The PC(USA) Board of Pensions and Affirming Community – by Cynthia Holder Rich

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.

17 comments to The PC(USA) Board of Pensions and Affirming Community – by Cynthia Holder Rich

  • Allison Seed

    Thank you for your thoughtful reflection. It will be passed on!

  • Beth Herrinton-Hodge

    I am very concerned in reading these proposed changes to the Board of Pensions Plan. As a member of the plan since 1985, I have been on both sides of the benefit/burden realities of the “community nature and call-neutrality” of the plan. When initially enrolled, I was a single person. At the time, plan benefits allowed single members to select add-ons without charge (such as optional dental coverage, increased death and disability benefits) because our churches paid the same full price as members who had famiilies. When health insurance costs increased, the add-on benefits for free were eliminated for single members as a cost-saving measure.

    As a clergy member, married to a clergy member, when both of us are enrolled in the plan and both of our churches paying full dues for us, our family receives a number of additional benefits such as $0 co-pay and minimal deductables. As I am currenlty not serving a called position, our family is completely covered under my husbands membership. This is a welcome benefit to our ash-strapped family.

    It is from this position I write: there is a great disparity in clery salaries across our denomination. The one benefit clergy can count on, across the board, is full medical covereage for ourselves adn our family regardless of our congregations ability to pay a generous salary. Clergy serving calls where the congregation can only pay the bare minimum can have some peace of mind knowing that health care crises will be covered. To levy an additional payment for dependents on clergy or on their congregations will further tax the slim budgets pastors and congregations live on.

    The proposed option contains language that allows congregations to decide if they will cover the additional charges levied for dependents, or if they will pass these charges on to their pastor, or work out a combination of these choices. Larger congregations, or those better endowed, may be able to cover the additional costs for their pastors. I fear that smaller, or more cash-strapped, congregations will ahve little choice to pass the costs onto their pastors. These are the very pastors who already live on Presbytery minimums.

    I agree with Cynthia, a place to begin to address the community nature-call neutral issues of our Bd. of Pensions system is to look (and adjust)at the wider issue of income disparity among clergy. Without looking into this crucial issue, and moving forward with the Bd. of Pensions proposal, will further exacerbate disparity among clergy and among our congregations. I fear it will be extremely damaging to our church.

  • Debra Avery

    Thank you, Cynthia! If you form a think tank around this I’d like to hear more. I am an idea person and these ideas seem problematic at a minimum. Devastating to pastors with dependents and who serve small churches (me).

  • Traci Smith

    Thank you SO MUCH, Cynthia. I am very interested in the final paragraph of your post. How can we all comment, organize, and make our voices known? I am a younger pastor serving in a church that very much wants to see younger kids and teens sitting alongside the senior citizens in the pews. The proposed structure would put a heavy burden on them. I just heard a PCUSA BoP representative tell the presbytery that younger members are not paying for older members’ pensions because the program is fully funded. This may be true, but this proposal shows that we will be paying for our older colleagues in other ways. Is this the legacy we want to leave? How can we organize for change? I am very open to helping in this effort. I don’t believe I’m the right person to lead it.

  • Brenda Simpson

    I want to preface these questions by assuring everyone that I am very troubled by the impact that these proposed changes might have on both families and churches. I am hopeful that a plan will be adopted that is found to be more equitable to all of those serving our churches. My concern is that these arguments against the proposed plan largely seem at best poorly articulated and at worst entirely inconsistent.

    For example: You write, “The concept underlying all insurance plans is community –everyone pays in, and the benefits and the risks are therefore shared.” This seems like a wonderful argument in favor of the changes! The BoP is asking that someone kick in a little something for the non-employees who are benefitting from the plan. Currently, pastors can extend BoP benefits to spouses and dependents while neither they nor their churches contribute anything more to the plan. The system we have now is one in which not “everyone pays in.” If this is your argument, then the proposed changes serve to remedy that.

    And as far as this notion of community is served, even under the proposed changes the community still shares 65% of the burden of fees for non-employees. Is the affirmation of the community only noted at the 100% level? Why isn’t finding a way to maintain the stability of the program a way of supporting the community? My church, which is led by a pastor with no spouse or dependents, will still pay dues to a system that will fund 65% of the fees of someone else’s children. Will you no longer consider us to be in community with you? If that’s the case, then I suppose my church ought to also petition the BoP to only pay the dues needed to fund my pastor’s benefits.

    Look, I want us to figure out how to take care of the families that serve our churches, but the arguments, (and particularly the vitriol), I’m seeing in response to these changes are not resonating well with me and many others. I hope that as you work together to form the statements that you want to present to BoP that you can consider the voices of those who disagree with you and that those voices might help you shape more effective arguments that might have a chance of influencing the changes you want to see.

