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. 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.
GENERAL ASSEMBLY AND THE BENEFITS PLAN
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.
 Carol Howard Merritt, Stephanie Sorge Wing, Erica Schemper, Ryan 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.