The Board of Pensions (BOP) welcomed approximately 245 mid-council representatives here April 17 for the 2013 Eastern Regional Benefits Consultation (RBC), where presenters and participants exchanged ideas and concerns about the challenges facing the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and its Medical Plan.

The BOP hosts two RBCs a year, and each presbytery is invited to send up to four people and each synod up to two, with the board covering expenses for those who attend so that financial considerations do not prevent participation.

The Western RBC is scheduled April 24-25 in Arlington, Texas.

Interest in the RBCs is particularly high this year as the board has established time on the agenda to listen to the voices of the church on its three proposals for restructuring the traditional Medical Plan dues model.

Following worship led by the Rev. John G. McFayden, the BOP’s vice-president of church relations, the Rev. Gradye Parsons, stated clerk of the General Assembly, opened the Eastern RBC today with the keynote address, “The Changing Church.” He was followed by Robert W. Maggs Jr., president and CEO of the board, who spoke on “Supporting the Changing Church.”

Concerns about the changing PC(USA) were evident as approximately 25 participants lined up at three microphones during the afternoon session to react to the information shared on the three dues proposals.

Many stressed the importance of the concern over the current state of “call neutrality” ― the long-held principle that calls to pastoral positions should not be adversely affected financially due to age, gender, marital status or the number of dependents. Some said that issues exist now in the call process and would only worsen if a change to the current dues model took place.

Sarah Hooker, a young representative of the Presbytery of Susquehanna Valley, in central New York, questioned the assumption of one BOP proposal (Option B) that a member’s partner would have another source of medical coverage.

“The reality for people my age is that we are going to churches that pay less and to churches that are much more rural,” said Ms. Hooker, who is married and soon to be a new parent. “We’re not being supported by another plan.” In such areas, employment with healthcare benefits cannot be assumed.

“We don’t have the funds,” said Bobbi White of the Presbytery of Western North Carolina, noting that the $44,000 medical minimum participation ― the minimum effective salary amount on which dues would be assessed ― proposed for 2015 was not just higher than their minimum salary — it was higher than their entire compensation package. As a church, “we really need to think about the vocation of installed pastors,” she said.

In the face of rising costs, some participants said presbyteries need to be more creative and at least one called on BOP leaders to help them do that. “Partner with us in providing training,” urged James Belle of the Presbytery of New York City.

Several participants commended the board’s plan to develop an incentive program that would reward members who engage in preventive healthcare. Others praised the work and thoughtfulness the board has dedicated to developing medical dues options and to explaining them and soliciting feedback before making final decisions.

Before the feedback session, Patricia M. Haines, the BOP’s senior vice-president for benefits, presented “The State of Healthcare Benefits.”  In her talk, Haines spelled out the financial pressures on the Medical Plan in detail, compared it to other church plans, and touched on revenue-raising alternatives the board has considered.

While Haines made clear that the pressures on the plan are largely beyond the board’s control, she stressed that the BOP remains steadfast in its mission. “In addition to our commitment to listening, hearing, and reflecting … [on] the feedback … we commit to balancing those views against three strategic and persistent objectives”:

  • Provide quality coverage that offers real financial protection when it’s needed
  • Support “community nature,” balancing the needs of ALL members
  • Ensure the Plan’s financial solvency by maintaining adequate reserves

Parsons drew on findings by the Pew Research Center to sketch out a society where fewer Americans claim a religious identity and Protestant numbers, in particular, are in decline. Maggs said PC(USA) leaders must anticipate a smaller, less connectional church and diminishing resources, and  must adapt accordingly to maintain assistance, education, and benefits programs for church workers.

A video of the plenary presentations, including the medical dues discussion at the Eastern RBC, will be available on in the last week of April, along with an extensive report covering both the Eastern and Western RBCs.