Monday, February 4, 2013

Blest Be the Pensions that Bind

As the Presbyterian church continues to wrestle around with the realities of soaring medical expenses, an aging pastorate, and the oldline death spiral, the impacts of that reality hit hard now and again.  For pastors throughout the denomination, the latest bell that tolls for us is the announcement of a significant modification in the way that medical benefits are allocated.

Hard pressed by financial realities, our Board of Pensions has announced shifts in the way we fund and support pastor's medical care and the care for their families.  As has been the trend in employer-provided health care, the revisions to the plan put more financial burdens on those with families.  The change also hits harder for smaller communities, which already reel from the weight of providing care.  It transitions away from a system that subsidized smaller communities with the resources of the wealthier communities.   We're more and more like the marketplace in which we find ourselves.

It's not particularly fair, as many have noted, but neither is the bloated profit-driven health care "system" we endure in this nation.   That favors size and wealth and buying power, and has driven costs spiraling unmanageably upwards in the last three decades.  In this new, harder reality, the Big Parking Lot churches will fare well, and the midsized churches will get by with some belt-tightening, but wee kirks will find it harder and harder to manage even a half-time call.

But honestly?  They already do.   Family chapel congregations, small rural fellowships, and fledgling emergent house churches are already largely priced out of the "called and installed" pastor marketplace.  It's not that they're mean.  It's not that they're skinflints.  The resources simply aren't there.  Why?  You said it.  The rent is too damn high.

So perhaps it's time for little churches to look elsewhere.

Smaller congregations are already given the option of getting "off the grid" pastors.  That means stated supply folks like myself who operate on annual contracts, or Certified Lay Pastors who are charged to serve a particular congregation.  And for us?  Well, participation in the PC(USA) pension and health care system is great if we can get it.  But it's not mandatory.

And the world is changing.  At some point in the coming years, our slow-as-sludge move towards universal health care provision will hopefully make this a moot issue.  Coming at the end of this year, the first of the Health Insurance Exchanges will kick in under the Patient Protection and Affor...oh, shoot, under Obamacare.  These will provide citizens and small employers with other options for purchasing and securing health care.

For smaller congregations that want to provide care for the pastors that love them and teach them, it would be interesting to see how the price-point of access into that approach to care provision compares to the excellent but expensive Board of Pensions system.   That's difficult to ascertain at this point.  But given that many communities already aren't able to buy into the BOP offering, perhaps there are other options.

Because ultimately, the glue of our fellowship isn't pensions, and it's not health care.

Exchanges and excellent, not-for-profit oriented retirement 403(b) providers like TIAA/CREF might offer communities that have been priced out of the system a way to care for pastors and their families.