Alright, guys, so this post is going to be a little bit of a rant. A rant that’s been four months in the making, mind you. But a rant nonetheless.
Before I jump into the details, I’d like to preface all this by saying that I really don’t have a problem with the concept of taxes. Actually, I think it’s a novel idea. I pay money to the state and – assuming everything works out the way it should – I get something back in return.
Here in Germany, that “something” is quite a bit: universal healthcare, tuition-free education (in case I ever decide to go back and get that Master’s degree I’ve been putting off), a retirement fund, and unemployment benefits – a win-win situation for everyone. I’m even alright with this little thing the Germans call a Solidaritätszuschlag, or a “solidarity tax”, which is levied on workers in the West and goes to improving infrastructure in the former East.
I also don’t have a problem with churches. In fact, if you haven’t noticed by now, I’m actually pretty obsessed with them (along with castles and palaces and parks, for that matter). Here in Europe, they’re insanely ornate, they’re huge, and they pretty much offer the best view in town. What’s not to like about that?
But a “church tax”? Oh boy, now this is where things get complicated.
To be honest, I never even knew something like this existed before moving to Germany (chances are, you haven’t heard of it either). Which, in retrospect, is probably what led to such a Missverständnis, or misunderstanding, in the first place. A misunderstanding that nearly cost me €2,000.
Gulp, I know. I don’t even want to think about how many bags of Haribo gummy candy I could buy with that money.
So what is this church tax I speak of? Well, let me put it like this: Germans like their Vereine, or clubs. They have them for everything. There are Vereine for volleyball and sewing and swimming and bike riding – heck, I’m sure they even have them for dog sitting (update: after consulting Google, I can now safely say they do).
That’s no different for churches – which, if you think about it, are sort of like a club anyways. The only unique thing about churches in Germany is that their members are required to pay a monthly fee (and I say unique, because this concept only exists in like six other countries).
That’s right. If you want to be an official churchgoer, then the state automatically deducts a church tax from your salary. No ifs, ands, or buts.
Think of it as a gym membership: You don’t pay the fee, you don’t get to use the weights (okay, so you can still go to church services if you’re not a member; you just can’t get baptized/confirmed/married/buried/etc. by the church).
A strange system for a country that claims to secular, no? Good, I’m glad I’m not the only one who thinks so.
But as the Germans would say: Andere Länder, andere Sitten (“other countries, other customs”).
Alright. So everyone clear now on what the church tax is and how it works? Good. Now we can get to the story at hand. A story that technically began four years ago.
So it’s June 2013 and I’m excited, I’m in a new city, and I’ve just started a new job.
Being the good foreigner I am, I march down to the town hall in Frankfurt to do my Anmeldung – mandatory address registration (side note: if you haven’t noticed by now, the Germans loooove their bureaucracy).
I take a number, twiddle my thumbs for fifteen minutes (correction: try to keep a straight face while watching bad lip reading videos on my iPhone), and then – ta-da! – it’s my turn to run through the gauntlet that is German bureaucracy. But on this fine summer day, I’m in good spirits and confident I’ll nail whatever is waiting for me behind the door to room 16.
And actually, what’s waiting for me is a one-page form that seems pretty innocuous. My name? I’ve got this. My birthdate? Oh, I know the answer to that one too!
And then I stumble over a box that says “religious affiliation”.
Hmm, that’s a weird thing to ask someone when registering their address, I think to myself.
I hesitate for a moment, not sure what to put down, and as if sensing my uncertainty, the case worker across from me asks, “Are you Catholic or evangelical?”
Well, I’m definitely not Catholic, I think to myself. I’m Protestant (Methodist, to be precise), so I guess that makes me evangelical.
“Umm, evangelisch?” I say. And that’s that.
A few weeks later, I get my first paycheck, and after living on a modest stipend as an English teaching assistant for the last eight months, I basically don’t know what to do and spend a third of my money on Ritter Sport chocolate bars and popcorn (salted, of course, because there’s no way that the German sugary stuff will ever come close to the sodium-packed goodness we have in America).
But wait a second… there’s something funny here. On my pay stub, there’s a box for the Kirchensteuer, or church tax, and I see that money has been taken out.
A bit perplexed, I go home and do a bit of research. I learn all about the church tax here in Germany, and that the two biggest recipients are the Roman Catholic Church and the German Evangelical Church.
And then it dawns on me: By saying I was evangelical at the town hall, I mistakenly claimed to be a member of the German Evangelical Church. Oops.
The most frustrating part is: Methodists are considered non-denominational in Germany and don’t have to pay a church tax.
Yeah… better get that fixed.
I figure a quick chat with the Finanzamt, or tax office, will get the job done (well, not necessarily a quick chat, since we all know how tedious taxes are, but a chat nonetheless). And in fact, one of the employees at the Finanzamt kindly removes my religious affiliation and hands me a separate form to give to my employer.
I wait another month for my next pay stub to come, and after scrutinizing it thoroughly, I can’t find a thing. No evangelical church tax has been taken out at all. And rightfully so!
I can breathe now (and buy more popcorn).
In fact, everything seems to be sorted out… or so I think.
Fast forward three-and-a-half years, and I’m at home in my apartment doing some tidying up. It’s October 2016, and I figure it’s time I finally filed away a few important documents.
As I sort through form after form (and take a few breaks in between to do geography quizzes online – yes, I have no life), something catches my eye. Something that should’ve been taken care of way back in 2013.
