Healthy Pastors, Healthy Congregations: Board of Pensions program combines financial education with pastor grants

 

Ken Green read the room of the pastor and congregational leaders gathered before him, and noted the elder sitting off to the side, arms crossed, looking skeptical. Green, a church consultant for The Board of Pensions of The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), was there to lead a seminar for Healthy Pastors, Healthy Congregations, which combines pastor and congregational financial education with financial stability grants of up to $10,000 for pastors.

A veteran presenter, Green saw that the elder wanted straight talk. When there was a break in the seminar, he pulled a chair up in front of the man. “We know that congregations are struggling,” Green said to him. “The way to balance your budget is not on the back of your pastor.”

The elder’s whole countenance changed and, since the seminar, he’s pushed back on congregational leaders who proposed reducing the pastor to working part-time and thrown support behind other creative options for balancing the budget.

This is the kind of result the church consultants look for from this Board of Pensions program. Elizabeth Little, the consultant who led the launch of Healthy Pastors, Healthy Congregations as a pilot project in North Carolina in 2016, said the seminar is “really opening up a conversation, a difficult conversation, about finances and pastors, to congregational leaders.”

“This program has really struck a chord with both pastors and congregational leaders. It addresses acute financial needs so that pastors can grow and sustain their ministries,” said Frank C. Spencer, Board president. “Healthy Pastors, Healthy Congregations has surpassed our expectations.”

An invitation from Lilly Endowment

In fall 2015, Lilly Endowment, a private philanthropic foundation that supports the causes of community development, education and religion, was seeking strong partners for its National Initiative to Address Economic Challenges Facing Pastoral Leaders. It approached the Board of Pensions. The Board, which administers the church pension and benefits plans, promotes the spiritual, health, financial and vocational well-being of pastors through its educational and financial assistance programs.

“They said that ministers’ debt had become an encumbrance to excellence in ministry and they’d be interested in seeing a grant application from us,” said Andrew J. Browne, vice president of church relations, who oversees Healthy Pastors, Healthy Congregations. Under the initiative, Lilly Endowment provides grants focused on:

  • Easing financial pressures that impair effective pastoral leadership; and
  • Improving financial literacy among pastors.

Lilly Endowment awarded the Board of Pensions a $1 million grant to help support Healthy Pastors, Healthy Congregations as a pilot in North Carolina for 2016, 2017 and 2018. The agency matched the grant with a $1 million investment to create the Ministerial Excellence Fund as a source for sustaining the financial stability grants for pastors.

“We believe that enhancing and sustaining the quality of ministry are essential to maintaining strong congregations,” Spencer said at the time. “This grant will enable us to develop programs to relieve pastors’ financial concerns, freeing them to devote their best gifts and energies to the work of God’s kingdom.”

Healthy Pastors, Healthy Congregations: The pilot

In building Healthy Pastors, Healthy Congregations, the Board of Pensions developed new curriculum to address the financial concerns of pastors and congregations.

Little, the church consultant for North Carolina and South Carolina, is largely responsible for the successful launch of Healthy Pastors, Healthy Congregations. She met with the staff leadership and Committees on Ministry of all five presbyteries in the state and delivered over 50 educational seminars to more than 400 congregational leaders, readying the program for its nationwide rollout in 2019.

“The fact that it was very successful in North Carolina … makes me very proud,” Little said. “We tweaked it and we changed it. … My colleagues around the country now get to live into this wonderful program.”

In 2018, Lilly Endowment awarded the Board of Pensions a second $1 million grant to help support expansion of Healthy Pastors, Healthy Congregations into a three-year program of national scope and impact. The agency’s board of directors committed an additional $4 million, along with the staffing and resources to deliver the program nationwide. 2019 was the first year it was available to PC(USA) pastors and congregations throughout the country.

How it works

The success of Healthy Pastors, Healthy Congregations rests on covenants among the pastor, the congregation and the Board of Pensions. Each party promises to take specific actions that, together, will help build a brighter financial future.

“The Healthy Pastors, Healthy Congregations program reinforces the fact that we are, indeed, a connectional church,” said David Lovelace, co-pastor of Lower Brandywine Presbyterian Church in Wilmington, Delaware. Lower Brandywine participated in the program with its young co-pastor, Emma Horn.

Usually, the pastor is the one who brings Healthy Pastors, Healthy Congregations to a church. That means asking session members if they would be willing to participate. “I hesitated at first, but they have been completely supportive of my care, and were glad to participate,” said Esta Jarrett of Canton Presbyterian Church in Canton, North Carolina.

Congregational leaders

Members of session, personnel committee or any other congregational leaders (usually a group of eight to 10) commit to participate in a two-hour seminar, which the pastor also attends. This seminar, rooted in Scripture, teaches congregational leaders to:

  • Understand the financial realities of those who answer God’s call to congregational ministry;
  • Appreciate the role that justly compensating their pastors (including providing benefits) plays in the vitality of the church; and
  • Better care and support for their pastoral leadership, whose well-being is essential to congregational well-being.

“Leading the seminars is my absolute favorite part of my job because I get to interact with congregational leaders who want their pastor and church to thrive,” Little said. “It’s also an opportunity to let them know about our pension plan and other benefits and programs.”

