September 09, 2009

Minister Performing Services as an Independent "Business" Activity

Question:

Can a private pastoral counseling practice - including pastoral counseling, church consultation, and education - qualify for the housing tax deduction? The individual seeking ministerial status is not paid by his church; however, his ministry is affirmed as an extension of a church's ministry. Essentially, he operates a sole proprietorship earning income that supports his ministry at a church.

Answer:

IRS Publication 517 addresses this situation in its definition of a minister:

"Most services you perform as a minister, priest, rabbi, etc., are qualified services. These services include: performing sacerdotal functions, conducting religious worship, and
controlling, conducting, and maintaining religious organizations (including the religious boards, societies, and other integral agencies of such organizations) that are under the authority of a religious body that is a church or denomination."

Publication 517 also addresses services for nonreligious organizations:

"Your services for a nonreligious organization are qualified services if the services are assigned or designated by your church. Assigned or designated services qualify even if they do not involve performing sacerdotal functions or conducting religious worship. If your services are not assigned or designated by your church, they are qualified services only if they involve performing sacerdotal functions or conducting religious worship."

It seems that the individual described in the question may not qualify for ministerial status. If he and a Board of Directors establishes a qualified IRC 501(c)(3) organization "under the authority of a religious body that is a church or denomination" (see above), then that organization can designate a housing allowance. Alternatively, the church may recognize his contribution to its ministry and hire him as a counseling minister employed by the church. Of course, he loses the autonomy that he now enjoys as a sole proprietor.

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