Mid council leaders attending the Polity, Benefits and Mission Conference in St. Louis got an update on Wednesday on new initiatives aimed at providing long-term sustainability and broader access to benefits for Presbyterian ministers and staff. The Rev. Dr. Frank Clark Spencer, president of the Board of Pensions, said BOP staff have held a series of conversations across the denomination, where they’ve heard common themes.
“There is a concern about women, families, and communities of color that have faced a disproportionately negative impact by the current system. There is a need to provide access to those who have never had access to the Board of Pensions,” he said. “There is a desire for flexibility and choice at the local level and the recognition that more education is needed as we move through a series of changes.”
Spencer told the group that the current benefits system for ministers has been in place since the mid-1980s. It provides full medical coverage (death, pension, savings plan, employee assistance plan and access to other resources) without contribution. A majority of the dues, he said, went toward pension while a smaller percentage covered health costs. Now, it is the opposite. Spencer said the data is showing some first-time results.
“A majority of our congregations have no installed pastoral leadership. Of congregations with 150 or fewer members, only 30% have installed pastoral leadership,” he said. “Working with National Black Presbyterian Caucus, we have found that regardless of size, only 20% of congregations have installed pastoral leadership.”
Spencer said research has shown that 63% of those denied access to benefits are women. He added that more than 1,250 ministers of word and sacrament have been ordained since 2007 and have never been offered benefits. Nearly 800 of that group are women.
“The current plan is not serving the church as it is today. Small congregations, women, and communities of color are coming up short,” he said. “Six years ago, we changed the way we provide benefits for non-ministers. We’ve had 4,500 new people sign up for benefits.”
Next spring, Spencer says he and staff will make seven recommendations to the board of directors:
- Enhance income protection programs wherever possible to make thing simpler and increase benefits
- Provide a choice in health coverage so benefits can be tailored to a particular context
- Create parity for all employees
- Subsidize small churches
- Create transparency in pricing so people know what the costs are
- Provide transition for pastors currently participating in the program
- Support innovative ministers by making a financial and staff commitment to provide those opportunities
Regarding healthcare, Spencer says the Board of Pensions will maintain all options for current lay employees and plan members regardless of ordination status.
“Unlike any commercial or corporate plan out there, our co-pays, deductibles, and coverage have not changed in nine years. We have not raised out-of-pocket costs and we recommend it all remain the same,” said Spencer. “We’re not making changes for sustainability by diminishing coverage. We’re keeping a high level of coverage.”
Spencer added that smaller congregations will have a different way of funding. Those who are paid less will pay less for their healthcare, while those making a higher salary will pay more.
“But we are looking at a different way. We look at it based on roles, not ordination status. Ministers or commissioned pastors working 20 hours or more will have access to this scaled dues approach, whether they are installed or serving in as a minister in a non-installed role, or commissioned lay pastor,” he said. “All are commissioned by the presbytery and should have some say so in all of those roles.”
Spencer said the board of directors will be asked to publish the minimum dues percentage and healthcare minimums for each of the plan years for 2025-27. The board will also publish the rate for the 2025 plan that includes congregational leaders as well as the percentage and flat rates for dependent, spouse or family coverage.
“We will ask our board to set aside permanent resources to provide innovative ministries to support new ideas and new concepts. We will be continuing the grant program for organizing pastors and evangelists,” Spencer said. “We want to retain the ability to respond to your ideas on what congregations are doing and different ways of sharing pastoral leadership. We want to be there to respond to what the church is doing as the church continues to evolve.”
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