As 2023 opened, The Board of Pensions of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) entered a season of rebuilding — a two-year, transformative effort taken in collaboration with the Church to assess and redesign the Benefits Plan of the PC(USA) to better meet the needs of local congregations. Nearly five months into the effort, Board of Pensions leaders have met with over 300 mid council, congregational, and pastoral leaders. This report is intended to update the wider denomination on this important effort, including on feedback received so far, and to outline the steps ahead.
The season of rebuilding is an exploration focused on flexibility, choice, and cost control for local churches. The dues structure of the Benefits Plan has not changed in nearly 40 years, while the Church has not stopped changing. Shifting demographics, declining church membership, and rising healthcare costs have resulted in growing numbers of congregations being unable to afford to enroll their pastoral leadership in the plan. The goal of the season of rebuilding is to ensure that all pastoral leadership, regardless of installation status, have access to the Benefits Plan of the PC(USA).
Listening to the broader Church
The success of this initiative to provide benefits for pastoral leadership will depend on the Church’s engagement in the exploration focused on flexibility, choice, and cost control for local churches. So, the Board of Pensions has begun holding conversations throughout the community of faith — with the other PC(USA) national agencies, mid councils, congregations, and pastoral leaders. The feedback gathered will guide redesign of the Benefits Plan so that more pastoral leaders may receive support through the denomination.
More than 110 mid council, presbytery, and pastoral leaders gathered with a team from the Board of Pensions in Denver May 2-3, 2023. The following week, May 9-10, a similar gathering in Atlanta drew over 100 mid council leaders, including ministers. During Day 1 of each gathering, Board of Pensions leaders presented the realities of the current plan structure and the hopeful goal of serving the most pastoral leaders possible by offering congregations flexible benefits options.
Overwhelmingly, participants acknowledged the need for, and inevitability of, a change in the dues structure, specifically for medical coverage. Feedback from the gatherings revealed a varied pastoral leadership model at work in the denomination — dramatically different from 40 years ago, when the installed pastor model dominated — a mix of installed pastors, ministers serving in non-installed positions, bi-vocational ministers, commissioned ruling elders, and leaders of new worshiping communities. Presbyteries clearly desire tools and assistance to help them guide their congregations in supporting faith leaders, however those leaders are defined.
Sharing what we heard
Participants in both gatherings showed strong support for a redesigned dues structure that would incorporate flexibility, be more inclusive, and respond to congregational needs. The call for inclusivity and responsiveness — to be heard — was sounded most loudly by small-church representatives. Members of communities of color stressed the need for trust-building as the season of rebuilding moves forward.
Although the Board of Pensions has yet to propose any new dues structures, participants considered the effects of shifting from the current dues model — requiring one standard, noncontributory benefits package for installed pastors — to a more flexible model that would allow congregations to select from a set of options and create benefits packages that serve their needs and budgets and promote the well-being of pastoral leaders. The current, mandatory model includes full family coverage in the Medical Plan’s preferred provider option (PPO) as well as pension, death and disability, and temporary disability coverage.
Participants expressed concern that congregations would need to raise salaries if ministers were required to contribute to healthcare coverage and over how that might affect families. But there was also mention of ministers who are doubly covered because they are enrolled in a spouse’s plan as well as in the standard, noncontributory benefits package offered through the Board of Pensions.
Participants recognized that the Medical Plan is in a critical state. Without restructuring, medical dues will continue to climb, approaching 40 percent of effective salary by 2025. At that point, dues for the standard, noncontributory package currently required for installed pastors would total 50 percent of effective salary.
Participants, acknowledging the inevitability of a dues restructuring, requested full transparency from the Board of Pensions and as much information on changes as soon as possible so mid councils and congregations can prepare. They also asked for modeling tools to assist in determining costs once flexibility and choice are introduced. There were requests for the expanded presence of Board of Pensions representatives to help with the transition as well.
Without restructuring, medical dues will continue to climb, approaching 40 percent of effective salary by 2025.
At that point, dues for the standard, noncontributory package currently required for installed pastors would total 50 percent of effective salary.
Taking the next steps
The Board of Pensions will continue its conversation with the Church in Virtual Town Halls, which will take place the last Thursday of each month, beginning May 25. They are currently scheduled through August, but more will be added if needed. Anyone interested in sharing their thoughts on creating more choices for congregations and pastoral leadership may register to participate.
The thoughts and ideas shared at the Denver and Atlanta gatherings and in the Virtual Town Halls will support the discernment process that will unfold over the next year or so as the Board of Pensions, in collaboration with the Church, seeks to better meet the needs of local congregations. Updates on the season of rebuilding are expected to be provided at the Polity, Benefits, and Mission Conference in October 2023. The agency’s Board of Directors is expected to vote on a final design at its meeting in March 2024, and the Denver and Atlanta gatherings would reconvene in May 2024 for Board of Pensions leaders to outline the new plan design, pricing structure, and implementation plan. Presbytery meetings, discernment, and engagement with congregations would continue through the summer of 2024. The revised Benefits Plan would take effect January 1, 2025.
The Board of Pensions is deeply grateful to those who have shared their thoughts and experiences in the early months of the season of rebuilding and looks forward to hearing more voices from throughout the denomination. The Benefits Plan is the vehicle through which the PC(USA) cares for its pastoral leaders, and it is critical for the Church to be fully engaged in making the plan more inclusive. The vitality of our community of faith depends on the well-being of our pastoral leaders.
As noted above, strong support for a redesigned dues structure emerged from the gatherings in Denver and Atlanta. Participants recognized the need for the Church’s plan to respond to congregational needs, to incorporate flexibility, so that more pastoral leaders might receive benefits support and the access to Board of Pensions education and assistance programs that comes with it. They made clear that they would need agency support in transitioning to any new dues structure.
Participants also asked that the agency maintain transparency through this two-year, transformative effort to assess and redesign the Benefits Plan of the PC(USA). The Board of Pensions views transparency as essential to the success of the season of rebuilding and has devoted a microsite to it. The microsite provides extensive information on the effort and related events. Updates are made regularly. The Board of Pensions encourages everyone to visit the microsite to see photographs from the Denver and Atlanta gatherings, to register for the Virtual Town Halls, and to read thought leadership on the principles guiding this Benefits Plan work.
See photos from the Season of Rebuilding gatherings in Denver and Atlanta.
Faith leaders must flourish in ministry and life if they are to grow and sustain their ministries and congregations are to remain vital. For more than 300 years, the Board of Pensions and its predecessors have cared for Presbyterian ministers so they might devote their gifts and energies to answering their calls. From the establishment of the Fund of Pious Uses in 1717 to the formation of today’s Board of Pensions with the reunion in 1983 of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S. and United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A., Presbyterians have structured support for their faith leaders.
The Board of Pensions is one of six national agencies of the General Assembly, the highest governing body of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Each agency has clearly defined responsibilities. The Board of Pensions serves the community of faith by administering the Benefits Plan of the PC(USA), including retirement, medical, and death and disability benefits. The Board of Pensions also provides financial assistance and educational programs to plan members, active and retired, and their families. Together, these benefits and programs promote flourishing in four key areas: spiritual, health, financial and vocational.