Sunday, November 4, 2012

The Board of Pensions and Me

Yesterday I wrote a post with a fictional – though quite common – ministry scenario in response to the Board of Pensions plan (pending approval) to eliminate full medical coverage for dependents of plan members. Today I tell another story – my own. It is not just my story; it is a story I have heard echoed in many others’ experiences, as well.

My husband and I are both ordained in the PC (USA), and we took our first call as Co-Pastors to a small church in central Kentucky. After three years working in that call together, for a number of reasons – including budgetary concerns – I left that position at the end of 2011.

I had a number of other projects on my plate, and so I knew I wouldn’t be bored, but I had no idea just how busy I would be. I was serving on the Presbytery’s Commission on Ministry. I was chairing a Task Force to write a new Manual of Operations for the Presbytery. I was serving on a Special GA Committee, to Study the Nature of the Church in the 21st Century, and I was serving with a few others within that group in the writing and editing of our final report and recommendations. None of these were paying positions, but they certainly kept me busy and engaged.

In addition, I quickly found a great demand for supply preaching. Over the past 10 ½ months, I have preached nearly every weekend at different churches throughout the Presbytery. I preached thirteen Sundays in churches that were without any pastoral leadership or in transition. On five Sundays, I made official church visits for the Commission on Ministry – being with congregations in worship, visiting and meeting with Sessions, sharing fellowship meals with church members, and providing presbytery support as needed. I preached four additional Sundays at churches where I serve as COM liaison. I preached an additional 12 Sundays in churches when pastors were out of town, sick, or otherwise indisposed. I gave three Sundays at events in service to the church, including General Assembly in Pittsburgh.  That adds up to 37 weeks of service to the church since early January – almost every single Sunday when I myself wasn’t on the road.

In addition, I have been grateful to find some contract work in service to the church, mostly writing curriculum for Adult Sunday School classes that is used extensively throughout the PC (USA) and other denominations. It is work that pays a bit, but is really still service to the larger church.

Including the paid work of writing and supply preaching, I have worked more than full time, on average, since I left my installed call, almost entirely without any pay at all. I am aware that it truly is a privilege – and I use that word very intentionally – to have been in a place of relative security to enable that service to the church, and yet it has been disheartening at times.

We live in a small town in a region full of small towns and high unemployment. Jobs aren’t plentiful, and each time I considered applying even for a part-time position to add to our family income, I held back because of how it would have interfered with the other work that I was engaged in, even if it was unpaid.

My husband barely makes above presbytery minimum right now, which is a major financial stretch for us, but a major security net has been full coverage for both of us in the healthcare plan of the Board of Pensions. If we had been in a position of having to pay part of my coverage, we would have had to have made some very different financial and vocational choices, any of which would have had an impact on our ability to serve the church as we feel we have been called to do.

Through these challenges, I have also been supported by the strength of a connectional church, including the communal system of care for its members and their families through the Board of Pensions. I believe that my service has strengthened the connectional fibers of a church that is feeling the strain of denominational discord, dwindling resources, and anxiety in changing times.

I have heard similar stories from many other clergy, particularly from clergy couples and female clergy. One spouse has a call in a particular geographic area that doesn’t have ample opportunities for full time work for the other spouse. Or perhaps one spouse is financially able to take a part-time call with no Board of Pensions coverage because the family is covered, medically, under the other’s call.

Again, I recognize and I am grateful for the privilege that I have had to have served the church for the past year without having a call and commensurate income, but it has also been a major financial stretch for us – it has eaten away at our short-term savings, nearly halted our retirement savings, not to mention pension credits that I haven’t been earning in my time of service. It really isn’t sustainable. And yet, I have been amazed at how God has provided for our needs during this time. One of those means of provision has been through the current Board of Pensions plan.

One of my colleagues on the Special Committee to Study the Nature of the Church in the 21st Century has similarly given years of her time, energy, and gifts in service to the church, thanks to a spouse with a secular job and large income. We don’t have that.

I don’t know of any young adult clergy who have that kind of financial security. We are graduating with unprecedented levels of educational debt and entering the worst economic landscape in decades. We are postponing marriage and raising children, often for financial reasons.

