All Things are Lawful: The Board of Pensions and the Church’s Call – by Cynthia Holder Rich

All things are lawful, but not all things are beneficial.  All things are lawful, but not all things build up.

I Corinthians 10:23(NRSV)

I feel like I’ve been slow on the uptake.

When the Board of Directors of the Presbyterian Church (USA) Board of Pensions announced, after their October 2012 meeting on Hilton Head Island, that the Board had taken a first positive vote on substantial changes in the medical plan fee structure, I responded, as others did, with commentary and encouragement for dialogue.[1] Key issues have been identified and lifted up – the need to affirm and sustain the community nature of the plan; the problem of the aging of those in the Plan, and what this means in terms of the number of people paying in and the needs of all; gross pay inequalities that occur across the church, in every presbytery, and the fact that Board of Pensions’ staff are among the highest-paid members of the Plan; and the potential for substantial numbers of Plan members to experience great difficulty shouldering thousands of dollars of increased cost to cover their families – a burden, as many have noted, that pastors who are not well-paid will not be able to shoulder.  The facts of low clergy compensation (in relation to the educational requirements of the job), coupled for many with high clergy student debt, have been pointed out as foundational factors in the comfort congregations feel in offering medical coverage to clergy families, despite trends across business and industry toward reductions in coverage. The Board’s webinars, which have been offered on an invitation-only basis thus far, suggest that over 80% of Plan members have covered dependents, and they estimate that for someone like me, whose coverage includes both spouse and children, the added premiums would amount to approximately $5700 annually.  Much has been made in published commentary about the gross burden this will impose on small congregations, who already struggle with the cost of pension and medical for ordained staff.  I certainly see that – I served small congregations for 15 years, and all those I served will have difficulty building this into their 2014 budget.  Some will no doubt encourage pastors to take on the added cost if they wish to maintain coverage for their families.

However, the problem created by the proposed changes will not be limited to small congregations and the Plan members who serve them.  I currently serve at a very large congregation, with multiple clergy and a few lay Plan members on staff.  I can tell you with no added drama or emotion that figuring out how to cover our staff at an added personnel cost of $30,000-40,000 will take some deep level of creative financing in order to move toward building this  into our budget planning between this year and next.

So, as a cradle Presbyterian, I thought that what we had to do was talk.  (Yes, we Presbyterians put great stock in words – yes, we do, sometimes to our credit, and oft to our chagrin.  But there you have it.)  We had to talk about this, encourage others to talk about this, advocate for Presbytery-wide conversations, write letters and commentaries, comment on the writing of others who write – and all of this would move the church to consider whether this was the best, most wise, most faithful way to solve a financial problem. I have had an unconscious sense, I guess, that we Plan members were something like a union — and if we had a problem with what was offered or how it was offered, we could join in conversation and talk it out. Come now, let us reason together, I thought – and surely we will find a better way.

And that’s where I, with my cradle Presbyterian blinders firmly affixed, fell down on the job.

John Fife and Deborah Fortel, both great leaders of our church who have been courageous and faithful in a variety of contexts in their ministries, wrote a letter to mid-council staff, requesting that they send the letter on to Teaching Elders and Clerks of Session.  That, some of them have done; this has encouraged conversation in a number of places, and people who didn’t know about the proposed changes started thinking (and talking, yes, talking) about the potential implications.  In response to that letter, an elected member of the Board of Directors of the Board of Pensions mused to me as to why the Revs. Fife and Fortel chose to send the letter to mid-councils, and not to the Board of Directors. That got me thinking that perhaps all this talking might not be making the difference some had hoped.

Then, in response to correspondence I sent to Andrew Browne, Corporate Secretary of the Board of Pensions, Mr. Browne shared with me part of the FAQ’s that will be posted on the Board website soon.  It reads as follows.


Q31. Is the Board required to seek approval in advance from the General Assembly before amending the Medical Plan? Can General Assembly overturn a dues action by the Board of Directors of the Board of Pensions?

