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In support of a changing church: Expanding financial well-being for ministers

An update from the PC(USA) Board of Pensions.

“A sweeping program unlike any other in the Church in recent years.” That’s how Andrew Browne describes Healthy Pastors, Healthy Congregations. Mr. Browne is Senior Vice President, Church Engagement, for The Board of Pensions of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). He oversaw the program’s 2016-2021 run.

The financial well-being of ministers — and its effect on sustaining vital ministry for the future of the Church — lay at the heart of Healthy Pastors, Healthy Congregations, which closed at year-end 2021. The goal was to remove financial stresses so pastors could focus on ministry.

Congregational leaders and pastors covenanted to the work of the program. They gathered together for seminars, grounded in Scripture, on caring for ministers. “We thought about finances through a theological lens, and then we talked about, in a very real way, the realities for pastors,” said the Reverend Dr. Kyle Goodman, lead pastor at Alamance Presbyterian Church, Greensboro, N.C.

Pastors in the program studied financial education modules and received professional, personal financial counseling through Ernst & Young (EY) Employee Financial Services. A $10,000 grant was offered, for debt reduction or retirement savings. Rev. Goodman was the program’s first grant recipient. Dogged by consumer debt, much of it lingering from his early years out of seminary, he found the $10,000 “life-changing.”

Rev. Goodman’s $10,000 grant was part of over $8.3 million awarded through Healthy Pastors, Healthy Congregations before it closed, at the end of 2021. He was among 944 pastors who engaged in the program, along with 4,000 elders who participated in the seminars.

Healthy Pastors began as a pilot in 2016 in North Carolina with the support of a $1 million grant from Lilly Endowment. “Lilly reached out to us,” Mr. Browne said. “They asked us how we would address pastors’ lack of financial literacy, and also the culture of shame and blame around debt.” The pilot’s success led Lilly to award another $1 million to help the agency take the program national in 2019.

Mr. Browne said the overwhelming demand for Healthy Pastors, Healthy Congregations illustrated how widespread financial concerns were among clergy. Seeing a need, the Board of Pensions expanded support for ministers by committing an additional $8 million to the program — and looked to build on it.

“It became a catalyst,” Mr. Brown said. “It spurred us to think differently. We began to look at existing programs more broadly, and we changed and expanded our work.” In the last two years, the agency has made more people eligible for its programs and begun removing barriers to access. That has meant growing support for ministers.

The agency increased Minister Educational Debt Assistance, from $10,000 to $25,000, effective mid-2018. In 2021, it added a second benefits package for ministers in the Benefits Plan of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). The package, Minister’s Choice, including the Defined Benefit Pension Plan, provides critical financial protection for ministers who are not in installed positions. This year, the agency introduced Minister Debt Relief to help ministers achieve greater well-being through financial planning and a grant of up to $10,000.

“Five months after we opened Minister Debt Relief, we already had 65 applications and had granted more than $500,000,” Mr. Browne said. “This program meets a real need. We hope to be able to widen the eligibility over time so we can reach as many ministers as possible.”

“As a national agency of the Church, we are looking for ways to support ministers in their calls, to support ministry today and for the future of the PC(USA),” said the Reverend Dr. Frank Clark Spencer, Board President. “Helping ministers get their financial footing is a significant contribution to that. Debt drains energy — energy ministers could devote to serving their congregation. And it determines what calls they can accept. That especially hurts our smaller congregations, who have fewer resources.”

The Reverend Bonnie Wilkins said the $10,000 grant she received through Healthy Pastors made it possible for her to answer the call of a smaller congregation. “This is absolutely the place that God meant me to be,” she said of Westminster Presbyterian Church in Sparta, Illinois.

Elizabeth Little, the Board of Pensions Church Consultant who ran the Healthy Pastors pilot, said her visit to a 46-member church showed her just how far a small congregation will go for a pastor. She learned that congregants were taking home the garbage and cleaning the bathrooms to save money — and hold onto their pastor.

As the Board of Pensions moved Healthy Pastors, Healthy Congregations to a national platform, it recognized that debt was not the only challenge PC(USA) ministers faced. Language and cultural barriers were blocking access to the agency’s programs, said Ruth Adams, Director of the Assistance Program.

One early encounter with meeting such a challenge was in November 2019 when Healthy Pastors was delivered in Puerto Rico. “There was a lot of effort put into translating not just language, but differences in benefits and taxes to ensure relevance,” said Church Consultant Keenan Rodgers, who delivered the program in Spanish.

“Healthy Pastors was designed and initially administered in a way that made it inaccessible to ministers and congregations whose first language was not English,” Ms. Adams said. “It also raised barriers to those whose culture around finance ran the gamut from resource-sharing to taboo.”

Such barriers are falling as the Assistance Program continues to evolve toward greater inclusivity. The agency is serving more ministers and employees and supporting the well-being of a diversifying Benefits Plan membership. In consultation with the PC(USA) national caucuses of color, the Board has dramatically expanded access to retiree income and housing assistance.  Along with increases in grant amounts, eligibility has broadened to include more employees of the PC(USA), ordained or not.

The online financial education modules for Healthy Pastors were translated into Spanish and Korean and are used today in Minister Debt Relief. In January 2020, the Reverend Dr. Sung-Joo Park joined the agency to deliver Healthy Pastors in Korean. He presented the program over 100 times; 129 Korean ministers received grants as a result.

“We have thanked Dr. Park several times, though we may never be able to thank him enough for laying the groundwork for future collaborations around culture and language,” Ms. Adams said.

“For those in our communion for whom English is not their first language, we have learned that active interpretation is the order of the day,” Mr. Browne said. “Simply translating English-language program materials is not nuanced enough. It doesn’t collapse barriers.”

A pastor in Puerto Rico was the final Healthy Pastors grant recipient. “I feel gratitude,” said the Reverend Richard H. Rojas-Banuchi of First Presbyterian Church in Puerto Nuevo. “I’ve been able to continue my ministry in the most difficult times. … Despite everything, being able to stand on the pulpit and preach the good news about the Lord, being able to call my brothers and sisters and continue the ministry I’ve always felt inclined toward, is the manifestation of God’s grace in my life.”

“Every minister ordained in our denomination should have financial protection from our denomination,” Mr. Browne said. “It’s faithful. But it’s also about congregational vitality and the future of the Church. The Healthy Pastors experience has broadened our thinking on how the Board of Pensions can better serve more ministers and congregations.”

About the Board of Pensions

The Board of Pensions is a nonprofit agency of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). We offer robust benefits and services to more than 65,000 individuals who represent PC(USA) churches, agencies, and affiliated employers — including educational institutions, camps and conference centers, retirement and senior housing communities, and human service organizations. As a nonprofit defined by faith, we support mutual care and wholeness. We have joined a sustainable and churchwide commitment to address racism and systemic injustice.