And yet, we continue to discern our call to serve God through the church, knowing the bleak outlook for full-time ministry, knowing that we can’t rely on the same kind of vocational or financial security that our predecessors have enjoyed. Still, the benefit of participation in a plan that provides coverage for some of the basic needs of a clergy and family, goes a long way in providing the basic security that will enable more clergy – young and not so young – to answer the call to ministry in a rapidly changing landscape that will demand more creativity and flexibility than ever before. 

There is Enough

Sermon preached Sunday, November 4th at Hunter Presbyterian Church, Lexington, for their Consecration Sunday. I can't help thinking about how this speaks to the current Board of Pensions issue, as well.

Texts: 1 Kings 17:1-16 and Luke 12:22-34

“Why Give?” – Stephanie Sorge Wing, 11.4.12
When Jason invited me, a number of months ago, to preach for this consecration Sunday, I immediately said yes. “I love preaching about money!” I said. Besides, this might be a rare occasion when a sermon about money meets with some relief – at least it’s a break from politics!
Actually, Jesus had more to say about money than anything else, except for the kingdom of heaven. So the thought that we have a money sermon just once a year is quite out of step with the gospel that we preach! I trust that you have heard more about money and stewardship over the course of the year, but I know that it is often difficult to move from the sermon over to the bottom line.
Our relationship with possessions and money is about so much more than the bottom line. In fact, dare I say it, the budget doesn’t matter! I know many churches that put out a proposed budget and ask for pledges to support it, as if the budget is the goal of giving. But it’s not. A budget is important for good practices of stewardship, and it is also a moral document. One can, in theory, look at any budget – household or church – and tell where the priorities are. That’s pretty much what our final verse from Luke says – that we put our money where our hearts are. But, it’s not about the budget. So what gives? Why give?
Throughout our faith history, God has invited God’s people to give, at times even sacrificially. Look at the widow from our first reading. In a time of severe drought and famine, there is a widow living with her son, running out of food and time. She has done all that she could to keep him alive. Imagine the nights she rocked him to sleep, singing to him so that her song would be louder than his rumbling, empty stomach. Friends or family members, if she had any to begin with, had already given all they could, or so they said. There simply wasn’t enough. But at least she would give her son one final meal, see one final smile on his face, and hold back her own tears before holding him in a final, eternal embrace. This widow has nothing to her name but two fire-starting sticks, and a little oil and flour. And God, through Elijah, asks for it. God asks for it. For everything.
It is reminiscent of the story from a lectionary reading a few weeks ago, a familiar story about a rich young man who comes to Jesus. He asked what he had to do to inherit eternal life, and when Jesus says he must sell all of his possessions and give the money to the poor, this poor, rich, young man balks, and goes away, dejected. Jesus asked for it. For everything.
God invites us to give sacrificially, not just to support some good work, but because our very souls are at stake. It is so easy to find our comfort and security in our material possessions, rather than trusting in God’s providence and care for all of life. Remember the birds, and the lilies, and the grass of the field? Does God forget about them? No! God knows what we need, and delights in providing for us.
Imagine God’s delight in providing for the widow and her son, in displaying such a providential miracle of oil and flour that didn’t run out. What if she had missed out on that? What might we miss out on, if we resist God’s call to give, not just out of our abundance, but of our substance?
I’m not suggesting that sacrificial giving is rewarded with financial or material wealth. That’s not the gospel. But when we give with open hands, our open hands and open hearts are able to receive blessings that clasped hands simply can’t hold onto.
What a blessing to see an immediate impact that our giving can make, or even to trust the impact that we may never see. As a pastor, I’ve had perhaps more opportunity to see how the mission and ministry money of the church impacts others, such as the families in need of heating oil, or the communities who receive an outpouring of support and assistance through the Presbyterian Disaster Agency. To these people, the money and help is literally a God-send. And isn’t it, after all, sent from God? 
Another reason that God calls us to be generous givers is because it reminds us of where our help comes from – the Lord, who made heaven and earth, who clothes the lilies and feeds the birds. We recognize that what we have is not simply ours to give, but that everything belongs to God. We are entrusted with great resources not for our own gain, but to practice wise and faithful stewardship of God’s bounty. Giving back a portion of what we have helps to remind us that all that we have belongs to God.
Giving is also an important spiritual discipline. It helps us to cultivate lives and attitudes of generosity. We have been created in the image of a God who is lavishly generous, having freely given us all that we have, and more importantly, that which we could never secure on our own – grace, mercy, and forgiveness through Jesus Christ, who gave his very life in the ultimate show of loving generosity. Having been created in the image of such a generous God, we, too, are called to be generous people.
Those are all good reasons to give. But there is another very important one that we don’t often consider. We live in a society that is ruled by a mindset of scarcity. The message that we hear in society today is that there simply is not enough for everyone to have what they want or need. We hear this in the political rhetoric. We see this scarcity mindset at work in the economy. Executive compensation in the richest companies is as high as it ever has been, and economic disparity in the country is epidemic. Is there really not enough?
