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Agencies plan emergency pension help for central conference clergy

 


Agencies plan emergency pension help for central conference clergy

Nov. 23, 2004         

By Tim Tanton*

SKOKIE, Ill. (UMNS) – For the retired Mozambican minister and his wife, the “golden years” had nothing to do with gold and everything to do with trying to survive on a $120 annual pension.

During a 2003 trip to Mozambique, a United Methodist team found that the couple exemplified the need for pension programs not only in Africa but other parts of the world.

After a career in the church, the minister had reached the end of life with barely enough pension income to buy a few bags of food.

“He and his wife were forced to live with their son and his five children in their two-room home,” said Barbara Boigegrain, a member of the fact-finding team and top staff executive of the denomination’s Board of Pension and Health Benefits. “It was not a retirement with dignity.”

“All my life,” the man told the team, “I have preached heaven, and now I am in hell.”

“He said he had a heart condition,” Boigegrain recalled, “and we got word about a month later that he had passed away.”

In parts of the world where the United Methodist Church enjoys its strongest growth — Africa, the Philippines, Eastern Europe — pastors who are building the flocks are finding themselves with little to live on in retirement.

That’s where the Central Conference Pension Initiative comes in. The initiative is a multi-agency effort to establish models for permanent pension coverage in the church’s regions –or conferences – in Africa, Asia and parts of Europe. Providing those models for each conference is still several years away, so in the interim, the agencies are working under a mandate from the 2004 General Conference to develop emergency funding for regions most in need.

Governing members of the Board of Pension and Health Benefits discussed the initiative during their Nov. 19-20 meeting in Skokie. Representatives of the board and four other United Methodist agencies sit on the committee that oversees the program.
 
Those agencies are the Board of Global Ministries, the United Methodist Publishing House, the General Council on Finance and Administration, and United Methodist Communications.

Last May, General Conference authorized the pension agency to create and administer funding for the programs of the initiative, in consultation with the finance agency and supported by the partner agencies. General Conference also directed the Board of Global Ministries to make emergency grants for retired clergy and spouses in central conferences where extreme need exists. The emergency funding will enable those conferences to reach a point where they can eventually start their own plans, and it will be separate from the country-specific programs that the initiative is developing.

The Central Conference Pension Committee is focusing on three countries initially:  Mozambique, Liberia and Zimbabwe. A study team will visit those countries next spring and summer.

The committee is developing different models for each country’s circumstances, trying to determine how best to support a national infrastructure like Mozambique’s, which offers social security; support an existing church pension system, such as Zimbabwe’s; and provide coverage from scratch where no system exists, as in Liberia.

After addressing emergency pension funding in Africa, the committee will focus on Russia and Eastern Europe, then the Philippines, Boigegrain said.
 
The church’s central conference pension initiative fund already has received $716,000 for the permanent program. The initiative’s funds are kept separate from the pension plans of U.S. clergy and lay employees, so the U.S. plans are not affected in any way.

So far, support for the initiative’s fund has come primarily from U.S. annual conferences redirecting the yearly checks that they receive from the United Methodist Publishing House to augment their clergy pensions. Since the 1700s, the Publishing House has provided a portion of its earnings for that purpose, carrying on a tradition with spiritual roots reaching back to Methodism’s founder, John Wesley, who emphasized the need to care for retired pastors and their dependents.

Redirecting those yearly checks is a good way for annual conferences to support the initiative, said Bishop Ben Chamness, chairperson of the pension agency and the Central Conference Pension Committee.

“I would certainly encourage more of our conferences to do that,” he said. “We really need all of them to participate so that we can do the funding that we need.”

In the past two years, 34 of the denomination’s 63 U.S. conferences have contributed their checks. The remainder of the $716,000 has come from other donors. It’s a lot of money but a small fraction of the total needed.

“We need to raise $20 (million) to $25 million,” Boigegrain said. She described that as a rough estimate of what is needed to provide a sustainable program.

Updating her board directors, Boigegrain said the Central Conference Pension Committee is focusing immediately on fund raising and education.

The education and communication process will include speaking with groups around the church, such as the jurisdictional colleges of bishops, the Connectional Table, conference treasurers and the top executives at other general agencies. The Central Conference Pension Committee will emphasize that it will not compete for church dollars already allocated to other purposes. The fund-raising work will involve seeing where and how money can be raised.

The funding element is one of the most pressing needs, Chamness said in an interview. “We really can’t make a lot of decisions about the pension program until we are able to see what kind of funding we can raise, so that’s going to be one of our concentrated efforts during this quadrennium. And we do plan to go beyond United Methodist Publishing House funds for other funds. We have a team that is working on designing that approach for funding.”

In 2000, the committee’s predecessor task force set a 12-year time frame for the planning and other work necessary for permanent funding. However, that doesn’t mean the permanent funding will be in place by 2012, board officials said.

Not all of the central conferences are in dire straits. The Northern Europe Conference, for example, is affluent, and its annual conferences have strong pension systems.

The Rev. Vidar Sten Bjerkseth, a board member from Norway, said he would seek support for the pension initiative when he returns home to his annual conference, and he would contact neighboring conferences about providing support too.

“It is necessary for the rich annual conferences in the central conferences in Europe to get a lot of information about this work and also see if they have possibilities to give contributions to raise the funding of this central conference pension plan,” he said. If those annual conferences start giving their contributions from the Publishing House, “that would be a good start.”

More information about the initiative can be found at www.gbophb.org online.

*Tanton is managing editor of United Methodist News Service.

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

 

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