A. The answer to both questions is no.

Since the adoption of the Benefits Plan of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) (Minutes, 1986, Part I, p. 55), the Board of Pensions has always had the authority under Article XIX of the Benefits Plan to amend the Medical Plan, “taking into consideration claims experience, administrative expenses, changes in the healthcare industry, and other relevant factors.” The only limitation on that authority is that it must be reported “to the next succeeding General Assembly of the Church” (quotes from the Benefits Plan, Sec 19.3).

The only instance in which the Board must seek approval in advance for dues or a change in coverage actions is with regard to the Pension Plan, specifically “a benefit reduction or a dues increase (which amendments require the approval in advance of the General Assembly of the Church).”

After thinking through what Mr. Browne shared – which included a helpful reference to the relevant section of the Board of Pensions Benefits Plan 2013 (see page 81 for the section he noted) – I finally figured out how slow I had been.  It is the Board of Directors who hold all the cards in this case. No amount of talking about this among others – no number of letters, commentaries, editorials, interviews, blogposts – no conversations across congregations, Presbyteries or the whole church – can be relied upon to make a substantive difference, after all.  The Board must come to Assembly with proposed benefits reductions in the Pension Plan – but the Board has the power to terminate the Plan altogether, which seems pretty significant, and certainly has the sole authority, without reference to anyone or any other body, to amend the medical plan, which is what is being proposed.

This brings me back to the scripture text that opens this piece. This was, as it happens, the first text I translated in Greek I at McCormick Theological Seminary, with the great and powerful Dr. Adela Yarbro Collins at the helm. (Dr. Collins was the first female full professor to serve at McCormick since Hulda Niebuhr, who finished her service in 1959. Hence, Dr. Collin’s inauguration made a great impact on us at the time in terms of our sense of justice, inclusivity, and fairness, issues that are equally theologically and ecclesiologically cogent in our discussion here as they were for women and men at McCormick in my time there.) I include it here (with fond memories of a wonderful class and great discussions of this text’s meaning) because it is as completely true for us today as it was for the troublesome and troubled members of the church at Corinth.  Just because something is legal does not make it helpful nor ensure that it will build up the body.  And we in the church are called at all times to be about that which builds up the body – anything different or anything less is not following the call Jesus has put on us all.

The Board has not been singularly forthcoming with information about the proposed changes.  For example, they have not released the whole plan, so no one outside the Board and the Board of Directors can substantively respond.  They did not come to the last General Assembly with news that they were considering a significant change in medical coverage, and I for one am not surprised that they did not; they didn’t have to do so, and this is the kind of issue that is more efficiently and quickly dealt with if fewer people become aware.  I do believe that some at the Board knew this was coming by the time many of us gathered at Pittsburgh, but no official word was shared.  The webinars presented so far have been characterized by those who have received invitations and taken part as not opportunities for dialogue or questioning but rather sessions where information is shared – a sort of one-way communication.  These are to be posted on the site soon – and again, there is not expectation that those who download them will be given opportunity to respond.  It’s all very corporate in tone, style and content, a trend that is present and often decried by some in other agencies of the Presbyterian Church (USA); but after all, we set it up this way. It turns out that we, the members of the Plan, work in a non-union shop.

All of this is legal – no harm, no foul – nothing wrong has been done.

So, now that I have come to understand what I was slow in perceiving, I encourage a different sort of communication, which I believe and hope can make the difference needed. .

There is only one way in which this is not a cut and dried fait accompli — but there is, thanks be to God, one way. We have elected people who represent us, the members of the Plan, to make the decisions in this case. Those representatives are the Board of Directors. As it is the Board of Directors who have the voice and vote, and who will make the final decision when they meet in March, we who think alternatives must be considered are called to be in touch with them (and forward blogposts, letters, and every other sort of communication that has emerged to date). The speed with which the proposed changes are to be enacted provides ample urgency to the discussions that must be undertaken.  In just one common set of circumstances, under the proposed changes, Plan members with covered spouse and children whose base salary is $40,000 and whose employing institution chooses to pass on the increased cost will experience what amounts to a 12% pay cut from 2013 to 2014.  This is too severe to bear for many, and will move many Sessions and pastors to look for options outside the Plan, which may well threaten the collapse of the medical Plan.  The proposed changes are legal, and this must be stressed; and they will not, I believe, build up the body.  We already have many features of our life together as Presbyterians that do not build up the body.  We as the Church are called to struggle and to find more community-affirming, body-building solutions so that we can go forward faithfully.  We must not only use our skills and gifts at talking, then – we must talk to and with those who can make a faithful difference, calling them to the holy and oft-arduous work of problem-solving, and so be about the building up of the Body.

