For those who maybe haven’t realized it yet, I am a pastor of a local congregation. And I believe that part of my calling is engaging in issues that are important to my community, be they located here in Old Hickory, or involve the entire City. I am a politically engaged pastor in that I pay attention and am willing to participate in the political process at some level.
However, one thing that try to be scrupulous about is avoiding any official endorsements of individual candidates or political parties. Yes, I have people that I have worked with and liked and there have been times when I’ve shared my experiences of working with these individuals, but I am careful to note that I am not making an official endorsement, and that my comments in no way represent the official position of the congregation that I serve.
Frankly, I do this not out of any particular ethical framework, but rather because the Internal Revenue Service rules regarding the 501 c 3 status of my congregation compels me to act with great care and intentionality. The rules are clear — 501 c 3 organizations are not to engage in “political campaign activity” that is biased or partial toward one candidate or party. Non-profits, including churches, MAY engage in issue advocacy as long as it does not make up a substantial portion of its activities (the legal rule our attorneys suggested in the lottery referendum was no more than 5% of total expenditures of the organization). However, when it comes to endorsing a candidate, the rules are firm, and there have been several congregations that have found themselves at risk regarding these rules.
One can argue the need for such legislation, suggesting as some have that it represents a limit on a church’s right to free speech. However non-profit tax status is a privilege and not a right. The price to be paid in not paying taxes is to give up one’s ability to engage in partisan politics. If a church wants to endorse candidates they certainly can, but they have to be willing to give up the 501 c 3 status. The congregations that I’ve served haven’t been willing to pay that price, and so I try to be careful in how we proceed.
The issue of pastoral endorsements is murkier. On the one hand pastors should be able (as free citizens) to express their personal views about individual candidates. On the other hand, the division between the pastor’s professional and private life isn’t always clear. The “reverend” or “pastor” title is usually attached, whether we want it to be or not, and that very title comes through a relationship with an endorsing agency — a congregation or a denomination. The IRS guideliness on endorsements from staff members don’t forbid them outright, but they urge extreme caution in how they are done. According to IRS publication 1828, Tax Guide for Churches, religious leaders are to clearly identify that their endorsements are personal and not intended to represent the views of the church. The guide suggests that mailers should note that any titles used are for identification purposes only, and do not imply any endorsement of the body that this leader represents, so as to be clear about the personal nature of the endorsements. To do otherwise is to imply that the speech of the leader is reflective of the organization, and thus prohibited under the IRS guidelines.
This civics lesson endorsements was spurred by a recent release that came across my desk from Councilman Jerry Maynard’s campaign. Jerry is a nice enough guy who has worked hard for the community, in fact, he and I worked together on advocacy for Metro General Hospital. I haven’t always agreed with all his decisions, but I can’t question his commitment to our city.
What concerns me is this release which clearly lifts up the identity of 40 endorsers as pastors, freely using their titles without any sort of disclaimer that these endorsements were not connected to the congregations that these pastors serve. Certainly these pastors have the ability as individuals to endorse Jerry, and I encourage them to do so. But the release (which can be viewed here) skirts on the borderline and I think is a risky endeavor for those endorsers.
I may be going overboard in my concern (and I know there are some who would say so) but the balancing act between the pastoral and personal role was something I’ve had to learn along the way. While our tax status hasn’t been at risk, I learned in no uncertain terms from some of my church members of their concerns when I put a yard sign for a certain presidential candidate in the yard of my parsonage. They made it clear that while I was thinking that was a personal act in my house, for them it represented an endorsement from their pastor. They were willing to concede that I had a prophetic role in speaking to issues, that line fell apart quickly when it came to personal politics, and I’ve tried to respect the murkiness ever since.
I don’t know what to do about Jerry’s mailer. There are friends on the list, folks that I respect, and I have great confidence that most recognize the care that must be taken regarding these endorsements.
What is more problematic are the campaigns that are searching for ANY and all advantage, and are not especially helpful in respecting the difficult line that church leaders have to walk.