Reader’s Question re Book Funds

I get emails —

Our church, despite being 500-600 people doesn’t have a clear policy on a minister’s book fund. Do they get one? How much? Are the books theirs or the church’s?

Do you have any thoughts/advice on this?

Readers, I and my correspondent would be glad to hear your thoughts. Here are a few of my own.

When I was younger, I figured that if the church buys the books, the books belong to the church. The preacher should turn them over to the church library after he’s finished with them.

But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve concluded that it’s prudent for a church to provide its preacher with a modest book budget and let the preacher keep the books. After all, if he’s like me, he’ll keep going back to them year after year.

From a tax perspective, this saves the preacher income taxes and self-employment taxes on that portion of his compensation — which is good. That is, if I were a preacher and was going to spend $500 on books a year, I’d rather take a $500 pay cut and have a book allowance for the same amount than being forced to buy books with after-tax dollars.

The new itemized deduction limitations pretty much eliminate any hope of the preacher claiming a deduction. Remember, a minister of the gospel is only self-employed for self-employment tax purposes, not for federal income tax purposes. Therefore, he can’t claim the books as an expense of a trade or business. They’re itemized deductions as employee expenses, and many preachers will not be able to benefit from the deduction. (Most will claim the standard deduction in lieu of itemized deductions.)

Most books are cheap enough that the IRS would readily concede that they are not capital assets but rather properly expensed. (If all this makes no sense to you, don’t worry about it. The tax jargon is for readers who’ve studied such things.)

Any church that expects its preacher to remain fresh and up to date ought to expect the preacher to read quite a lot. It’s just the nature of things. Moreover, in today’s high-tech world, many preachers will buy eBooks — on Kindle, via Logos, or some other such service. And those can’t be given to the library anyway.

As a matter of sheer prudence, preachers really appreciate their book allowance, and the church will get far more out of the preacher feeling well equipped than having a few more books in the church library. Give your preacher a book allowance. Most preachers are like me — hooked on good Christian literature — and they’ll greatly appreciate a church thoughtful enough to help with cost of books.

My congregation provides a fairly generous book allowance for our preacher. But the question is not quite as easy for a youth minister, campus minister, or the like. They generally don’t have book needs as great as the preacher’s. But some ministers carry a pretty heavy teaching load and could benefit from a book allowance, too. (But likely in a smaller amount.)

We don’t have a separate line item for non-preachers at my congregation, and we haven’t yet had one ask for one. However, they do often buy books through their ministry budget, which we are fine with.

Now, to work tax-wise, any book allowance has to be an “accountable” plan, that is, someone at church has to approve the expenditure other than the minister himself. Of course, it would be rare that a purchase wouldn’t be approved, but from a tax perspective, the employer has to sign off.

It doesn’t have to be a terribly formal process. That is, the preacher shouldn’t have to fill out a requisition form that goes to some committee. But someone else, not a subordinate to the preacher, has to approve the expenditure, our else it won’t truly be “accountable” and the entire amount would have to be reported as income to the preacher.

Finally, it’s essential that the fund by used for items that, in the business world, could be expensed as a cost of doing business. Books related to his ministry easily qualify. But it has to be “business” related. Personal expenses won’t qualify and have to be reported as income to the preacher.

Oh … and while I’m thinking about it … why do churches provide funds for preachers to buy books and attend lectureships and then fail to do the same for their elders? And then complain when the elders are poorly trained to lead and to teach or overly reliant on the preacher on doctrinal matters?

I think the prudent budget committee should provide an allowance for elder continuing education. Many elders will turn the money down, feeling more comfortable paying their own way, but wouldn’t the church be better off if the elders attended an annual university lectureship and read extensively on Christian topics?

Obviously, not every church has room in the budget for such costs, and many elders would decline the offer, but if we really want better elders, shouldn’t the church be willing to help with the costs of elder training?

Just a thought …

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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10 Responses to Reader’s Question re Book Funds

  1. When I was preaching and was church supported, I had a portion of my income designated as expenses. This would be paid monthly up to a designated annual amount. This covered books, mileage, other continuing education expenses such as lectureships, etc. this set up an accountability reporting system as well. The amount was set each year as part of salary negotiations. Any books purchased were mine, not the church’s. Of course, had my book purchases been excessive, I am sure the church would have reigned it in.

    One reason for the minister retaining the books is that the books he would select for himself are not necessarily those the church would select for its own library. Those books would mean more to him than to the church, which would likely not get much use from books the minister had selected for himself.

    One strange thing I ran into was some elders who wanted the deacons to all have keys to my office where I kept my books. I objected and they agreed that having too many people with unfettered access to the preacher’s library would be a lot to ask of the preacher. At least if I loaned the books to someone I would have more control than if people could pick them up without my knowledge.

  2. Micah Cobb says:

    Thanks Jay!

