ST. LOUIS – The Board of Pensions is looking at ways to “bend the curves” – to help more congregations be able to afford to hire ministers, to stimulate demand for creative ministry and to give more ministers access to health and pensions benefits.
“We want more people to hire more ministers” and “we want them to have benefits,” Frank Spencer, the president of the Board of Pensions, told a plenary session of the Mid Council Leaders Gathering on Oct. 16.
“To do that, we’re going to have to change behavior” across the church, Spencer said. And “we are going to be explicit about exploring gender equity.”
He made it clear he wants the PC(USA) as a whole to work on these issues – at all levels, from small congregations to mid councils. “We’ve got to start talking together about how do we craft solutions,” he said during a workshop session. “We can’t say ‘that’s the Board of Pensions’ problem,’ and everybody else does their own thing.”
Spencer said the Board of Pensions will be considering a series of possible changes in the months to come that might stimulate the demand for hiring new ministers – including the idea of providing full benefits for ministers under age 40 at reduced cost, if those ministers are hired for newly-created positions. The idea is to try to encourage small congregations that have been without a pastor to call one, or to encourage larger or more affluent congregations to create new positions for creative ministry initiatives, Spencer said.
The board is also considering “a significant expansion of our educational debt reduction program,” he said.
Spencer also provided new data on ministers whom the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) ordained – but who never join the Board of Pensions plan. That analysis – a joint endeavor of the board and the Office of the General Assembly – reveals “real and distinct and disturbing gender disparity,” particularly in the job patterns for women, Spencer said.
Some of the numbers he unrolled were these. Over the last 10 years, from 2007 to 2016, the PC(USA) has ordained 3,100 ministers. Of those:
- Just over half of the new ministers (52 percent) were women.
- 954 have never received Board of Pensions benefits (including medical and pensions benefits) – that’s close to a third of that decade’s worth of ordinations. And about two-thirds of them – 603 of 954 people – were women.
- Half of the men (749 ministers) have jobs as pastors or associate pastors, and nearly all of them with benefits. But only 37 percent of the women (575 ministers) have jobs as pastors or associate pastors.
There are also disparities related to age. Overall, the lowest percentage of those with benefits in the “flock of 3,100” were women who were over age 40 when they were ordained.
And among the new ministers, women tended to be slightly older than then men. The average age at ordination is 39.1 years. That compares with age 50 for the Episcopal church.
And the biggest group of those without benefits were women who were over 40 when they were ordained.
The figures on those not participating in the benefits plan is significant, Spencer said, because not participating is seen as a factor in whether those people stay in ministry. Some also are predicting the PC(USA) may be facing a shortage of ministers.
Overall, the trend in the PC(USA) has been toward fewer ordinations – and fewer participants in the Board of Pensions plan, Spencer said. Faced with that reality – and the possibility of a deficit if nothing changed – the board began making changes several years ago, including offering a menu of options rather than just one fixed plan, and bringing more church employees into the plan.
As a result, participation in the plan has increased by about 1,600 people in 2017 – with most of those not being ministers and, as a group, are younger than plan participants as a whole.
The Board of Pensions also is exploring other ways to “bend the curve,” as Spencer put it – making changes that might incrementally increase the demand for PC(USA) pastors and encourage more to consider seminary.
“We’ve got to make it more affordable for small churches to call and install” a pastor, Spencer said.
The PC(USA) needs to make it easier for larger churches to fund innovative new ministries, he said.
And “we have to make it attractive for young people to chose seminary as a way of a lifetime commitment to ministry, in answering God’s call.” Another challenge: attracting more young people to seminary, as a way of extending the years of their service and creating a pool of experienced pastoral and leadership talent.
These issues aren’t just the responsibility of the Board of Pensions, Spencer explained – contending that this conversation needs to happen across the church, and “committees on ministry are going to be asked to step up if we are going to change behavior.”
Robert Foltz-Morrison, executive presbyter of the Presbytery of New York City, asked whether data might also be presented regarding race of those newly ordained and their participation in the benefits plan. “This is an issue we have struggled with” – because of health care privacy concerns, collecting information on race is difficult, Spencer replied.
Earlier in the session, representatives of the Board of Pensions explained the theological underpinnings of the benefits they offer to ministers and other church workers – saying “a desire for wholeness is at the heart of the gospel call,” in the words of John McFayden, executive vice president and chief of church engagement for the Board of Pensions.
McFayden, who is also a PC(USA) minister, said that “from early times, the church has been an advocate of just compensation for its workers,” with Jesus sending out 70 of his followers to go ahead in pairs to the towns he intended to visit. In that account, from the 10th chapter of Luke’s Gospel, Jesus told his followers to stay with the workers, “eat what they eat, drink what they drink, for the worker is worthy of pay,” McFayden said.
How the church treats those who respond to a call to ministry – whether ordained or not – “is a witness to the Lord Jesus Christ.”
The Board of Pensions has become a co-sponsor, along with the Office of the General Assembly, of the Mid Council Leaders Gathering (what used to be known as the Fall Polity Conference), which has drawn about 350 people this year.
McFayden said during an earlier session that the Board of Pensions decided to move away from its pattern of holding regional benefits conferences to holding smaller gatherings in more locations – and through that shift they have been reaching more people involved in benefits decision-making, both in mid councils and congregations. Through these changes, “we have doubled the number of people we have contacted,” McFayden said.