long-term deleterious effects, spiritually and emotionally for our congregations.
And now for some negatives (which seem less “material” for obvious reasons!).
- It does not give us a chance to prove God’s faithfulness. Our church rarely preaches on giving and we do not take up a public collection. However we preached on giving a few weeks ago online in light of our shrinking budget. Guess what? People gave! And they gave out of gospel motivation. There was generosity – costly generosity – in that giving. Who knows if, as the Macedonians did it 2Corinthians8, that out of our poverty, extreme gospel generosity might well up, a generosity that will place us in good stead when the economic situation improves. If our own people who work in secular employment are able to access JobKeeper in a manner that keeps their level of income sustainable, then it’s quite possible our giving could be maintained also. It’s been my concern for many a year that not only do many people in church not give, but very few of us give until it hurts. Maybe hurting a little, and going without the other luxuries that, let’s face it, we are cutting down on anyway at this time, might be God’s way of growing and deepening our faith and our dependence on him. If we simply sign up because we’ve lost 15 per cent of our church tithe, then we may be tempted to take our foot off the giving pedal more readily in the future, because we will be less practised at giving to resolve a crisis.
- It pushes us onto the Government as our beneficiary. The secular frame presses us hard, and as government potentially becomes more intrusive in terms of how it calls on churches and other faith organisations to line up with legislation in areas of ethics etc. It’s becoming clear that should we sup with the devil we ought to do so with a long spoon – and one that we have purchased ourselves. A time is coming when the government will not be our friend at all in many areas of life and faith, and will play a transactional game with us when it comes to financial and legal support. We might do well to practice some social distancing of our own about now. Remember the Golden Rule? The one who makes the gold makes the rules.
- It does not give us a chance to future-proof ourselves. I have been saying for some time now that the church needs to future-proof itself, especially in terms of finance, and what we can afford to do with the money we will have. The COVID-19 virus has brought the future crash-landing in our present. Indeed signing up to JobKeeper might well cover over the cracks of a bigger problem. In the future we will need to run lean and mean, especially when the day inevitably comes that the fringe benefit allowances our staff operate under are reduced. I think this is going to happen, so we’re going to have to get used to a tighter budget in the future anyway. On top of this the next two or three generations of Christians are not going to have the financial storehouses of the Boomers, who have been responsible for the growth of larger, well-financed, well-staffed churches in which paid staff provide professional services. We’ve had a Boom(er) time for some forty years, the Bust years are coming. Might be a good idea to get ready for them now. We’ve certainly got a test case ready to go.
- It removes a gospel opportunity. The same Paul who in Acts 22 ensures that he doesn’t get a beating by pulling out the Roman citizen card, does not pull out that card on another occasion in Acts 16, and he does take a beating. Only the next day does Paul play the card, but not before wearing a few stripes. His praise of God in the midst of his painful imprisonment was a witness to the surrounding prisoners, and the result was the conversion of the Philippian gaoler and his household. Don’t underestimate what it might do in a culture where financial security is the ultimate security, if we are seen as those who hold lightly to the right to have a government payout, even if we take a financial beating for it.
So there are some pros and cons. Not everything has been said, and I am sure you can push back on a whole bunch of it. But there’s enough there to pray about and talk about. Whatever decision we make I believe that we are not bound either way, and that wisdom is the order of the day.
In light of that, ask for the wisdom that comes from above in making such decisions, for as it says in James, the true abundance we seek is righteousness, not economics.
… the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness. (James 3:17-18)