The scarcity mindset has very little to do with actual scarcity. In fact, studies routinely show that Americans with the lowest incomes – including those below the poverty level – give a higher percentage of their income to church and to charity than do those in any other earnings bracket. Those who genuinely have the least may struggle with scarcity, but by and large they see that there is still enough to give. The only correlation between true scarcity and the mindset of scarcity is that living in the mindset of scarcity encourages us to hoard and look out for ourselves, which really can diminish the resources available for the most vulnerable in our midst.
Our culture says that there is not enough. We hear it everywhere we turn. And we hear that more and more in the church. Many churches are struggling with budgetary concerns, having to cut down to the bare bones. We see this in congregations, in the Presbytery, and at the Denominational level. It’s easy to say, “There simply isn’t enough.” Of all the cultural lies that the church might buy into, this is perhaps the most pervasive, and the most damaging. Not only does it impact the ministries that the church can do, it also perpetuates a lie about God.
When we say, “there isn’t enough,” we deny the sovereignty of God. When we say, “there isn’t enough,” we deny that through God, all things are possible. When we say, “there isn’t enough,” we deny that it is God who calls us to, and enables us for, ministry as the body of Christ. I honestly believe that if God is calling us to particular forms of ministry, that God will provide abundantly all that we need and more than we can imagine.
I heard recently of a church in a very poor, urban area that has developed a huge outreach to the neighborhood, even though most of the people that attend the church live at or around the poverty level. One ministry of this church is a health clinic that houses a doctor, a nurse, mental health counselors, and more. The doctor who serves in this ministry was making good money in a private practice, but felt that God was calling her to do more. This doctor now joyfully gives of her time and money in full time work at this clinic. It actually costs her $12,000 per year personally to work there. A while back, it looked like funding was finally running out. The pastor of the church, meanwhile, had a lunch meeting that had been set up by someone in the church with a local business person. The pastor shared about what was happening in the life of the church, and the business person asked, “What’s got you down?” The pastor responded, “Well, we have this great clinic, but it looks like we’re going to have to close it unless we get some money, and soon.” This business person responded, “My company is looking for a place where we can make a charitable contribution. Perhaps we can help!” Later that afternoon, the pastor returned from the corporate office with a check for $5000, exactly what was needed to keep the doors open.
That isn’t to say that we have unlimited resources to do whatever we want. But if God is calling us to do something, there is enough.
It is remarkable that there are enough resources in the world to go around, so that no one would be without the basic necessities of life. God, who created the world, gave us everything we needed for life to be sustained and enjoyed. And yet, we don’t need to look far to see that there are so many people who do not have what they need. And maybe we start to believe that there just isn’t enough.
I am sure you have been moved by the images coming out of the eastern seaboard this week, particularly in New York and New Jersey. Some areas are receiving the aid that they need, while others are being ignored. Emergency supplies run out. The answer: there just isn’t enough. I’ve also heard inspiring stories of neighbors helping neighbors. They might not have much to give, but they are giving what they have. They aren’t worried about there not being enough; they are more concerned with sharing what they have.
In one way or another, we constantly hear the message that there simply isn’t enough. Because there isn’t enough, we have to compete for what we want, hold onto it tenaciously, and not let go. But we worship a God who created all that we have and all that we need, a God who, throughout history, has demonstrated abundance in the face of scarcity.
We already heard about the widow and her flour and oil. There wasn’t enough. There also wasn’t enough food for Jacob and his family, but they found abundance and reunion with Joseph in Egypt. There wasn’t enough food and water in the wilderness, and yet the Israelites had all that they needed – water from rocks, and bread and meat from heaven. In fact, if they tried to save it, to build up a stash, it rotted within a day. These Israelites, who left slavery in Egypt, had nothing, and yet when it came time to build the tabernacle, riches beyond the wildest imagination were brought forth as joyful offerings. There wasn’t enough food to feed the crowd of thousands who gathered to hear Jesus, and yet when one little boy brought forward his meager lunch, it was enough. Time and time again, the mindset of scarcity is trampled by the truth of God’s abundance. There is enough.
There are many reasons for us to give generously to and through the church, but perhaps one of the most important reasons is because it is an affirmation of faith. Our generous giving affirms that, contrary to what our cultural wisdom tells us, there is enough. God is sovereign. God calls us to faithful discipleship and action in this world. And for that call, God gives us all we need. Our generous – and perhaps, at times, sacrificial – giving, is a resounding, “Yes! There is enough.”
In a few minutes we will celebrate communion. Back in the early church, a full Eucharistic meal was shared from the gifts and offerings brought by the people. Leftovers were sent out to the sick or shut in. This was part of the way that the early church insured that everyone had enough to eat. The message at this table was, “There is enough.” We also understand this table to be a foretaste – just a hint – of the great feast that awaits us, the Messianic banquet, when Christ’s reign is established once and for all among us. We believe that there will be a greater abundance than we can ever imagine: abundance of life, of joy, and of justice. One day, there will be far more than we can imagine. But for today, there is enough. 