    Two questions:

    (1) Does a person overseeing my work as a minister need to sign off on every book purchase? Or do they just need to sign off on the budget item?

    (2) Why does your church not give your campus minister a book fund? I understand that the teaching load might not be the same as the preacher’s (though, as I campus minister, I teach 3 times a week). But isn’t part of the reason for the book fund to equip the minister? As a CM, I’ve studied with Muslims, atheists, agnostics, doubting Christians, Seventh-Day Adventists, dealt with a cult that teaches that African-Americans are the true Israel and modern Christians are heretics, etc. I also deal with a wide range of issues in my ministry. So what are the reasons for not giving the CM and the YM a book fund?

  3. Jay Guin says:


    For IRS purposes, a fund is not “accountable” unless someone else has to approve it — although the approval can be after the fact, such as when the bills are submitted for payment. That doesn’t require pre-approval of every book, but you have to be able to demonstrate by contemporaneous record keeping that the money was spent for legitimate “business” purposes by an accounting provided to the church and that you’d be require to repay any amounts improperly spent.

    The church cannot in good conscience treat the funds as tax free to you unless they know that the funds were spent appropriately. (The same is true of missionary working funds, by the way.)

    Our campus minister has a very substantial program budget, and he’s allowed to buy books out of that budget. We just don’t break it down between books and other programmatic expenses. The preacher does not have a program budget and so he has a separate book allowance budget line item.

    That’s not the only way to do it and may not even be the best way, but it’s what we’ve done for many years.

  4. johnny says:

    ” Remember, a minister of the gospel is only self-employed for self-employment tax purposes, not for federal income tax purposes.”

    Jay are you telling me that most full time CoC ministers do not have the church paying their half of FICA taxes?

  5. Jay Guin says:


    As a matter of law, ministers of the gospel are self-employed for FICA purposes. There is no match to be paid for them because they are just not subject to FICA. Rather, they have to pay Self-Employment Taxes, which is equal to FICA plus the employer FICA match. The minister is obligated to pay both halves.

    Some churches agree to pick up half the Self-Employment Tax as though it were FICA — that is, pay it in addition to stated salary, but I imagine most churches do not.

    This rule, buried in the Internal Revenue Code, makes no sense and puts ministers at a subtle disadvantage. If a church agrees to pay a preacher $50,000, the preacher actually nets 7.65% less than if he were subject to FICA, and as a result, it’s easy for a church eldership to believe they are paying the minister more than they really are.

    The rules are so confusing that many CPAs and lawyers get them wrong — compounding the problem.

    On the other hand, because of the housing allowance, many preachers come out far ahead on income taxes compared to secular employment. And, of course, many ministers elect out of the Self-Employment Tax altogether.

    It’s unnecessarily complex and I imagine a large percentage of churches and ministers get it wrong.

  6. Charles McLean says:

    It seems to me that providing books for your congregation’s “junior staff” would be of greater importance than providing them to your main pulpit guy. Unless the whole point of books is to source sermon material. If, OTOH, you want your people to read books to actually learn and grow and mature, then it seems that your younger or less-rounded teaching staff have a much greater need of new books. I do track with Jay’s comment about buying books for the preacher but not for the elders… that shows an unthinking commitment to a tradition, and not much else, IMO.

    As to the elders, here’s a suggestion: each elder suggests one book a year for his fellow elders to read. Then, they read them. Every one. Include your preacher in this circle. May be more challenging for a large eldership, but if there are 12 of you, that’s only one book a month. Give this process five years and see how radically your congregation has progressed at the end of that time. To twist a common proverb, “When you only hear what you’ve always heard, you’ll only know what you already knew.”

  7. Charles,

    What a great idea:

    As to the elders, here’s a suggestion: each elder suggests one book a year for his fellow elders to read. Then, they read them. Every one. Include your preacher in this circle. May be more challenging for a large eldership, but if there are 12 of you, that’s only one book a month. Give this process five years and see how radically your congregation has progressed at the end of that time. To twist a common proverb, “When you only hear what you’ve always heard, you’ll only know what you already knew.”

    I’ll be looking for an opportunity to put this into practice!

  8. Jay Guin says:


    For the record, the junior staff have very large program budgets which may be used for book purchases. We don’t try to determine how much or little they may spend on books. It’s very much up to their own discretion. The only reason the preacher has a separate allowance is that he doesn’t have a program budget comparable to that of the youth or children’s minister.

  9. Charles McLean says:

    Jay, you strike me as the perfect example of a guy who could readily recommend a book to his fellow elders and who would read books recommended to you by your fellow elders… think of it as a religious seminar group.

  10. Jay Guin says:


    We don’t do anything that formal but we do often swap book recommendations

    As a result we have a fairly substantial base of shared readings.

    I think your idea is a very good one. Elders should definitely share readings and grow together in the word,

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