[1] Carol Howard Merritt, Stephanie Sorge Wing, Erica SchemperRyan Kemp-Pappan, John Fife and Deborah Fortel and others have written on this issue as well – all of them encouraging conversation that might move the church toward a search for more faithful, compassionate, and community-affirming alternatives to the current financial problem.

19 comments to All Things are Lawful: The Board of Pensions and the Church’s Call – by Cynthia Holder Rich

  • I think the BOP is way off the mark on this. If they continue on this course, we need to exercise more scrutiny when it comes times to elect Board members. Just as elections have consequences, decisions have consequences when it comes to elections.

  • Scott Nesbitt

    For several years I have asked whether any consideration has been given to expanding our insurance coverage into an ecumenical program. That is to say, I wonder if, instead of a plan that covers PCUSA ministers and their dependents alone, we could be in dialogue with denominations–like those we are in open communion with–about developing a broader coverage program. In the insurance industry, numbers matter. The more people involved, the better leverage there is.

    To date, I have not received a satisfactory response. Some seemed to think that I was proposing a change to the pensions structure, and were worried about how that would affect retirement earnings. Others argued there was nothing that could be done due to problems caused by inter-state rules (a response that made–and makes–no sense to me since we already participate in a national plan). And a few times I was told that someone would “get back to me.”

    Can anyone tell me whether any thought has been given at all to developing a larger, ecumenical health insurance program for our members and others? The enlarging of the pool would make perfect sense, if you ask me.

  • Rev Tricia Dillon Thomas

    Who are the Board of Directors? I’ve tried to look them up, and can’t find anything about specific members. If you have access to this information, will you please post?

  • Rev Tricia Dillon Thomas

    Perhaps this is it? Click on this link to connect to your representative:

    The eight Regional Representatives are:

    Ernesto Badillo
    Representative for Synods of the Trinity, the Covenant, and Boriquen more

    Clayton Cobb
    Representative for the Synods of the Southwest and Southern California and Hawaii

    Mark Frey
    Representative for Synods of Alaska-Northwest and the Pacific

    Kevin Keaton
    Representative for Synods of the Sun and the Rocky Mountains

    Helen Locklear
    Representative for Synod of the Mid-Atlantic and part of the Synod of Living Waters (KY, TN)

    Allison K. Seed
    Representative for Synod of the Northeast

    T. Clark Simmons
    Representative for Synod of South Atlantic and part of the Synod of Living Waters (AL, MS)

    Position Currently Vacant
    Representative for Synods of Lakes and Prairies, Mid-America, and Lincoln Trails

  • Larry

    These are not the board of directors. Contact GA for the list as the board of directors are elected by GA

  • Molly Casteel

    On page three of this document you will find the list of all persons serving at the time of the 220th GA (2012) in both classes of directors for BOP —

  • Anon

    Can I add one thought? For all of you who are lamenting this proposal, I would hope that you would not simply tell the BoP not to do this, but offer some reasonable alternative. Many smaller congregations struggle to pay the current dues; a 4% raise would be hard to manage. It’s easy to whine, harder to solve.

    I do wonder if an unspoken part of this move is a necessary response to so many clergy and churches leaving the PCUSA. If the Presbytery Execs are right, some 600 congregations have or will be leaving in this current wave. Add to that the increasing number of shrinking congregations who can no longer afford to hire a pastor and I’ll bet that the next few years will see ~1000 fewer clergy in the BoP plan. That’s got to have an effect on the medical plan.

    • Cynthia Holder Rich

      Hi, the problem with your (very good) idea is that no real alternative can be offered as the whole current plan has not been released. So, alternatives to what? This makes responding difficult.

