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The economics and ecclesiology of sustainable pastoral ministry: Part 2

The Reverend Dr. Frank Clark Spencer

This is the second article of a three-part series. Part 1 reviews research on how ministers are compensated and what leads to their flourishing in their roles in a congregational setting. Part 2 describes supportive programming consistent with the research. Part 3 provides new data on outcomes associated with current PC(USA) practices and why programmatic solutions must give way to structural change.

Helping ministers and congregations flourish

Over the last 15 years, the Board of Pensions has introduced programmatic support for ministers at an increasing pace. These programs range across the identified aspects of the flourishing research and have, in many ways, built one upon the next as the Board has experimented, learned, and applied those insights.

Seventeen years ago, the Board of Pensions licensed the CREDO curriculum from the Church Pension Group, The Episcopal Church counterpart to the Board. CREDO brings approximately 30 ministers together for a weeklong conference in a retreat setting guided by an eight-person faculty with expertise in four areas of well-being: spiritual, health (both physical and mental), financial, vocational. Each participant leaves having established a Rule of Life and immediate goals in support of well-being. Many participants have credited CREDO with restoring their sense of call and saving their ministry. Others have reported that it saved their marriage. A few find that it becomes a time of discernment and that they need to pursue another call or perhaps even another career.  More than 3,200 PC(USA) ministers have now completed at least one CREDO.

Since introducing CREDO, the Board has expanded it to serve the full arc of ministry. In 2014, it added a CREDO for recently ordained ministers, guaranteeing an invitation to all newly ordained PC(USA) minister members of the Benefits Plan of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). And in 2018, the Board introduced a CREDO for ministers in their last 10 to 15 years of full-time, active ministry, when questions of transition and retirement loom.

CREDO is also reaching populations that have traditionally been marginalized within the denomination. Partnering with Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary, the Board of Pensions created the first CREDO for African American pastors and has delivered CREDO conferences in Spanish and in Korean.

Engaging with thousands of diverse ministers in an intimate conference setting has provided insights to the Board for additional programming. However, it has also provided a clear example of the need for greater scale. Only members of the Church’s Benefits Plan may participate and with only 330-390 available invitations per year, it is a limited resource in a denomination with 5,193 ministers serving in congregations.i

The Board made a conscious decision in 2015 to define its mission, not in terms of commercial contracts, but rather in A Theology of Benefits.ii  This theology embraced the concepts of shalom, or wholeness, which God wants for all people and the abundant life that Jesus promises. A Theology of Benefits moved the Board beyond retirement planning and paying healthcare claims, imbuing its entire structure with the four elements of well-being articulated in CREDO, elements essential to flourishing in ministry as well as life.

In the realms of emotional and spiritual support, the Board has created a series of wholeness opportunities. The annual Well-Being Retreat is offered each year, in Montreat, North Carolina, or Zephyr Point, in Nevada on Lake Tahoe. That programming has been augmented by Well-Being Respite, an online gathering that provides worship, meditation, and guided spiritual reflection. It is not unusual to have over 100 participants, who take time out from the daily grind for renewal. For longer sabbaticals, the Board has more than doubled the availability of Sabbath Sabbatical Support grants, of up to $5,000, to provide for time away.

As the flourishing research clearly identifies, finding acceptance within the institutional structure of one’s authentic self is critical to well-being. The Board began providing same-gender domestic partner benefits in 2013. In 2018, when the Board discovered that there were survivors of same-gender unions whose partners had died before the 2013 change, the Board invited the Presbyterian Mission Agency to join in creating the Marriage Equality Grant program for those surviving spouses in lieu of a survivor’s pension. This kind of formal institutional recognition is critical to an individual’s self-esteem and well-being.

The Board has built its health and well-being changes primarily into the Benefits Plan structure itself. Call to Health was introduced in 2015 as a voluntary program but with a substantial financial incentive. This program encourages healthy lifestyles, preventive healthcare, and spiritual practices through an online portal. Points are accumulated and, once certain thresholds are reached, the next year’s medical deductibles are reduced and cash incentives are earned. Over the years 2019-2022, 85 percent of eligible ministers registered for the program and half of all ministers completed the necessary steps to qualify for reduced medical deductibles, a rate that substantially exceeds national averages for well-being programs.