You know what’s coming, right?
Yep, you guessed it – I’m still listed as evangelical on all the official paperwork I’ve since received from the town hall. Looks like the tax office didn’t really communicate with anyone but themselves (see, you guys, I’ve been trying to tell you all along that too much bureaucracy is never a good thing).
At this point, I figure I have three choices: I can do absolutely nothing (and run the risk that the town hall someday has a look at my incorrect file and thinks I owe A LOT of money to the German Evangelical Church), I can go down to the town hall and try to sort things out, or I can binge watch the fourth season of House of Cards.
I opt for options two and three – in the opposite order, of course (because seriously, I just have to know what happens to the Underwoods before I can set my mind to anything else).
Once I run out of other excuses to delay the inevitable, I pay a visit to the town hall, do some more thumb-twiddling, and then explain my situation to another case worker.
What’s their advice? I need to officially leave the German Evangelical Church in order to get the box on my Anmeldung form fixed.
“But I was never a member of the German Evangelical Church”, I say. “I just mixed up protestantisch and evangelisch.”
“Too bad,” the caseworker responds. “I can’t change this form unless you go to the Amtsgericht, or courthouse, and formally renounce your membership in the German Evangelical Church.”
Lovely, yet more bureaucracy to bring on board.
I’ve never been inside a courthouse in Germany, and my first impression isn’t exactly a positive one (alright, so the fact that I accidentally entered the building for criminal proceedings first didn’t help. But still, it’s German bureaucracy. Gag).
I explain my situation to the employees there (by now, I could practically write a song about it – or just a really long blog post), and they’ve never heard a case like mine. But that doesn’t make them any more understanding.
“Wow, you really messed things up good,” one courthouse worker says to me.
“I know, I know,” I respond. “But it’s just that I mixed things up back in 2013 when registering my address with the town hall. I’m actually Methodist, and we’re not required to pay church tax here in Germany. I already told the tax office, but they apparently didn’t forward the information to the town hall.”
“And what am I supposed to do about it?”
At this point, I can tell my situation is pushing the boundaries of the clear-cut, black-and-white cases most of the staff here is used to dealing with.
“Well,” I say hesitantly, “I guess I’m here to formally leave the German Evangelical Church – even though I was never in it.”
“Alright, that’ll be €30 then. There’s an administrative fee to leave.”
Right, of course there is.
I hand over the money and in return I’m given yet another form. One stamp and a signature later, and I’m finally out of the church I was never in. But good, now everything should be crystal clear to everyone, right? Wrong!
As if the situation couldn’t get any more complicated, my friends at the German tax office receive word that I’ve officially left the German Evangelical Church. Which makes them wonder why I haven’t been paying my church tax all along.
(Again, I told the tax authorities I was never a member, and they even removed it from one of their forms. But we’re talking about bureaucracy here, so I suppose it’s never really straightforward.)
And so I’m asked to pay up – and no, it isn’t a pretty number.
At this point, the only thing I can think of doing is to gather ever single piece of evidence that I never. ever. not even remotely. was a member of the German Evangelical Church.
I frantically contact my parents and ask them for anything they might have on file. They find a baptismal certificate and scan it in. I also ask for a letter from my former church in the U.S. confirming that I’m *still* technically Methodist.
While I’m waiting for all this, I contact the Evangelical Church Registry for Hesse (the state I live in), thinking they might be able to help. After all, they should have all the church membership records and can surely provide evidence that I was never evangelisch, right?
Nope. They refer me to the town hall instead. Seufz (that’s “sigh” in German).
Once I get all my documents from the U.S., I send everything down to the town hall as the Church Registry advised me. But now, the town hall doesn’t want them. Instead, they say the Evangelical Church Registry is in charge.
Ugh. Please just shoot me now.
Luckily, the town hall says they’ll take care of things bilaterally (yes, please do!). So I go back home and wait and wait and wait some more, not knowing whether I’ll have enough money to splurge on more popcorn and gummy candy (and, let’s be honest here, travel).
A few weeks later, after what feels like an eternity, I *finally* receive an email from the town hall. They’ve retroactively changed my status, and I’m now apparently listed as non-denominational in every public record since moving to Germany in 2012.
They attach a statement from the Evangelical Church Registry in which the Church basically says it isn’t a problem to correct my religious affiliation. Their reasoning? Had I alerted someone to the fact that I erroneously filled out the form back in 2013, they would’ve changed it anyways. There was no need for me to leave the German Evangelical Church to begin with. *slams head on desk*
Yes, I know! I did this and nobody wanted to listen to me!
In any case, it’s been about a month now since my church tax issue was resolved, and I’m hoping this will be the last time I have such a bureaucratic hiccup.
So why do I write all this?
Well, first off, I just needed to rant. And secondly, I guess it just goes to show you that as an expat, things won’t always go as planned. Whether it’s visa issues, work permits, or – in my case – a misunderstanding about the church tax, foreign bureaucracy is frustrating to deal with. There’s no sugarcoating it.
I suppose the only advice I can give is to stay calm, try to figure out as much as you can beforehand, and just keep at it. Oh, and maybe remember that at the end of the day, things have a way of working themselves out. It may take a while and it may be incredibly nerve-wracking, but hey – even if you make a mistake like mine, I suppose you’ll just end up with an entertaining story to tell (and an insanely long blog post!).