I read the Nov. 2 communiqué of the Presbyterian Board of Pensions with substantial interest – personal, family, and communal. To be clear, I am a plan member – as are one brother, one sister, and our father. So I am concerned from a personal perspective about what happens and what changes are proposed in plan benefits and dues. I am also concerned because way too many of my friends, colleagues, and future colleagues (seminary students and graduates looking for call), many of whom have labored and offered their thoughtful essays on this site, are affected by the decisions made by the Board.
First – the news report itself deserves some exegesis. Reasons that have led to proposed changes are explained. The first impact noted is that on employing organizations – the fear that raising dues would make them prohibitive. The second issue noted is the aging population of PC(USA) members.
Then the impact is outlined – the proposed changes will modify “the historically understood community nature and call neutrality of the plan.” Specifically, this means “there will be blood”, and the blood will be shed by plan members who have dependents, some of whom are ministering with employing organizations who choose to pass on the benefit costs not paid by the proposed plan to those plan members.
Second – some ethical and ecclesiological analysis. The outcome of these proposed changes, if enacted, will take benefits from some plan members who have dependents. Many of these are younger members of the plan. Many of them serve at Presbytery minimums; some, at below those minimum terms of call. The “community nature of the plan” has historically been one component in the formula necessary for these plan members to make ends meet, to make life and service possible, to stay in ministry despite low pay and, often, high stress and a context of constant societal and cultural change. Modifying the community nature of the plan will make a significant material difference in the lives of these plan members.
The reality that policies like the proposed plan changes have been in place for many businesses and institutions since “the 1970s” offers little comfort, either to plan members with dependents, or to those who don’t have them. Most of us in ministry actually care not only for our own situation – we care what happens to others as well. It’s an occupational hazard – it’s pretty hard to get into this line of work without caring about others, although most of us could name some exceptions. The proposed changes offend the ecclesiology – the understanding of the nature of the Body of Christ and its work in the world – of many in this community. The ethics of saving the plan through decreasing benefits and potentially increasing dues to some of the plan’s members who hold the least capacity to weather these blows are at least disturbing and after reflection may create a call to action. The concept underlying all insurance plans is community –everyone pays in, and the benefits and the risks are therefore shared. Affirming the foundation of community is required, both practically and ethically, for insurance of any sort to exist. When this foundation is injured or violated, the community must take note.
Then – some reflection on our current situation. Ministry has been utterly transformed since my father was ordained in 1962. His ministry and mine exist on different planes; mine and the ministry of those entering service today exist on different planets, to the extent that they can both be understood as the same enterprise at all. Jan Edmiston offered some reflection on these changes this week. She offered some good insights on the difference between generations in the church, and made some insightful suggestions. Jan started a good conversation, and helped me to think through some additional points, aided by a number of people who have discussed the proposed changes on social media.
The truth is, I am not the only plan member who lives in the sandwich. My parents depend on the plan’s covenantal promises to them for life, sustenance and medical care. My own life and ministry are better because the plan will stand by them. And, though I am in the past-50 crowd, I share a status with many younger plan members – I have dependents, including at least one child whom I hope to carry on my coverage until his 26th birthday. And I, like many others in the plan, am intrigued and inspired by the ministry of people coming into the field. I must hasten here to say, yes, to those who decry the “generational wars” – not ALL of them, as not all young pastors are noted for their creativity, and not all older pastors are notable for their stick-in-the-mud and longing-for-the-past manner of ministry. But having made that clear – there ARE some really creative younger pastors, who are taking the endeavor into exciting and faithful directions that are making a difference in many areas. The fact that some of these are the same who will be most adversely impacted by the proposed plan changes should at least give us pause.
Finally – a question. Is this the way we should go forward? I absolutely believe that the Board of Pensions is between a rock and a hard place and has to act to save the plan for all in the community. I don’t believe that modifying the community and call-neutral nature of the plan is the best way to save this plan. Long before the present moment, recommendations have emerged about compensation equity which would change the way that we approached these issues. The most recent, the report of the Special Committee on the Nature of the 21st Century, recommended earlier this year to the General Assembly a number of changes with benefits implications. That report referenced work that brought recommendations to the 2010 General Assembly of a five-tier compensation scale for the PC(USA), and asked that these recommendations and their foundational study be revisited. These should be taken seriously and mined for insights that can move us in faithful directions.
Ultimately, this decision hasn’t been all-the-way-made. The communiqué was a form of first reading. The decision is to be confirmed in March. Thoughtful people, then, have a chance to comment. Comment can protest the current idea, suggest revisions and corrections, and/or propose new and different paths forward. It is my conviction that we are called in this moment to, at the very least, affirm the community and call-neutral nature of the plan in which we hold membership. Those who have good ideas on how to go forward and can take this conversation further are hereby encouraged to do so.
The Rev. Dr. Cynthia Holder Rich is a pastor at Village Presbyterian Church in Prairie Village, Kansas, and is editor of ecclesio.