Most of the preachers, pastors, ministers, and priests I have known cannot carry a tune in bucket.  Thus, in modern church services, the rise of professional music worship leaders has been inexorable.  Many music worship leaders have educational and performance credentials.  However, are they clergy?

In Clover Hill Reformed Church v Township of Hillsborough, Slip Op. (NJ Tax Court 2018), the issue was whether the parsonage in which the congregation’s music worship leader resided was tax exempt.  The statute allowed each church to have two exempt parsonages.  The Clover Hill church had two and one was the residence of the music minister.  But, the tax assessor denied the exemption holding the music minister was not an “officiating clergyman,” a statutory term.  The court reversed the tax assessor and held the music minister was “officiating” within the meaning of the statute.

There was an oddity or two in the opinion.  The music minister in question was not a member of the congregation or the denomination but was a member of another church group.  In the southwest United States, the music minister’s “home” church would likely have been non-instrumental, and might be, too, on the eastern seaboard, but the music minister was serving in a church that allowed instrumental music.  Indeed, the music minister was a pianist.  As a non-member, however, he could not substitute for the lead pastor, which led the tax assessor to conclude the music minister was not “officiating clergy.”

The other oddity was that the court never actually stated the tax assessor was making an ecclesiastical determination about what constituted “officiating” and “clergy,” and thus probably running afoul of the First Amendment.  But, that might have been the case.

The lesson for other churches is to make sure the written job description of ministers seeking residential tax exemption makes their ecclesiastical role clear.

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