The Board provides telehealth to ease access to medical care and has increased the number of mental health engagements available at no cost through the Employee Assistance Plan from three to six. Beginning April 1, 2022, the Board began providing care navigation for all Medical Plan members. Care navigation provides trained healthcare professionals to personally assist members in navigating their healthcare and making the most of their medical benefits.

Sometimes, the formal program cannot meet every need. This is where the Board can rely on its resources to provide institutional grace. In 2021, the Board established the Compassionate Care Grant to provide assistance for rehabilitative, in-home care for disabled members who are working to return to a life of greater independence, dignity, and ministry. This need-based program fills the gap between formal healthcare claims and the true cost of maintaining daily life for those who may be experiencing a profound disability or injury. As flourishing research affirms, institutional support can be a significant component of well-being.

The Healthy Pastors, Healthy Congregations program, initiated in 2016 with a Lilly Endowment grant, has proven this to be the case. The program consisted of four primary components: financial education for the pastor, training for the session members of the congregation, a formal financial plan for the pastor developed by Ernst & Young, and a financial stabilization grant of up to $10,000, which can be used to reduce debt or jump-start a retirement savings plan. The total investment over six years was approximately $10 million, $2 million from the Lilly Endowment and $8 million from the Board’s Assistance Program and general funds. Most of that investment has gone directly to pastors, with nearly $8.4 million in grants. According to Fidelity Investments data on happiness and fulfillment, nothing creates greater well-being than paying off debt. When debt reduction is combined with education and professional guidance in creating a budget and financial plan, it serves as a tremendous stress reducer for the pastor. 

Healthy Pastors, Healthy Congregations  
 Cumulative 2015-2021 12/31/2021 
Pastors & Churches  
Churches with Signed Covenants (including completed and pilot) 850 
Pastors with Signed Covenants (including completed and pilot) 944 
Pastors with Signed Covenants from Communities of Color  136 
Withdrawn Churches with Signed Covenants 26 
Withdrawn Pastors 45 
Total Pastors Presently Engaged (with covenants, no grant, not withdrawn) 72 
Pastors Through Seminar Process 933 
Future Seminars Scheduled 
Completed Online Financial Education 891 
Referred to Ernst & Young Financial Counseling 888 
Completed Ernst & Young Program 876 
Total Grants Disbursed 837 
Total Grant Dollars Disbursed $ 8,360,000 
Grants Applied to Retirement Savings  294 
Grants Applied to Student Debt  55 
Grants Applied to Personal Debt  488 

The Board has recognized that most ministers who are working in presbyteries as evangelists or organizing pastors (job code 301) are excluded from benefits because of the corporate model defined in Part 1. They can expect fair pay and benefits only after they establish a congregation/corporation. Beginning in 2019, the Board of Pensions began providing Benefits Grants for Organizing Pastors and Evangelists. In this program, the Board pays 100 percent of the dues for Pastor’s Participation for the first three years, two-thirds for the fourth year, and one-third for the final year. The presbytery covenants to pay the balance not paid by the Board. Fifty such grants have been authorized at an annual value of $750,000.  However well received this program has been, it is operating on the corporate assumption that within five years, a viable entity that stands on its own financially will be created and, if not, the minister will lose access to benefits. Knowing this, it is more accurate to call this early-stage venture capital rather than a long-term solution to sustainable ministry.

In terms of direct financial support to ministers, the Board has substantially expanded Minister Educational Debt Assistance. Surveys of participants in the CREDO program for recently ordained ministers found that the participants broke into two distinct groups, those with no debt at all (50 percent) and those with substantial educational debt (50 percent). Of those with debt, the average balance was $25,000. So, the Board raised the maximum amount of the debt assistance from $10,000 to $25,000.

