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Rethinking benefits in the PC(USA) for sustainable pastoral care

The PC(USA)’s financial support system for pastors was built in the 1980s and doesn’t meet the church’s current needs and challenges, writes Board of Pension’s president Frank Spencer. We can change this if we adapt our understanding of church.

Stowe Community Church in Stowe, Vermont. Creative Commons photo.

This article draws from the doctoral dissertation of the Reverend Dr. Frank Clark Spencer, “Sustainable Ministry: The Ecclesiology and Economics of Sustainable Pastoral Ministry in The Presbyterian Church in the United States of America.”

It sounds simple. The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) charges the Board of Pensions, one of its six national agencies, with managing the church’s Benefits Plan. And congregations pay dues to the board so their ministers receive healthcare and retirement benefits. But there’s a problem.

While the dues structure of the plan hasn’t changed since the 1980s, the church has never stopped changing. Ongoing change, combined with rising healthcare costs, has made it increasingly difficult, and sometimes impossible, for congregations to afford to enroll their ministers in the Church’s Benefits Plan, which is specifically meant for them.

While the dues structure of the PC(USA) Benefits Plan hasn’t changed since the 1980s, the church has never stopped changing.

Faith leaders must flourish in ministry and life if they are to grow and sustain their ministries and congregations are to remain vital. Membership in the Benefits Plan comes with access to the board’s assistance and education programs — all together, they make up a package that promotes flourishing in four key areas: spiritual, health, financial and vocational.

Yet, as the Board of Pensions recently reported, only 30% of congregations with 150 members or less have installed pastors. And only 20% of African American churches have an installed pastor, a joint study of the board and the National Black Presbyterian Caucus determined.

Statistics like these highlight that the system in place to care for the spiritual, health, financial and vocational flourishing of pastors does not match the reality of today’s church. That’s why the Board of Pensions, as the PC(USA) agency that administers the Benefits Plan, has entered a season of rebuilding in collaboration with the church.

Last week, more than 110 mid council and presbytery leaders gathered with a team from the Board of Pensions in Denver to brainstorm how all pastoral leadership, regardless of installation status, can have access to the Church’s Benefits Plan. A second such gathering is scheduled this week in Atlanta, and virtual town hall meetings, open to the public, are scheduled to discuss this topic on the last Thursday of each month. The goal of these meetings is to come up with flexible benefits options so congregations can create benefits packages that are affordable and support their pastoral leadership.

So, how did we get here?

The theology of call and the processes for ordination and employment in mainline denominations vary widely. Despite that, compensation is amazingly similar. How could such different processes lead to the same place? It appears the primary factor driving clergy compensation in all these traditions is the adoption of the U.S. corporate model.

Almost every legal entity of any scale in the U.S. is formed as a corporation. Corporations are ubiquitous. Beyond the stock market and publicly traded corporations, every hospital, golf course, charity, franchisee, and really any entity that interacts with the public or holds assets, is a corporation. The corporate model insists that each legal entity stands on its own from a budget and employment perspective. Assets and resources are accumulated within a fixed boundary, and the budget and finances exist within that fixed boundary. That leaves the employees of a corporation relying solely on its financial capacity.

A congregation must have its own budget, pay its own employees, meet its own expenses and provide for its own facilities. Within the Protestant structures, the corporation usually exists at the congregational level. In the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the constitution demands that it do so (Book of Order, G4.0101).

Compensation in corporations and congregations

Like the myths we tell ourselves in church about call neutrality – that calls to installed pastoral positions are not affected by a candidate’s age, gender, marital status or number of dependents – the corporate world has its own myths about compensation — that pay reflects performance and increased shareholder value leads to higher executive compensation. In reality, compensation is driven by what is called “seat value:” Compensation follows the position, not the performance of the individual who holds it.

Studies over the last 20 years have noted that the highest correlations to CEO pay were employee numbers, total revenues and market capitalization. In congregational terms, this would be staff size, total budget and number of congregational members. Is it any wonder that, using the corporate model for church organizations, senior pastor compensation follows an almost identical pattern?

Programmatic solutions for congregations

Recognizing that the PC(USA) operates as a system of corporate structures, the Board of Pensions has created programs that work to lessen these constraints, assisting congregations, creating calls and investing in innovative ministries.

The Pathways for Renewal program reduces Benefits Plan dues for churches that have 150 or fewer members and no installed pastor and for larger churches that add a ministerial position to their staff. Benefits Grants for Organizing Pastors and Evangelists supports the evangelism efforts of presbyteries planting churches and cultivating new ministries. The presbytery pays no dues for the minister’s coverage for the first three years and reduced dues through year five. Together, these programs have created more than 100 new calls.

Recognizing a simple inability to pay the dues, the Board of Pensions permanently reduced dues for all congregations in Puerto Rico by 50 percent. And during the height of the COVID-19 crisis, the board invested over $7 million in dues relief (waivers) for small congregations.

Perhaps most significantly, the Board of Pensions has reduced the dues that churches pay for the Benefits Plan’s pension coverage, from 11 percent of effective salary to 8.5 percent of effective salary. Effective salary includes various types of compensation congregations pay to ministers of the Word and Sacrament and employees. The dues reduction, with a total annual value of $10 million, accrues directly to the employing congregations.

In aggregate, the Board of Pensions has committed approximately $19 million a year to these programs. Yet, the PC(USA) continues to lose congregations and pastoral leadership for economic reasons. Clearly, fundamental reform is needed in the structure of Benefits Plan dues if the denomination is to break away from the U.S. corporate model and create a pastoral ministry model for funding congregations and staff.

Clearly, fundamental reform is needed in the structure of Benefits Plan dues if the denomination is to break away from the U.S. corporate model and create a pastoral ministry model for funding congregations and staff.

Beyond the corporate model: An example

The use of the corporate model has resulted in the inability to sustain pastoral ministry. Programmatic solutions such as those the Board of Pensions provides, while helpful to individual congregations on a short-term basis, are not the answer. A long-term solution is going to take a realignment of denominational and congregational resources because adequate salaries and benefits, both necessary for sustainable ministry, require ongoing investment.

Some smaller congregations might benefit from a shared ministry model, which is in the pilot stage in the Pittsburgh Presbytery. In this model, two or more congregations enter a covenant relationship that includes the minister, presbytery and Board of Pensions. The congregations share their full-time pastor and compensation costs. Congregations are not yoked, and the sessions continue to operate independently. The hours per week the minister spends with each congregation varies over time and as need arises.

The Pittsburgh pilot is receiving positive reviews — from the ministers, who are employed full-time with benefits; the congregations, who have a full-time minister of the Word and Sacrament; and the presbytery, which is providing its congregations with a permanent solution to the challenge of affordability.

The use of the corporate model has resulted in the inability to sustain pastoral ministry.

The drive to serve more

The Board of Pensions has a longstanding commitment to providing benefits in ways that serve the needs of more churches and more ministers. In January 2017, the board rolled out a redesigned Benefits Plan with options that allowed employers to choose benefits menu-style, based on their resources and employee needs. As the denomination continues to change, the agency will continue working alongside the church throughout the season of rebuilding so the PC(USA) may serve more congregations by enabling them to support their faith leaders through the Church’s Benefits Plan.