  • small church pastor

    The current proposal would raise my church’s percentage to 32% if they offer coverage of family. If they do not, it reduces my pay below the poverty line.

  • Connie Weaver

    This change will bring a hardship on many; but consider what the board is up against. They are charged with keeping the plan tenable, which it will not be if changes are not made. The rising cost of health care, the increasing use of it for expensive procedures, particularly by middle- and older-adults, the shrinking number of supporting churches; all these combine to place those in the position of making decisions in a very undesireable situation. For those of us affected to simply say, “Don’t do this; it’s wrong; find another way,” reflects an uninformed response.

    We have had a cadillac of health plans at a time when many have no health insurance at all. It seems to me that the real world is simply catching up with us.

    • Cynthia Holder Rich

      Thanks, Connie — I believe there must be alternatives to forcing pastors into poverty — which is what it amounts to when Plan members are required to retain coverage through the Board. If churches and other employing institutions could shop around they might find less expensive options, but the Plan would have difficulty covering those who remain. So I encourage the Board to develop other options.

  • Susan

    I write as a Presbyterian and as one who works in an ecumenical setting counseling students as they go out into ministry positions. Some of our ecumenical colleagues do this–they have tiered coverage, with some churches paying for pastor and spouse/dependents, and others for pastor only. This has created a two tiered system, with some very talented, very committed future pastors unable to even apply for a position in a rural location, because the church can’t cover his or her family. These are folks willing to work for low wages–so long as their family is covered. In rural locations where spousal employment options are limited, a candidate must be able to cover his or her family. I don’t want to see the Presbyterians go this way. One’s family status should not stand in the way of a true call to serve in a setting.

  • Jerrod Lowry

    i just have a hard time getting over the fact they made such a supposedly cost friendly proposal while meeting on Hilton Head Island.

  • Jim

    It only makes sense that a denomination that is bent on destroying itself would make decisions that undermine the next generation. The race to zero is on!

  • Robin

    I don’t think I have the Cadillac of healthcare plans. My parents were teachers in New York State. They had/have the Cadillac of healthcare plans. Federal employees have the Rolls Royces of healthcare plans.

  • Robin L

    I don’t think we’re giving enough attention to the suggestion in an early reply about seeking a broader base by recommending to the Board that they investigate an ecumenical group approach to Medical coverage – separate from the Pension Plan.

  • Stephen

    I believe there are several better options, the problem with them is that they require the church to live more in the Kingdom of God and less in a capitalistic/secular society. That isn’t easy. Since I don’t have all the information I can’t give any real great suggestions, but I think one possibility is a scaled system. Churches with budgets of certain amounts could pay higher percentages for dues, thus helping smaller churches. I know many hate that idea for national taxes but if we believe in the connectional nature of the church we really are in this together. If small churches can’t afford pastors many more will close, meaning less Presbyterians in small towns who may eventually move to big towns when they get out of college and then go find other churches that aren’t Presbyterian. Many larger city church members often come for a small church heritage. There will be fewer churches meaning fewer jobs meaning fewer people considering going into the clergy.
    I’m a pastor who relies on the BOP for coverage for my family. My wife currently is a adjunct community college instructor and does free lance writing, therefore no benefits. We almost moved back east where there were more library jobs for her or where she was qualified to teach. I could have taken a job outside the church in education, too, but we decided take a church opportunity nearby. I love the church, but part of what allowed us to do that was the assurance of good medical coverage for the family. Now we’ll have to find the money to pay for the family to have coverage which will put a strain on us financially. Or we could leave the church we love, and move to a place where there are jobs available for her. In the first church I served in a small town, there were no jobs there either for spouses. That is the case in many small towns. This will make it even harder for small churches to find pastors and for pastors with families even in the large cities.
    My spouse gave up a lot for me to be in the church but at least she used to feel supported by the larger church and the Board of Pensions. Now she feels more like a liability and is afraid the church will see her as such, too, because someone will have to pick up the burden because she doesn’t have healthcare. The reason? She stuck by me and stuck by the church. To bad the Board of Pensions isn’t returning the favor.