For those minister members who encounter unexpected or unusual financial hardships, the Board will make an emergency grant of up to $15,000. Historically, these have been shared grants, funded by presbyteries and the Board. However, as Presbyteries have come under increasing financial pressure, with the decline of membership and, thus, per capita contributions, their participation in these grants has dropped dramatically. The presbyteries themselves operate on the corporate model of budgeting and resources, and one of the easiest things to cut when money is tight are extraordinary, one-time expenses.

Programmatic solutions for congregations

Recognizing that the PC(USA) operates in a system of corporate structures and budgeting processes, the Board has provided support for those independent entities as corporate organizations.

The Pathways to Renewal program creates a dues incentive for small congregations who have been without a pastor for at least two years or larger congregations that increase ministerial head count to create new areas of mission or ministry. In this case, small is defined as 150 members or fewer. However, based on a study requested by the General Assembly in conjunction with the National Black Presbyterian Caucus, for historically African American congregations, that break point is 300 members, and Pathways to Renewal has been structured accordingly to provide access for these often-excluded congregations.

In Pastor’s Participation, employer dues are 22 percent of effective salary, rather than the current standard of 39 percent. The pastor receives the full benefits package with no diminishment. However, the corporate model again comes into play. This subsidy is for a five-year period, during which the new pastor is expected to help the congregation grow or find some other method of creating a sustainable financial position, such that full dues can be paid beginning in the sixth year. This subsidy program costs $720,000 annually in forgone dues payments for benefits.

The Board has provided employing congregations other direct support. Recognizing a simple inability to pay the dues, the Board has permanently reduced them for all Puerto Rican congregations by 50 percent, with no diminishment of benefits for the pastors. During the coronavirus crisis, the Board invested over $7 million in dues relief (waivers) for small congregations.  Both actions, while intended with genuine compassion and generosity by the Board of Directors, are still examples of the operative assumption that all entities must produce and manage budgets independent of any other entity.

Perhaps most significantly, the Board of Pensions has been able to reduce the dues for the Defined Benefit Pension Plan, from 11% of effective salary to 8.5% of effective salary.  The benefits of the pension to the members are unchanged and in no way diminished. Therefore, the dues reduction accrues directly to the employer. The aggregate value of that reduction is $10 million annually.

These examples are relevant because they paint an important picture of why fundamental reform is needed. The Board of Pensions invests far more than any other entity of the PC(USA) in the direct support of ministers and congregations in the very areas that have been shown to support flourishing in ministry.  When totaled, the annual expenditures are substantial, as the 2020-2021 chart below demonstrates: 

CREDO conferences $2,000,000 
Sabbaticals, Employee Assistance (Mental Health) $600,000 
Call to Health and Wellness Programs  $2,400,000 
Healthy Pastors, Healthy Congregations $1,700,000 
Organizing Pastors and Evangelists dues $750,000 
Minister Educational Debt Assistance $500,000 
Emergency Grants $160,000 
Pathways to Renewal $720,000 
Puerto Rican Dues Reduction $180,000 
COVID Dues Waivers (one time) * $7,000,000 
Pension Dues Reductions $10,000,000 

Total Annual Investment in Sustainable Ministry 

     *Not included in annual total 



Per Capita Based on 5,185 Ministers in Active Service and Members of the Plan 

$3,667, or approximately 6% of  

effective median salary. 

Despite the substantial financial commitment that these numbers document, the larger context clearly demonstrates that PC(USA) is losing congregations and pastoral leadership for economic reasons. As congregations slip below 150 members, their ability to sustain pastoral leadership becomes impaired in the corporate model.

This is not to say the innovations and associated investments made by the Board of Pensions over the last seven years have not been worthwhile. They clearly have. The testimonies of individual pastors, the creation of over 125 new benefits-inclusive calls, and the reduction of costs across the denomination all point to success. And yet, the PC(USA) finds itself unable to sustain ministry in its current form. Annually, the number of ministers in active ministry declines as more retire than are ordained. Fundamental restructuring will be required.

Part 3 of this series presents new data documenting current outcomes for ministers and congregations and begins to explore structural principles that transcend programmatic solutions.