Called to Canada: Non-Canadian Pastors Serving Canadian Churches

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Related, this post focuses on when the pastor is a Canadian citizen, but their spouse/family is not. 

As a denomination in both Canada and the United States, it is not uncommon for churches to call a pastor across the border. While the ecclesial requirements for calling a pastor are the same irrespective of the nationality of the church or the citizenship of the pastor, it’s certainly not the case regarding immigration law. 

In many cases, pastors and churches have expressed that they’ve felt relatively alone in figuring out the immigration process. And, each time, it feels like it’s being done for the first time.

As a way to support pastors and churches in the calling process, Pastor Church Resources recently held a recorded video call with non-Canadian pastors who are currently serving Canadian churches. You can find that video below. We also hosted another video where the pastors who accepted the call are Canadian but their families are not, so stay tuned for that. Additionally, in the near future we will be hosting a similar conversation for non-American pastors who are currently serving in the USA.

As an obvious disclaimer, Pastor Church Resources shares what follows as simply the descriptive experience from pastors. None of us are immigration lawyers, and laws can and do change regularly. Our core recommendation is to seek professional advice for the most up-to-date information that is directly applicable to your specific situation. 

Some of the themes that emerged from the recorded conversation include:

1. It is wise to enter Canada on an actual work permit, not a visitor visa

While it may seem that a visitor visa with religious worker exemption (the R186(L)) is easier, the simplicity is short lived. The visitor visa is temporary, needs to be re-applied for regularly, and often creates confusion for border officials since this visitor visa is not technically designed for people who come in to work more permanently at a church and receive fair financial compensation. Having a proper work visa (the R205(d) with an LMIA) will make your life significantly less complicated both in the short term (like when entering Canada) and in the long term (maintaining your residency). The church needs to apply for this on your behalf and it only costs about $250. Additionally, if/when you apply for Permanent Residency, having a real work permit adds 50 points to your application, which is significant and could make the difference between qualifying or not.

2. A term call might actually be better

While our polity has a tepid relationship with term calls, when a person entering Canada for work applies for a work permit (or the visitor visa) they are by definition a temporary visitor. Canada’s immigration sees you as coming into Canada in order to work for a period of time and then leave. Think of it this way: you are on a term call whether you identify it that way or not, because Canada’s immigration will tell you exactly how long you are allowed to stay in the country to work. In some cases, having a clearly defined term for your call (eg. 3 years) could mean that it’s granted for the full term; having no defined term basically means you're asking immigration to set one for you, and it could be as short as 6 months. 

And to be clear, having a term call does not mean you cannot extend your term with the church and get your work permit extended or in the meantime apply for Permanent Residency. It’s just that from a legal perspective, putting the ecclesial perspective aside for a moment, a job offer with a specific term can bring clarity to the immigration process and may actually work to your benefit. 

3. Get Permanent Residency

Since as a visitor you are constantly running on a timeline, applying for Permanent Residency as soon as possible just makes sense. The process does not happen overnight, so the sooner your start, the better off you will be.

4. Finances

The USA and Canada have completely different banking and credit systems. You may have a solid credit rating in the USA and then find out that you don’t qualify for a Canadian credit card for the first six months or that getting a mortgage is harder than you thought (and requires a much higher down payment). In other words, do not assume that your finances will move seamlessly across the border. You would actually do better to start with assuming the exact opposite.

5. Different provinces, different experiences

While you are entering into Canada as a country, you are also entering into a specific province. Each province has different laws and regulations about a variety of things. For example, at what point will you and your family qualify for provincial medical coverage (or at what point will it expire if your immigration status is still sorting out), and what sort of private medical  insurance will you have until that point? What are the regulations around getting a driver's license or getting provincial license plates on your vehicle? Etc. In other words, don’t just look at national immigration laws but also pay attention to provincial laws for where you are moving to.

6. Crossing the border

When you cross, make sure you have an itemized list of everything you are bringing with you. These personal items are not subject to tax as you enter. Also, if your spouse will be hoping to work while in Canada you should apply for an open work permit when you cross the border.