Saturday, November 3, 2012

2% - the new 1%?

This week, the Board of Pensions of my denomination, the Presbyterian Church (USA), announced a plan to change the current medical coverage plan in what amounts to a radical way. 

First, I should say that the Board of Pensions is a wonderful service and safety net for Presbyterian clergy, active and retired, and in far better shape than the plans of many other denominations. One reason for this health is good management. Another reason is the community nature of the plan itself. All churches are required to pay into the plan a percentage of the salary paid to pastoral staff, regardless of church size or anything else. This covers medical care, pension, and death and disability coverage for plan members. A church pays the same percentage whether its pastor is healthy or chronically ill; whether the pastor is single with no children or married with many dependents. All pastors who are members of the Board of Pensions then receive the same medical benefits (varying by state), regardless of whether they serve a small, rural congregation or a large church with a multi-million dollar budget.

Imagine a pastor who is called to a small, rural church. The church can’t afford to pay much more than the presbytery minimum (a minimum salary that varies from presbytery to presbytery, or region to region), and that isn’t much money. She still has outstanding debts from her undergraduate and seminary education, and her husband has some educational debt, as well. They have one baby and hope to expand their young family in the near future. The salary the church offers isn’t much, and the couple knows that taking this call will require living very simply and making certain sacrifices. Despite a having a professional degree equivalent to that of a lawyer, this young woman has known that her salary will likely never be commensurate with her level of education and experience. Still, she and her husband feel called to serve in this particular place, and so she accepts the position, knowing that at least that their basic needs will be covered – food, shelter, and health care. 

The couple move, and the husband isn’t able to find full time work in the new community. In fact, the work he is able to find pays barely enough to cover the cost of childcare so that he can go to work. Money is tight, but at least their basic needs are met.

The church has been struggling financially for some time. The dues that the church pays to cover the pastor under the Board of Pensions are not insignificant, but they are at least scaled to the salary offered. A large church down the road pays its pastor twice what this small church can pay, but at least the small church can offer the same medical coverage to a pastor, making the playing field a little more level.

This scenario plays itself out in churches across the country. In the PC(USA), more than 50% of our congregations have fewer than 100 members, and more than 50% of those are under 50. While our church is working to establish 1001 new worshipping communities, these new worshipping communities are often ministering to the people who are most in need of the outreach, but often least able to financially sustain pastoral leadership. The disparity of salaries between ministers at “large steeple” churches and the rest of us is huge, even if education levels and years of experience are the same. There is still a wide pay disparity between men and women, and between white, non-Hispanic pastors and pastors of other races or ethnicities. For a church that prides itself on being “connectional,” we are full of inequalities that reflect both changing realities and institutional injustices.