  • Wayne A Yost

    Cynthia, thank you. Although I can see the setting sun of my retirement on the horizon, I worry about the effects of the proposed changes on those who are just coming into ministry with families. The proposed changes will most adversely effect the younger ministers. One of the realities where I serve is more and more pastoral positions are being filled by those who are not required to participate in the Plan. Commissioned Ruling Elders and Temporary Supplies are now filling positions once filled by installed pastors. In the last 20 years we have lost about 20 installed pastoral positions. I propose overturing the next GA to change the participation rule so all who are serving a congregation(s) be required to participate.

    Call neutrality and the community nature of the plan MUST be preserved.

  • Very well put, Cynthia. Thank you for this excellent response. I think there are many angles to this issue. Here is my own response (one of many that could be added). http://sorgewing.blogspot.com/2012/11/2-new-1.html

  • Wayne A Yost

    In this presbytery the proposed reduction in dues would save the congregation, at presbytery minimum with a manse, $808. Without knowing the proposed rates to cover spouse/family under the new plan it is impossible to calculate what the impact will be for coverage for the spouse/family. Will the additional spouse/family coverage cost more or less than the amount in the dues reduction for the congregation? We are left in a position of having incomplete information with which to use in resisting or supporting the proposed change.

    Since the presbytery sets minimum terms of call it would be possible for the presbytery to require the congregation to include spouse/family coverage.

  • Brenda Simpson

    I want to preface these questions by assuring everyone that I am very troubled by the impact that these proposed changes might have on both families and churches. I am hopeful that a plan will be adopted that is found to be more equitable to all of those serving our churches. My concern is that these arguments against the proposed plan largely seem at best poorly articulated and at worst entirely inconsistent.

    For example: You write, “The concept underlying all insurance plans is community –everyone pays in, and the benefits and the risks are therefore shared.” This seems like a wonderful argument in favor of the changes! The BoP is asking that someone kick in a little something for the non-employees who are benefitting from the plan. Currently, pastors can extend BoP benefits to spouses and dependents while neither they nor their churches contribute anything more to the plan. The system we have now is one in which not “everyone pays in.” If this is your argument, then the proposed changes serve to remedy that.

    And as far as this notion of community is served, even under the proposed changes the community still shares 65% of the burden of fees for non-employees. Is the affirmation of the community only noted at the 100% level? Why isn’t finding a way to maintain the stability of the program a way of supporting the community? My church, which is led by a pastor with no spouse or dependents, will still pay dues to a system that will fund 65% of the fees of someone else’s children. Will you no longer consider us to be in community with you? If that’s the case, then I suppose my church ought to also petition the BoP to only pay the dues needed to fund my pastor’s benefits.

    Look, I want us to figure out how to take care of the families that serve our churches, but the arguments, (and particularly the vitriol), I’m seeing in response to these changes are not resonating well with me and many others. I hope that as you work together to form the statements that you want to present to BoP that you can consider the voices of those who disagree with you and that those voices might help you shape more effective arguments that might have a chance of influencing the changes you want to see.

    • Hi Brenda,
      Thanks for responding. I’m sorry if you heard vitriol in this post. I am listening in on conversations about organizing and next steps. If you want to take part in those efforts, be in touch. Cynthia

  • [...] have an impact on how she and her husband pursue God’s calling. Cynthia Holder Rich has a different perspective as “a member who lives in the sandwich.” Stephanie Sorge Wing doesn’t pull any punches and speaks prophetically about the potential [...]

  • Karen Sapio

    As COM chair in my Presbytery, I’m already seeing churches of all sizes attempting all kinds of “work around” strategies to deal with the high cost of clergy health benefits. Some small churches take the opportunity of a pastoral vacancy to redefine their pastoral position as “supply pastor” so that they will not have to pay benefits as this is not required for pastors serving in temporary pastoral relationships. Other churches are calling non-PCUSA pastors so that they don’t have to provide their benefits through BOP. Some larger churches who have had Associate Pastors in the past now are hiring a “Minister to Families” or a “Directors of Missions” who may or may not be seminary trained so that they either don’t have to pay benefits or can choose to offer a less expensive plan. Other congregations bring on one or more Parish Associates or seminary interns to do the work that would have gone to an Associate in the past and the cost of benefits is often a factor in that decision. My guess is that this kind of manouevering will continue regardless of whether the proposed restructuring takes place–to everyone’s detriment.

  • Holly Yeuell

    And please don’t forget that this also affects other ministry professionals as well as clergy. Does anyone know how these BoP changes interact with Obamacare? Did BoP include anticipation of Obamacare changes in this consideration?