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Non-U.S. clergy face ‘urgent’ need for pension help, leaders say

 


Non-U.S. clergy face ‘urgent’ need for pension help, leaders say

April 25, 2005

By Tim Tanton*

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (UMNS)—As the widow of a Liberian pastor, Minerva Kekeh is barely eking out a living. She is one of hundreds of clergy spouses in her country who are surviving on pensions that are less than paltry.

“Right now, a bag of rice is about $35—United States dollars,” she said. “And with what we are getting, you cannot afford a bag of rice.”

Leaders of a United Methodist pension initiative are working to change that, and they are looking to U.S. churches for help. As United Methodists in America prepare for annual gatherings in May and June, the denomination’s top pension executive has an important message for them.

“We need their help to address a basic issue of justice with regard to enabling clergy in developing countries—their brothers and sisters, really—to retire with dignity and hope,” said Barbara Boigegrain, chief executive of the United Methodist Board of Pension and Health Benefits.

The board is one of five church agencies addressing the plight of United Methodist clergy and their spouses in Africa, Asia and parts of Europe who have little or no pension upon retirement. Directors of the benefits agency discussed the Central Conference Pension Initiative at their April 22-23 meeting in Nashville and heard an update from executives with two partner agencies.

“What we need to help our church understand is that the need is urgent,” said the Rev. Larry Hollon, top staff executive of United Methodist Communications. “It is a very human need.”

Hollon visited the West African country of Liberia in March on a fact-finding trip with Boigegrain. Board of Pension directors viewed a video that he shot, capturing the comments of pastors and surviving spouses such as Kekeh.

The Rev. Joseph Sunday was one such pastor. “I am 72 years old, and I have served the church for 33 years,” Sunday said in the video. But like other retired clergy, widows and widowers in Liberia, he receives only $55 every four months.

In an interview later, Boigegrain noted that when pastors in Liberia reach retirement, they’re destitute. “Having to go back to their children and say, ‘But for you, I could not live,’ is not a statement we want to make about the church and how we support our ministers,” she said.

Neil Alexander, president and publisher of the United Methodist Publishing House, told the pension board that while the denomination’s response is serious and significant, “it’s also measured, tentative and late in coming.”

“We are determined that we can, with our brothers and sisters in the central conferences leading the way, build reliable, sustainable and just systems that will care for the livelihood” of central conference clergy retirees and spouses, he said.

The committee directing the Central Conference Pension Initiative is focusing on raising funds and developing different models of pension systems for the conferences, said Bishop Ben Chamness, chairperson of the Board of Pension and the committee.

The committee is starting with models for Liberia, Mozambique and Zimbabwe. After focusing on Africa, the committee will address pension needs in Russia, Eastern Europe and the Philippines. Boigegrain explained that some central conferences have small pension plans, while others have none.

Boigegrain said she hopes to have a $25 million seed fund established for the initiative within five years. “If every United Methodist gave $3, we’d have this thing funded. We’d have an excellent seed fund,” she said.

To date, the central conference pension initiative fund has received about $800,000. Most of that money has come through U.S. annual conferences designating their annual remittance checks from the Publishing House to be used for central conference pensions. Each year, the Publishing House provides a portion of its earnings to the conferences to help support pensions for retired clergy and dependents.

Thirty-seven of the 63 U.S. annual conferences are designating their Publishing House checks for central conference pensions, and the number is growing, Alexander said. He emphasized the importance of education in the conferences, so that giving is done “with a glad heart.” “I think someday we’ll get to 100 percent,” he added.

The central conference initiative funds are kept separate from money for U.S. clergy and laity retirement plans. U.S. coverage plans are not affected by the initiative.

Hollon said UMCom is developing a communications strategy for the initiative, and reported that the program’s Web presence has been moved from the Board of Pension site to the denomination’s site, www.UMC.org.

Other agencies involved in the effort are the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries and the General Council on Finance and Administration.

Besides giving to the seed fund, local church members can help the initiative by asking for education about the issue, Boigegrain said. She mentioned the possibility of resources being developed by the general church to help people understand the need.

“We have to create the education and the long-term sustainable plan,” she said, “and we need to get money soon to people who do not have enough to eat.”

*Tanton is managing editor for United Methodist News Service.

News media contact: Tim Tanton, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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