aefenglommung (aefenglommung) wrote,

Hard choices coming for churches and clergy

I was reading a statement from Keith Boyette, President of the WCA, about clergy pensions and insurance in a new traditionalist Methodist denomination. What he says about a new denom is pretty much what people who will stay with the old denom are saying. This is because of facts on the ground, not differences of approach. The ground has shifted underneath our feet, as clergy and congregations. The old ways of doing things have become unsustainable.

The clergy, as a career, has always been an underpaid profession. People don’t go into the ministry in order to make a lot of money (and some of those who do, do so in ways that make the rest of us look bad). In order to compensate for a comparatively weak salary structure, the church has historically offered three financial cushions to clergy.

First, there were parsonages provided, although this was more to the benefit of congregations and denominational structures than to the clergy who lived in them. Yes, you got to live there rent-free. But, you didn’t build any equity in anything, and when you got to retirement you didn’t have a place to live. Likewise, if you needed to call time-out for a while, you couldn’t just quit; you were also living in somebody else’s house, and you needed to solve that problem in order to work on whatever other situations you were facing. Also, "rent-free" isn't the same as "cost-free." Clergy have to pay SS taxes (15.3%) of the Fair Rental Value of somebody else's house every year. (It always boggled my parishioners when I explained that I had to pay taxes on their house.) For some time now, the trend has been for full-time clergy to opt out of parsonage living and secure their own housing; among part-time clergy, many continue to live in their own homes which they were living in before their appointment.

Second, there was a generous insurance program. Clergy have low life insurance rates, but high health insurance rates. That’s because, pound for pound, we live longer than other people, but are sick more often. When I hit the wall back in 1986 and decided to go for an earned doctorate as a way of calling time out, the Conference insurance program was part of our survival package. My wife was very ill at the time, and we had two young children at home; without that insurance, I would probably have had to resign my orders and get another job with benefits, rather than take an appointment to attend school. But year by year, our insurance program has gotten ever more expensive and unsustainable. And in retirement, the Conference throws a couple thousand at me in the form of a reimbursement fund and connects me with a benefits counselor. I have to secure my own Medicare supplement package. That has advantages, of course, but it also has disadvantages. In any case, the days when “we’ll take care of you” are over, no matter what happens at GC21.

Third, while our salaries might be comparatively low for people with our level of education and responsibility, we have had (at least, in The UMC) a pretty good retirement plan. I spent forty-one years in the UM clergy, and I can’t complain about the payout I’m enjoying right now. It’s not lavish, but with my wife still working, we live as well as we want. The church matched my contributions all those years, and Wespath has managed those funds well. There is always the possibility that I might outlive my resources, but still, I’m not limited to what Social Security can provide me right now. Across my active career, I was a participant in three different pension plans. We went from a defined-benefit plan funded by apportionments to a defined-contribution plan funded by participants and churches to a mixed plan. The new denomination will probably have a defined-contribution plan, and the post-separation UMC will probably have to go that way, too. However good the pension management might be, somebody’s got to put something in the pot to grow the eventual payout, and the ability of both individuals and congregations (not to mention, Conferences) to put IN is more and more constrained these days.

Clergy in the future will be looking at a system where they will have to secure their own housing, buy their own insurance, and be diligent about their own long-term saving. This will make them less able and less willing to “go where they are sent (or called).” There will be a lot of bi-vocational or part-time pastors doing ministry on the side. Meanwhile, full-time appointments will have to be more attentive to keeping the pastor’s salary up; if this leads to a clearer focus on just what the pastor is there for, that would be a good thing. In any case, things will probably be more stressful because less financially secure in Preacherland. Which probably means that requiring a Master of Divinity as the basic clergy credential is unsustainable, too. Clergy are historically willing to make whatever sacrifices they must in order to answer the call of God – even unto death – but a lot of them will find other ways to serve God than the pastorate if they have to acquire too much debt to qualify for a job that offers too little remuneration.

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