The Board of Pensions of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has enabled over 100 new calls in three years. It has done so by creating two programs that allow congregations and mid councils to provide benefits to pastors at substantial cost savings.
The impact of Pathways to Renewal and Benefits Grants for Organizing Pastors and Evangelists is notable in a denomination that ordains about 200 ministers a year. Both traditional congregations and alternative worshipping communities have benefited. The programs support enrollment in Pastor’s Participation, the comprehensive benefits package for ministers, at greatly reduced costs.
The Board of Pensions may be an unknown in the pews and a mystery to more than a few church leaders. But the employer-incentive programs show how the PC(USA) agency is quietly supporting pastoral leadership.
“The Board is in place to cultivate and build a generation of leaders for the future of the church,” said Andrew Browne, the agency’s senior vice president of church engagement. “We’re using our position to help support congregational vitality.”
As a PC(USA) national agency, the Board of Pensions administers the church Benefits Plan for PC(USA) congregations, mid councils, agencies and affiliated organizations. It offers retirement, financial protection and health programs through the plan. And it offers its own assistance and education programs to
The church lives out its identity as a just, caring community when it supports its ministers with benefits. But bringing ministers into the Benefits Plan is also critical to supporting leadership. Ministers who shoulder heavy debt and worry about being able to care for family are more likely to leave ministry, research shows. As plan members, they have the support that can free them to devote their best gifts to guiding
Renewing pastoral leadership
Pathways to Renewal greatly subsidizes the cost of calling a younger minister. It can determine whether a small congregation has a full-time minister or not — significant in a denomination where about 75 percent of congregations have no more than 150 members. Further, any congregation that adds a ministerial position is also eligible for Pathways.
“Congregations that are participating in Pathways are training pastors to serve the church for years to come,” Browne said. “Whether it’s a small congregation being renewed through pastoral leadership or a larger church growing its ministry with the addition of a pastor, this program is building leadership.”
Ministers called through Pathways to Renewal are younger than 40. They are ministers of the Word and Sacrament or candidates for ordination. And all of them are being enrolled in Pastor’s Participation for the first time.
First Presbyterian Church in Richardson, Texas, called Rosy Robson as associate pastor right out of seminary. Before she arrived, David Schaefers was a solo pastor, “limping along.” He heard about Pathways and “about fell out of my chair,” he said. “It meant we likely could call an associate pastor, which was super-exciting.”
Generally, to be eligible for Pathways, congregations must have 150 or fewer members and previously not been served by a pastor. Black congregations without an installed pastor may qualify with 300 or fewer members. And any congregation, no matter its size, that adds a ministerial position to its staff may qualify for Pathways.
Under Pathways to Renewal, dues for Pastor’s Participation are just 21% of effective salary — compared with the usual 37%. The dues discount runs five years or until the employment relationship ends, whichever comes first.
About 500 new worshipping communities have formed through the PC(USA), according to PC(USA) Research Services. To support these evangelism efforts, the Board of Pensions introduced Benefits Grants for Organizing Pastors and Evangelists.
The five-year grants go to presbyteries to fully cover the cost of enrollment in Pastor’s Participation (37% in 2021) for three years. In year four, the grant covers two-thirds of the dues amount. In year five, it covers one-third.
“This support for health insurance for me and my wife is so incredible,” said Alonso Dacunha, pastor of the Brazilian Presbyterian Church in Hyannis, Massachusetts, in the Presbytery of Southern New England. He and his wife, Katia Regina Dacunha, also lead Bible study for incarcerated immigrants in Portuguese, Spanish and English. “This is the first time here, in the United States, I have nice insurance for my health,” Dacunha, who arrived in the U.S. in 2002.
Miriam Mauritzen of Serious JuJu Skateboard Ministry in Kalispell, Montana, said that knowing “the church is present and puts a floor underneath us allows us to then be free as pastors to go out and do this incredibly difficult work, and build a structure of support and engagement in the community.” Glacier Presbytery, its member churches and individuals are among those who provide financial and volunteer support for supporters of JuJu, which serves teens and young adults.
Providing assistance and education
When ministers are called through Pathways to Renewal or Benefits Grants for Organizing Pastors and Evangelists, they receive much more than enrollment in the plan’s retirement, financial protection and health programs. The Board of Pensions assistance and education programs dovetail with plan benefits to promote four key areas of wholeness: spiritual, health, financial and vocational.
The Assistance Program provides all kinds of financial assistance for active and retired plan members and their families. In 2020, a total of $9.3 million moved from the Assistance Program to members. Many of these grants are specifically for ministers.
Minister Educational Debt Assistance supports ministers in repaying their educational debt — through student loan debt coaching and grants of up to $25,000 over five years. In 2020, 96 ministers received help paying off undergraduate and seminary debt, totaling $471,000 in assistance.
“It has freed me to be more focused on my ministry and what I am called here to do,” said Jane Anabe, associate pastor at the Presbyterian Church of La Porte in La Porte, Indiana. With the assistance, Anabe was able to pay off educational debt three years early, “a huge relief in my personal life and in my ministry.”
A total of $57,000 in Sabbath Sabbatical Support went to 19 ministers last year. Each received $3,000 to help pay for planned activities for personal and professional renewal.
Board University houses the agency’s education programs, providing seminars, webinars, e-learning and other resources in support of wholeness. Included are the well-established, well-loved CREDO and its new virtual cousin, CREDO Sabbath. Both are designed to nurture personal and professional renewal. Board University also hosts Well-Being Retreat and the virtual Well-Being Respite.
Meeting needs at a crossroads
“Support for congregational ministry is more important than ever,” said Frank Clark Spencer, president of the Board of Pensions. “While small congregations and alternative worshipping communities are short on resources, young ministers are shouldering debt that severely limits the number of calls they might accept and can even drive them from the ministry.”
Pathways to Renewal and Benefit Grants for Organizing Pastors and Evangelists aim to bridge the affordability gap for small congregations and innovative ministries. Educational debt assistance is intended to free ministers to accept a wider range of calls. And Board University provides resources and support to help them get started in ministry in the best way possible — and to sustain them throughout their service.
“Leadership matters in organizational growth, in congregational vitality and health,” Browne said. “The Board of Pensions will continue to introduce programs to build and nurture leadership for the future of the church.”
LEA SITTON is an agency writer at the Board of Pensions of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) in Philadelphia.