‘It’s important for ministers of the Word and Sacrament to be getting a pension’
by Lea Sitton, Board of Pensions | Special to Presbyterian News Service
PHILADELPHIA — Too many ministers were missing out on the unique financial protection of the Benefits Plan of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). And not enough were eligible for Board of Pensions education and assistance programs. So, in 2020, the Board introduced a second benefits package for ministers: Minister’s Choice.
“I was delighted when they came up with Minister’s Choice,” said the Rev. Mary Jane Kerr Cornell, co-chair of the Committee on Ministry (COM) at the Presbytery of Greater Atlanta. Her presbytery and the Pittsburgh Presbytery are two that require the package for ministers called to serve at least 20 hours weekly.
“It’s important for ministers of the Word and Sacrament to be getting a pension,” Cornell said. “And they didn’t get it if they were in a contract call.”
Minister’s Choice is a financial protection package that outshines any on the commercial market. The cost to employers is 10 percent of effective salary. In addition to the Defined Benefit Pension Plan, it contains the Death and Disability Plan and Temporary Disability Plan.
Any minister who works at least 20 hours a week is eligible for Pastor’s Participation. It is the comprehensive benefits package required for installed positions. But at an employer cost of 37 percent of effective salary, Pastor’s Participation can be out of reach. Instead, congregations offer one-year, renewable contracts for non-installed positions. Ministers answering these calls might be bivocational or, in small churches, even career contract ministers.
“Largely, they are women whose husbands get insurance,” Cornell said. “They can’t see that the pension is the most important.” The Rev. Brian Wallace, associate minister to the Pittsburgh Presbytery, said young ministers also often don’t comprehend the important support gained through Benefits Plan membership.
Minister’s Choice provides access to the Employee Assistance Plan and education and assistance programs. All foster wholeness by focusing on areas of well-being: spiritual, health, financial and vocational. Being well in heart, mind, body, and spirit, ministers can then devote their best gifts to serving their congregations.
“This is a great way to take care of pastors,” the Rev. Julie Ferguson, co-chair of the Atlanta presbytery’s COM, said of Minister’s Choice. “It covers really important things.”
The Employee Assistance Plan, a confidential resource, includes counseling sessions; financial, tax, and legal assistance; and resources for child and older adult care. The education and assistance programs include the longstanding, beloved CREDO, Minister Educational Debt Assistance, and Sabbath Sabbatical Support.
“I always had colleagues who were going to CREDO, and they’d come back looking so renewed,” Ferguson said.
“For us, it was a no-brainer,” Wallace said of requiring churches to provide Minister’s Choice. “We had been working toward making benefits a value-add for our congregations.”
Congregations in Pittsburgh Presbytery follow a tier system of required minimum compensation for non-installed positions. Each of the six tiers is defined by a range of hours worked per week, such as 20-22 hours or 24-27 hours. Each tier lists required items of compensation — and a bottom-line price tag. The requirement for Minister’s Choice is built into the four tiers that go from 20-22 hours weekly up to full time.
“They’ve been given a menu,” Wallace said of the congregations. “They just take what they can afford.” He reeled off the advantages for the minister. “You’re a full member of the Board. You’re eligible for all those programs,” he said. “We can get you into a pension plan, fully vested. … I know my family’s going to be taken care of.”
Cornell knows well the value of the PC(USA) pension plan. Both she and her father, also a Presbyterian minister, were paid below the median effective salary for many years during their ministries. When an effective salary is below the median, pension credits — as well as disability benefits and death benefits — are calculated based on the median. This provides financial protection to lower-paid ministers and their families during active ministry and into retirement.
Concern for family is something that resonates with Ferguson. Twenty miles of a busy Atlanta highway lie between her home and the congregation she serves in a contract position. “I’ve had a couple of close calls on the road,” she said, “and I thought what if ….” Minister’s Choice answers the “what ifs” for ministers serving in contract calls.
“We have the best denominational plan,” Wallace said. “We should be doing everything we can to get people into the plan.” Minister’s Choice is a clear path in.
Lea Sitton is agency writer at the Board of Pensions, which supports wholeness in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) community and care for Benefits Plan members. For information, contact email@example.com.
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