I understand that the Board of Pensions dues are a financial burden for many smaller churches, in particular. This proposed change would reduce the medical portion of those dues from 21%, where it currently stands, to 19% of effective salary. This is being celebrated as a way to reduce the costs of dues. What this does is rather shifts the burden of the costs of medical care from congregations to the pastors that serve them.

The Board of Pensions coverage will still cover 100% of the costs of health insurance for the member (note that this does NOT include deductibles, co-pays, and all of the other costs associated with health care), but only 65% of the cost for dependents. The member can choose to add full dependent coverage by paying a “fixed premium/flat dollar amount” at different levels: member plus partner, member plus child/ren, member plus family (partner plus child/ren). The more dependents, the higher the cost.

This means that plan members will face the same costs regardless of salary, removing the protective aspect of percentage-based fees that churches enjoy. Whatever this fee ends up being, it will require a much bigger percentage of the salary of a pastor who is working at presbytery minimum than a pastor whose salary is two or three times presbytery minimum or more – a pay disparity that is quite common across the country. This means that those who have the very least to begin with are more disproportionately hurt by this proposed change.

Also, the change allows for the church to pick up the additional cost – something that is far more likely to happen in wealthier congregations than in most others. It is not uncommon for clergy who are well-compensated to negotiate these kinds of extras in the package – things like optional dental coverage, a larger “professional expenses” allowance, more money for continuing education. That is great, but what it means is that in many cases, pastors who are already making far less money also have more expenses out of pocket that aren’t covered by the church, such as this additional premium charge. This continues to give large churches an additional advantage in clergy recruitment and retention, while smaller churches (and the pastors that serve them) suffer.

Going back to the communal nature of the plan, it is true that churches who pay higher salaries and have more staff pay more into the Board of Pensions. But, there is a cap. So the churches that pay the highest salaries are actually protected from paying the regular percentage of dues. These churches are going to be least affected by raises in the dues structure.

It is usually the smallest churches that feel most acutely the burden of rising dues. So while it seems to offer some relief to those churches, at a second look, it is still the larger, wealthier churches that come out ahead. In my presbytery, the minimum “effective salary” (this is cash salary, including the housing allowance, or cash salary plus the value of the use of a manse, if applicable) is $33,600. For a person coming out of 7 years or more of higher education, this is not much, and yet at least 2/3 of the congregations in our presbytery are unable to afford even the minimum, resulting in many part-time calls, difficulty finding trained pastoral leadership, etc… At any rate, this proposed change would reduce the medical portion of dues paid for presbytery minimum salary from $7,056 a year to $6,384 a year, a savings of $672 a year. I don’t know what the premium costs will be for adding dependent coverage, but I am willing to bet that it will be more than $672 a year. Even if the church wanted to offer to cover the additional dependent coverage, they would likely be unable to do so.

On the other hand, for a pastor making $75,000 a year (and there are a few in our presbytery that make more than that), medical dues would go from $15,750 down to $14,250 – a savings of $1500. That would be closer to the cost of covering dependent coverage, and it probably wouldn’t make much of a dent for the church to assume those costs.

Of course, if the plan continues to go unchanged, the folks at Board of Pensions know that the medical dues percentages will have to be raised, perhaps up to 25%. That does add to the burden that churches have to pay, but it would allow smaller congregations to continue to offer competitive health care coverage, which would free more candidates to serve those churches.

What is being discussed is a 2% change in medical dues. This is a very SMALL savings for churches that are already at the low end of the salary spectrum – the vast majority of our congregations, and a larger savings for the wealthier churches. This increases the burden particularly on young clergy, who are more likely to have dependents, who are more likely to be working at or around presbytery minimum, who are more likely to have crushing educational debt, and who are less likely to have savings, established households, and other financial cushions.

I know that financial realities must be addressed, but this is the wrong way to do it. When we talk about our responsibility to care for the most vulnerable in society, may we not forget about our own.

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