It’s not uncommon for congregational leaders to be unaware of the benefits available through the Board of Pensions and the financial pressures that are unique to a pastor. One pastor saw the church treasurer and bookkeeper furiously taking notes during the seminar. “It really opened their eyes,” she said.

The seminar was also a pleasant surprise for participants at Stone Presbyterian Church in Watertown, New York. Jon Hall, chair of the personnel committee, said it “filled some holes” in his understanding of how to prepare terms of call.

In the first hour of the seminar, church consultants lead a Bible study around “A Theology of Benefits” and Micah 6:1-8. “A Theology of Benefits,” developed by the Board to guide its work on behalf of those who serve the Presbyterian Church, holds that the “Church’s provision of benefits for its employees is holy work.” Micah is a reminder to “do justice, and to love kindness.” It sounds simple, but it’s not, Little said. “How do you get there and what does that mean?”

The pastor

To qualify for Healthy Pastors, Healthy Congregations, a pastor must meet certain need-based requirements, with limits on household income and net worth. The Board of Pensions provides details online at pensions.org/your-path-to-wholeness/healthy-pastors-healthy-congregations.

In addition to attending the congregational leaders seminar, a pastor must complete two e-learning courses: Terms of Call and Personal Financial Planning. The e-learning runs a total of two and a half hours. The pastor also receives financial counseling through Ernst & Young Employee Financial Services.

“There were modules on budgeting, on the housing allowance, on retirement savings and several other topics,” said Horn.

“The online modules were the most valuable part for me personally … especially the budgeting one,” said Jarrett. “Revelatory” was her word for the lesson.

Many pastors are enthusiastic about the Ernst & Young financial counselor. “They make a plan,” Browne said of the one-on-one counseling. “Everybody’s plan is their own plan. They can tweak the plan, make it a closer fit to their reality.” The counselor checks in with the pastor at 30 days and 60 days. The pastor has access to the counselor for a year.

“Because it’s personalized, the financial planning piece is truly valuable,” said Lorenzo Small Sr. of First United Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, North Carolina.

In fact, some pastors have said the Ernst & Young counseling is so valuable that even if they didn’t qualify for the financial stability grant, participating in Healthy Pastors, Healthy Congregations would be worth the effort.

Grants

The Board of Pensions commits to providing a grant of up to $10,000 to eligible pastors after the pastor and congregational leaders complete their education and the pastor receives the Ernst & Young counseling. Grants may be used to reduce or eliminate debt, to boost the pastor’s account in the Retirement Savings Plan of the PC(USA) or, in Puerto Rico, as a contribution to an emergency savings account or another retirement savings vehicle. (The Retirement Savings Plan is not available in Puerto Rico due to tax laws.)

Horn said the “always present burden of debt” is something she shares with many others in her generation. “The student loan debt. The credit card debt. The debt of just living and being and moving and trying to live into a calling in the world,” she said. “That is always a weight on my shoulders.”

“We know that debt, especially educational debt, is a source of worry for ministers and a very real encumbrance to their ministry,” Spencer said. For that reason, the Board of Pensions makes available up to $25,000 to retire educational debt, with the additional $15,000 coming through its Minister Educational Debt Assistance Grants.

Browne said that helping to relieve debt frees up spiritual as well as financial resources. “The energy that debt takes to carry is being redirected to ministry and to life. It is life-giving for those pastors,” he said.

Grants are provided through the Ministerial Excellence Fund of the Assistance Program. The Board of Pensions largely supports the fund, with a boost from the Lilly Endowment grants. The agency’s assistance funds include gifts, legacies and endowments. No dues paid by congregations for benefits go into the assistance funds.

Congregations that participate in the program are also asked to contribute to the Ministerial Excellence Fund. Contributions have been as high as $5,000 and, in one special case, as little as nothing, Browne said. The average is around $800.

“We want them to struggle with the question of, ‘What is this worth to us?’” Browne said. “We’re invested in it and we want them to be invested in it too.”

The future of Healthy Pastors, Healthy Congregations

Even though the Board of Pensions reached its three-year goal of covenanting with 500 pastors in its first year, the agency is still enrolling churches and pastors for Healthy Pastors, Healthy Congregations, anticipating a total of 600 to 700 covenants and grants. Whether the program will be extended beyond that will be decided as it moves through its second year.

“I don’t think we’re going to get into every place of need in three years,” Browne said. “We have clearly struck a nerve with Healthy Pastors, Healthy Congregations, and it’s helping. But the Board of Pensions will have to evaluate the program and consider the emerging needs of the whole Church as we look forward.”

Cindy Faulkner, an elder at Lower Brandywine Presbyterian Church, said that Healthy Pastors, Healthy Congregations “says to me that the Board of Pensions is actively thinking about the future of the Church, and I love that.”

The Board of Pensions embodies the PC(USA) commitment to care for its ministers. Healthy Pastors, Healthy Congregations is strengthening the work of the Church by helping its pastors and congregations address the financial concerns that keep both from a rich religious life.

“The well-being of our ministers clearly affects the vitality of our congregations,” Spencer said. “If we can help relieve these concerns, they may devote their best gifts and energies to guiding congregations on the journey of faith.”

LEA SITTON and HOLLY BAKER are agency writers at The Board of Pensions of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) in Philadelphia.

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