New Board of Pensions educational offerings go “deep and wide” for wholeness

“We call people to varied forms of service and covenant to support them so they may devote their best gifts and energies to the work of God’s kingdom.” — A Theology of Benefits

Michele Ward, associate pastor at Brown Memorial Park Avenue Church in Baltimore, is a big believer in holistic well-being, especially after diving into the wholeness education offered by The Board of Pensions of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

“It blows my mind that I can be a pastor and have this sort of support,” she said after hearing from a colleague that one in three pastors is at risk of burnout. “By engaging with Board University learning opportunities from early on in my ministry, I have hope that I won’t be another statistic. The learning provided gives me the opportunity for ongoing self-reflection and keeps me healthy in all areas.”

Board University, the Board of Pensions’ suite of educational offerings, develops all dimensions of wholeness: spiritual, health, financial and vocational. It is a valuable resource for ministers and employees of the PC(USA) and its affiliated organizations to use in fostering well-being in their lives and ministries. With this support, they may devote their best gifts and energies to the work of God’s kingdom.

Through Board University, ministers and employees have access to in-person and online education and a Well-Being Retreat, which is open to retirees as well.

A deeper focus on wholeness

Reflecting its commitment to “serve more, serve better, and serve the Church,” the Board has been making changes to Board University to provide deeper, more targeted education to a broader audience of PC(USA) workers as it responds to the ever-reforming church.

“Board University is in the midst of reform,” said John G. McFayden, executive vice president and chief of church engagement at the Board. “This year, we made significant enhancements to our educational offerings, emphasizing wholeness — with more to come,” he said.

Today, with the change in PC(USA) demographics detailed in “Living by the Gospel,” the Board of Pensions guide to structuring ministers’ terms of call as authorized by the 223rd General Assembly, the Board wants to be “more intentional about inclusivity and meeting members where they are,” said José Irizarry, the Board’s vice president of education. “That means deepening and widening our educational offerings.”

McFayden said: “This is a strategic priority for us: How can we adapt and deliver content so it will be beneficial to distinct communities in the church?”

To better understand the cultural differences and support needs of the Korean Presbyterian community, McFayden participated in the National Caucus of Korean Presbyterian Churches in May. For similar reasons, he also attended the National Black Presbyterian Caucus 45th Biennial Conference in June.

The Benefits Plan is no longer a one-size-fits-all entity as it evolves to serve diverse employers and employees affiliated with the PC(USA), and the same is increasingly true for Board University. “Our challenge is to stretch and grow Board University while responsibly stewarding our resources,” McFayden said.

A team of professional educators from the Board of Pensions researches and develops Board University educational content, which is delivered by faculty and guest speakers with expertise in relevant areas of wholeness. The team uses a variety of delivery channels: seminars, conferences, e-learning and webinars.

Seminars: New and expanded content, strategic locations

For many years, the Board of Pensions has educated plan members through seminars, delivered in person around the country. Recently, the Board reassessed each of these seminars to determine their relevance for today’s plan members.

The result: The Board redesigned its offerings to provide more meaningful – and lasting – educational experiences.

Beginning in fall 2019, it will offer the following seminars: First Call, First Steps, for seminary students; THRIVE, a holistic retirement planning seminar, which replaces Growing into Tomorrow Today (GITT); and Third Act Seminar & Luncheon, for retirees. The Board will conduct already scheduled GITT seminars through the end of 2019.

First Call, First Steps

Seeing the need to prepare seminarians for the call process, the Board developed First Call, First Steps for students who may seek calls in congregational ministry. The seminar gives inquirers and candidates for ordination tools to navigate the call process. It helps them understand the importance of having benefits and the impact such coverage can have on their future.

The Board typically conducts this education at Presbyterian seminaries around the country. First Call, First Steps seminars are being offered in 10 locations in 2019.


The Board’s new retirement planning seminar, THRIVE — Thinking Retirement: Identity, Vocation, and Economics — is rooted in A Theology of Benefits (the foundational statement of the Board of Pensions), addressing topics critically important to preparing for retirement in the context of wholeness.

