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. 

1 comment:

  1. If the BOP proposed changes are approved, it may force many partners (ordianed or not) of Teaching Elders to enter the work force and spend less time volunteering their services to the church, or eliminating the theologically educated and trained but underpaid ranks of church servants, resulting in a brain and talent drain.