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Let It Rise to 25

Onwards and upwards, friends.

Warning: inside Presbyterian baseball follows. So does math and numbers. Reader beware.

Recently the Board of Pensions of the PC(USA) announced a proposal to significantly change the dues structure for health care benefits for pastors and their dependents. In our denomination currently, pastors receive health insurance for themselves and their dependents through their congregations. Each congregation pays a percentage of the pastor’s salary to the Board of Pensions who then oversees the health insurance pool for all on the plan. The proposal (Orwellianly named “Dues Plus”) would decrease the percentage paid by congregations while also decreasing coverage for dependents from 100% to 65%. Congregations and pastors would then have to negotiate how to cover the other 35% for dependents – most likely resulting in pastor paying out-of-pocket for premiums for the first time.

There are many reasons to oppose this proposal, and they are outlined quite well here. The proposal breaks the community rating and call neutrality aspects of the health insurance plan which make it work for our denomination. The proposal also sets pastors against one another, pitting young pastors with families against older pastors with no dependents to cover. It also sets congregations against one another, pitting small congregations with limited budgets against larger congregations that can afford “extras” to entice pastors to come work for them.

If the Presbyterian Church (USA) is going to allow young pastors with families to incur massive amounts of debt by requiring a three-year seminary education, the least we can do is cover their families for when they get sick. If the PC(USA) does not want to see their clergy pool continue to age rapidly, we need to help our young clergy not erect barriers to them. If the PC(USA) truly wants Pastor Nominating Committees to consider if God is calling a particular pastor to their congregation and not consider how many family members would need to be paid for, then we cannot allow this proposal. (And a petition campaign has started to discourage the proposal.)

So what is the alternative? As a friend of mine noted in a Facebook conversation on the topic, “I’m fine having my… proposals critiqued, but not by someone who’s unwilling to get some skin in the game too.” Fair enough. Here’s what I propose.

The reason for the change is that without it dues would raise from 21% of effective salary to 25% of effective salary starting in 2014. This four percentage point jump is significant. For a pastor with a salary of $50,000 per year, that’s an increase of $2,000 per year just to cover health insurance.

But I say: let it rise to 25.

So what happens if we let it rise? Small congregations shudder. Their already tight budgets will be further squeezed by an a cost of living increase in salary and an increase in Board of Pensions dues. I can hear the treasurers of congregations I know, and even the one I serve, wailing in grief at the prospect of trying to balance a budget with this increase.

This needs to happen.

It’s time to wake up to the reality of what it costs to have a full-time pastor, especially for small congregations. Remember, for a pastor making $50,000 a year, the increase is $2,000. If this increase causes congregations to consider if they need a full-time pastor then they probably should have already been discussing if they need a full-time pastor. Because too many congregations I know are desperately clinging to having a full-time pastor at the expense of actually spending money on worship, education, mission, service, and spiritual growth. You know, the things the church is supposed to be doing.

Many have written of the fall of Christendom in the United States, where the church is no longer a central aspect of social or civic life. The numbers have been clear for years that we cannot support as many full-time clergy positions as we have. There comes a point where congregations need to truthfully look at their budgets and prioritize what they need. And for many small congregations, they do not need a full-time pastor. They could easily share a full-time salary with another small congregation and have pastoral care duties covered. In this new era of doing church, the old models of tent-making pioneered by Saint Paul and circuit riders made famous by the Methodists are going to return with force. If raising the dues to 25% makes those congregations think in this direction, then go for it.

And for those congregations who can still afford full-time clergy, the work load is enormous and the least we can do is provide good health insurance for these pastors and their families. Other than teaching there is no other profession which requires a Master’s degree and yields so little material and financial security. Pastors are underpaid and overworked, often with the blessing of the congregation they serve and the presbytery of which they are a member. Fully-paid health insurance seems like a luxury in today’s business climate. (Many of the initial responses to the Board’s proposal were essentially, “Well, everybody else does it that way and has for a long time. We’re just catching up with the times.”) But in reality fully paid health insurance is the one thing that allows many pastors to have any financial security whatsoever.

So I say let it rise to 25. Keep community rating and call neutrality, so churches can call those whom God has called to be pastors. Hard questions will have to be asked by many congregations, and those questions will bring fruitful discussions and a long-overdue dose of reality. Will some pastors lose their jobs? Unfortunately, yes. But that is going to happen anyway. Better to have in place a system that doesn’t discriminate against pastors with families than one that does.

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