José Irizarry, vice president of education for the Board of Pensions (photo courtesy of the Board of Pensions)

The two-day seminar covers subject matters such as financial planning and retirement healthcare options as part of a larger exploration of identity, health and vocation in retirement. Open to members nearing retirement and their spouses or partners, THRIVE is designed to foster appropriate expectations for retirement living, help participants navigate life’s transitions and give them the tools and resources they need to thrive in retirement.

In addition to offering fresh content, THRIVE is structured to be more interactive and hands-on than its predecessor seminar.

The financial portions of the seminar emphasize “achieving financial confidence and peace of mind,” said Jacqueline Boersema, who is director of financial education at the Board, an elder at Sharon Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, and a certified financial planner. “In the past we emphasized a lot of the rules around retirement plans,” she said. “Now we’re providing basic financial concepts and tools so members are better equipped to perform basic retirement planning on their own.”

“We want to educate the broadest possible audience with appropriately targeted information, and that includes part-time employees of the Church who participate in the plan in some way,” Irizarry said. A plan member is anyone who is enrolled in a benefit through the Benefits Plan, including employees who participate only in the Retirement Savings Plan of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), a 403(b)(9) plan administered by Fidelity Investments.

“Those employees are just as welcome to attend the THRIVE seminar as late-career pastors are,” he said.

To ensure THRIVE reaches the widest possible audience, the education team utilizes mapping software that allows it to overlay member locations with past retirement planning seminar sites. This analysis has revealed pockets of members who were not within driving distance of a retirement planning seminar offered by the Board within the past five years. Using this software, the Board can be more strategic in selecting seminar locations for 2020.

THRIVE is being offered twice this fall and 12 times in 2020.

Third Act Seminar & Luncheon

The Board began offering Third Act Seminar & Luncheon last year to retired members, their spouses and surviving spouses. The seminar, presented by Board of Pensions staff and a guest speaker, addresses a single aspect of retiree well-being. For 2019, the topic, which changes annually, is brain health.

Third Act seminars are held around the country in regions where there are large concentrations of Presbyterians.

Conferences: Time and space for reflection for more audiences

Conferences are a growing part of Board of Pensions efforts to support the well-being of Benefits Plan members through Board University.


For more than a decade, the Board of Pensions has sponsored Presbyterian CREDO conferences, its original wholeness program for mid-career pastors, available by invitation only. The purpose was to help pastors prevent burnout by cultivating shalom in their lives. From the beginning, the program has received high marks for its ability to deepen a pastor’s sense of call, and even to change lives.

Building on the strength of the initial CREDO conferences, the Board began designing variations of the program for additional audiences. In 2016, it expanded its offerings to include CREDO conferences for recently ordained ministers, and in 2017 it added a late-career CREDO conference.

Next month, the Board is partnering with Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary to co-host an African American CREDO conference. “This is an example of the Board reaching out to a more diverse audience, in new ways, as well as collaborating with other Presbyterian-affiliated entities,” Irizarry said.

Participants say the opportunities for reflection, discernment and worship at CREDO, in addition to holistic education, help propel their personal growth. Exploration of the four dimensions of wholeness — spiritual, vocational, health and financial — and personal discovery are at the core of each conference.

“Through CREDO and other forms of education, the Board accompanies PC(USA) pastors throughout their journey through ministry,” Irizarry said.

Well-Being Retreat

Well-Being Retreat, a popular, three-day gathering offered annually by the Board of Pensions in partnership with the Presbyterian Foundation, exemplifies the Board’s commitment to educating a broad audience as well as its collaboration with other PC(USA) agencies.

Well-Being Retreat 2019 was held at Montreat Conference Center in North Carolina.

Like CREDO, the Well-Being Retreat centers on wholeness and provides opportunities for rest and renewal. In addition to pastors, Well-Being Retreat is open to all other plan members, active and retired, their spouses, and surviving spouses. Registration filled in just two days for Well-Being Retreat 2019, held at Montreat Conference Center in North Carolina.

“Having the space to reflect and reconnect with God is a huge blessing — one attendees greatly appreciate,” said Lori Neff LaRue, the Board’s director of wholeness education. But the chance to engage in reflection and worship is not the full story.

“The wholeness education at Well-Being Retreat gives participants the opportunity to develop skills and practices that enable them to live more abundantly, into the life Christ intends,” LaRue said.

