Should Churches Continue to Reimburse Cell Phone Fees?

Written by Nick B. Nicholaou on . Posted in Articles, Uncategorized

© 2017 by Nick B. Nicholaou, all rights reserved
President, Ministry Business Services, Inc.
Reprinted from MinistryTech Magazine

Churches reimburse some staff members for their cell phone and internet costs. In the early days of those technologies, doing so made sense. Has the way we communicate changed so much that it’s time to reconsider? What are the issues?

Historical Perspective
I got my first cell phone in 1987, and was one of only 1 million in the U.S. who had one. But it was worth the cost (often $750+ monthly for one line!) to be available to our clients as I travelled across the USA. Five years later that number had grown to 11 million, and in 2000 passed 100 million! By 2010 there were more cellphones (and smartphones) in use than there were people in the U.S., and by 2015 half of all U.S. households no longer had a landline connecting their home to the telephone system network (we removed our landlines in 2007).[1]

Why does that matter? In the earlier years of cellular phones they were very costly to buy and use, and were perceived as additional phone lines. As great tools enabling a burgeoning mobile workforce, churches wanted their staff to have cellphones to facilitate better communications between themselves, their teams, and their congregations. Because they were an added phone to the home phone, many church team members couldn’t afford to have one.

The same is true for internet connections at team members’ homes. In the 1990s and early 2000s they were considered optional. Reimbursing staff for the expense of being connected made sense for many team roles.

So churches developed a number of ways to underwrite the cost for these services for their staff via reimbursements, allowances, and more. The IRS finally helped by simplifying the tax treatment of cellphones provided to employees in 2011 following the Small Business Jobs Act of 2010.[2]

Should Reimbursements & Allowances Continue?
There may be circumstances where those are appropriate, but for most the answer going forward should be no. Those communications services are no longer considered additional methods in the U.S., but are now integral to our communication fabric.

At a gathering of megachurch church business administrators and managers (CBAs) I recently attended, one of the CBAs asked, “When staff leave the church, they don’t want to turn in their cellphone or terminate their service! If they will pay for it themselves after they leave our staff, why do we pay for their service and phones while they are on staff?” Good question!

Today nearly all working adults in the U.S. have a cell phone (or more accurately, a smartphone), and most households have broadband internet service. So why should the church reimburse the cost of these services? It no longer needs to.

Transitions are Sensitive
Simply deciding to no longer reimburse for these services could be problematic. I suggest the following:

  • Set a policy that reimbursements for cell phones and internet service will no longer be made to church staff. This policy would apply to all new hires.
  • To ‘grandfather’ those who have been receiving assistance for these services, add the amount they have been receiving to their base pay; a sort of one-time adjustment to their pay. This allows you to eliminate assistance going forward without hurting any team members that depend on it. It also simplifies the payroll process– a win-win!

Transitioning in this way will remove the discussion for any new team members, and continue meeting the needs of existing team members.

People no longer need assistance with their cellular or internet service. It’s part of the standard way we communicate today in America. It’s okay to end the practice of evaluating who to assist, how much to assist, and then account for those decisions in budgets and in the payroll process. Handled in this way, no one will get hurt in the process, and no one will suffer because of the policy.

[1] These statistics are from CTIA.org, an association representing all sectors of the U.S. wireless communications industry.

[2] See https://www.irs.gov/irb/2011-38_IRB/ar07.html for details.

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