7. It is a journey

Immigrating and maintaining your immigration status is completely doable, but it does take some work. Ideally get your documents together and submitted a year or so in advance of deadlines. 

8. Professional Help!

This is a piece of advice that’s received resounding support from anyone who’s gone through the process: professional help is worth it. This could be a lawyer or a consultant, and can range in price. Some will do all the work, others are available to just look over the material to confirm it’s been done properly. Whatever the case, it’s typically best if a pastor and a church don’t do this journey alone.

9. A note specifically to churches

This is a journey for the pastor, but also for the church. It is worth having a conversation with the pastor about how you will support them on this journey, including financially. While the pastor does benefit from gaining permanent residency or citizenship, they are doing so as a way to live into the calling that you have extended to them. Recognize that this will take some mental energy, time, and money to gain and maintain residency. In fact, it might cost more than might be first expected because it sounds like there are multiple additional expenses that can pop up (medical examinations, transfer fees, etc.) outside of the stated base cost.

The pastor and family might also be experiencing some other cross-border realities, such as student debt in US Dollars while getting paid in Canadian dollars, a temporary inability to be a dual-income family while the spouse waits for their work permit, the regular challenges of joining a new community away from family and friends, and the humbling experience of possibly requiring more support than they are used to needing (for example, if they cannot get a mortgage for the first while and so don't have secure housing). Be kind to them! Recognize how the immigration process is an extra burden even if they don’t say so. 

In Closing 

This list has been written merely as a general summary by a curious listener who, as a Canadian, has not experienced the immigration process himself. So take it as some opening ideas on how you might explore more deeply what accepting a call to a Canadian church might look like. Everyone said it was doable and worth it as they pursued God's call in their lives, so don't let these details discourage you in your discernment process. We just want you to be able to go through it as clear eyed as possible.

And do watch the video to get the full story! There is certainly much more wisdom to be gleaned there, and the chance to hear some good calling stories.

Called to Canada: Non-Canadian Pastors Serving Canadian Churches

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My first church was in Canada and loved the experience.  Just be aware of certain things if you wish to return to the U.S. which no one warned me about:

1.  You must file income tax returns in the U.S. while you live in Canada

2.  You will receive 0.00 credit for income towards Social Security.  (Your benefit is based on the 35 years of highest earnings.  Your earnings in Canada will be 0.00 in the U.S.). Your years of service will be credited as years of service for SS but not the amounts, meaning your benefit will be lower.

3.  If you have student debt in the U.S. it will suddenly be much larger because you are paid in dollars worth less than your debt dollars.  

4.  If you buy a car in Canada (because your old one need replacing) you will pay horrendus taxes in Canada, but pay them again in the U.S. when you return (the amount depending on the state you move to).

5.  My pension statement for the years of service in Canada seldom increases (It seems that because the final average salary in Canada is frozen, your pension is also frozen and does not increase with the cost of living during your working years—and of course it never increases after you retire).

6.  If you save for retirement in an RRSP these are not truly recognized in the U.S. as retirement accounts.  There is a treaty for the Federal government that gives you some benefit when you return, but it's an entirely different matter for state taxes.  For example, California treats it as a regular brokerage account.  The problem is compounded that Canadian reporting on RRSP's doesn't give you the data you need for your taxes here, making it an expensive thing as you need to hire an accountant that specializes in American/Canadian tax law.

7.  Then there is the reporting requirements in the U.S. for having an account outside the U.S.  (And these seem to keep changing).

If you're moving to Canada, and don't intend to come back, that's one thing (I loved it there).  But if your intention is to return, you need to do some planning not to have some rather annoying and expensive surprises that might last for the rest of your life.

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It was a great idea to record these videos and offer these insights, Al!  Thanks!  Looking forward to the other two.

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Don, 

Thanks for you additional experience & insights! This is very helpful. Moving back to the US after being in Canada wasn't part of the story I thought to address! And it sounds like it has a set of its own complications.

So thanks a ton for reminding us all that it's not just the entrance but also the return/exit that any pastor exploring a call to Canada should be mindful of.

-Al