E-learning: Self-paced training, wider reach

Not everyone has the ability to take advantage of educational opportunities such as seminars or conferences. E-learning, or online education, overcomes the geographic and time constraints employees in the church often face today.

Board University now hosts two new engaging and interactive e-learning series: Personal Financial Planning, designed for all members of the Benefits Plan, and Terms of Call, for ministers and church administrators.

“We are excited to offer these newly updated e-learnings,” said Irizarry. “They are part of a larger initiative by the Board to provide more relevant, targeted education to a broader audience of PC(USA) workers.” 

Both series are available in two formats: stand-alone, as individual lessons, and bundled, as a single learning path. This means people can pick and choose the topics they want to learn more about, such as creating a budget or paying off debt, or dig deeper and take every lesson in a series sequentially, in a single learning path. The single learning path approach includes pretests and post-tests.

Both Personal Financial Planning and Terms of Call are provided through Healthy Pastors, Healthy Congregations, an educational and debt reduction program the Board provides to restore the financial health and wholeness of PC(USA) pastors and revitalize congregations. Considering the quality and value of the series, the Board wanted to make them accessible to all plan members through Board University.

Esta Jarrett, pastor of Canton Presbyterian Church in Canton, North Carolina, took the Personal Financial Planning series as part of her Healthy Pastors, Healthy Congregations requirements. The online lessons were “the most valuable part for me personally, especially budgeting,” which was “revelatory.”

Other lessons include saving for retirement and, for pastors, understanding effective salary and negotiating paid time off.

More e-learning lessons are coming. The content of the former Board seminars “Getting in Shape Fiscally” and “Render unto Caesar” will be repurposed and made available in e-learning and webinars, potentially reaching a larger audience more efficiently than in the past.

Plan members can access the new e-learning through Benefits Connect, the Board’s benefits portal. When they enter the portal and select Board University, they can then choose their courses, which are hosted on a learning management system (LMS).

The LMS organizes members’ lessons in a personal course library, making it easier for them to monitor and manage their own learning. In addition, access through Benefits Connect makes it easy for members to retrieve their personal benefits statement, including pension projections and retirement savings balances — information they need for personal finance lessons.

Employing an LMS also enables the Board’s education team to gather completion rates, ratings, comments and more. This data will help inform future course content, enable Board University to gauge and improve the user experience and help the education team collect feedback systematically.

Webinars: A deeper dive

This year, Board University began hosting live, hour-long webinars for ministers and employees who participate in the Benefits Plan. The monthly webinars enable the education team and guest presenters to reach plan members who reside in remote or sparsely populated areas, as well as those who like the convenience of desktop learning.

Each webinar explores, in depth, a topic critical to a plan member’s well-being or one of interest to those serving or working for the PC(USA). Topics range from tax reform to clergy networks.

“Gender Equity and Just Compensation” is an example of a narrowly focused webinar on a topic that has significant implications for well-being. The webinar, scheduled for October 10, 2019, will highlight data that shows a clear distinction between average salaries for men and women across all pastoral positions and congregation sizes. It will lay the groundwork for a clearer understanding of gender disparity in job roles, as well as in compensation and access to benefits.

Learning: A gateway to shalom

A Theology of Benefits reminds us that God desires all people, including those who serve the church or an affiliated organization, to experience shalom — the flourishing of life. Yet church work can be stressful and, for most people, there comes a time when the scales tip.

It is essential that PC(USA) ministers and employees be equipped with go-to strategies, as well as specific knowledge and resources, to help them navigate life’s challenging times and restore them to health and wholeness.

To that end, Board University provides multiple educational opportunities for plan members to explore dimensions of wholeness — spiritual, health, financial and vocational — so they may flourish in ministry and in life.

“Education is a lifelong journey, as is wholeness,” Irizarry said. “Neither is once-and-done. That’s why we are called to support and sustain members’ commitment to learning, now and throughout their lives. Ultimately, it is to help the Church thrive.”

HOLLY BAKER is agency writer at The Board of Pensions of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). She is a ruling elder at Swarthmore Presbyterian Church in Swarthmore, Pennsylvania, where she is co-chair of the membership committee and a member of the peacemaking committee.