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RBC Conversations Focus on Serving More


How can we serve more?

That’s the question the President of the Board of Pensions, the Reverend Frank Clark Spencer, put to participants at the 2015 Regional Benefits Consultations (RBCs). The two-day event was redesigned this year to enable the Board to gather input on how best to provide benefits to the servants of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) in this era of great change.

More than 400 people, including Board staff, attended the three RBCs, in San Diego, Philadelphia, and Chicago, in April and May. Each mid council was invited to send up to three participants from these categories: mid council staff, such as an Executive Presbyter; elected and volunteer mid council staff, a Commission on Ministry leader or a Moderator, for example; and decision-makers who are not members of the Benefits Plan of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), such as a Clerk of Session.

Small break-out groups were built into the RBC schedule as part of the listening strategy developed by the Board, whose goal is to redesign the Benefits Plan to enable employers to care for more church workers. The strategy reflects the need to address the challenges of meeting the goal.

Over the past six months, Rev. Spencer and other Board leaders have met with groups throughout the denomination to gather experiences, thoughts, and concerns around the plan, which was designed to meet the unique needs of teaching elders, providing call neutrality, community nature, and national portability. (Go to the Board’s Facebook page to lend your voice to the conversation.)

In his RBC presentation, Guiding Benefits Design: Principles and Values, Rev. Spencer praised the plan stewards. They followed in the steps of generations of Presbyterians who “cared how we care for each other,” he said. “This pension and benefit plan — health, assistance, pension, and education — is in excellent shape.”

However, the consensus is that although the Benefits Plan has served installed teaching elders well, its one-size-fits-all model is not meeting the needs of employers today. Less than 10 percent of PC(USA) lay employees has coverage through the Benefits Plan, and about 30 percent has no coverage through the church employer, Rev. Spencer said.

So the combination of Board policy and local decision-making has worked to exclude more workers from the plan each year, Rev. Spencer said. “Is that right? Is that what we want for our Church?”

Rev. Spencer emphasized the Board’s commitment to keeping its covenant with teaching elders and continuing to serve those congregations at the core of the PC(USA) — midsize vibrant churches. At the same time, the agency wants to better assist the denomination’s smaller, struggling houses of worship and its emerging ministries. “Both and” is how he characterizes the Board’s goal, which he called “audacious.”

“We want to grow the plan,” Rev. Spencer said. “We want to serve more people, and we want to help employers be the best they can be.” After his presentation, participants were able to share their thoughts in break-out groups of 10 to 12 on how the Board might achieve “both and.”

Participants then returned from the break-out groups for the Benefits Update: Facts and Possibilities, which underscored challenges faced. Patricia M. Haines, Senior Vice President, Benefits, and Todd Ingves, Director, Information Management, reported on the financial shortfalls projected for 2016 and 2017, should no plan changes be made. Participants then returned to their break-out groups to share ideas on potential benefit changes for 2017. (For information on anticipated plan actions for 2016, read Healthcare Recommendations To Maintain Stability in the spring 2015 Board Bulletin.) 

Report from Break-Outs and Panel Discussion

On Day 2 of the RBCs, participants gathered for an overview of what had come out of their break-out groups. The Reverend Dr. John G. McFayden, Vice President, Church Relations, and Susan Reimann, Vice President, Strategic Operations and Initiatives, summarized the feedback under the themes serving more, serving better, and serving the Church.

Serving More

A leading topic of the break-out discussions was expanding the Benefits Plan to serve more church workers. Nearly all participants supported the mandate requiring that teaching elders in installed positions fully participate in the Benefits Plan. However, there was recognition of the tension between the value of continued and expanding coverage and the financial realities of many churches and other employers.

Participants also urged the Board to be aware of the particular needs of

  • small churches;
  • lay employees;
  • commissioned ruling elders;
  • part-time teaching elders;
  • bivocational teaching elders; and
  • those serving in new forms of ministry.

Serving Better

Concern was expressed for teaching elders in non-mandated positions, including those in alternative worshiping communities, as well as lay employees who have no coverage or are covered outside the Benefits Plan.

Many break-out groups urged the Board to provide greater flexibility and a more cost-competitive benefits package to PC(USA) employers as a way to serve more church workers and small churches. Participants encouraged the Board to provide a cafeteria-style plan, with a range of benefits and costs.

Serving the Church

Asked how the Board of Pensions could better serve the Church, the groups generated many ideas, generally calling for the agency to be more of a leader and a partner. For example, they asked that the Board do more to interpret benefits for employers and mid councils, consult with congregations, and provide human resources support to sessions and mid councils in the area of education on compensation, including benefits from the Board.

A Theology of Benefits

A theme throughout the discussions was the need for church workers to embrace healthier lifestyles. It became clear that, for the Church, good health is seen as more than physical well-being; it also is spiritual, vocational, financial, and emotional well-being. Participants urged the Board to foster a theology of benefits, recognizing health as wholeness — and the responsibility of the whole community. They suggested that Call to Health be re-envisioned as part of such an effort.

The Challenge

The challenge of compensating church workers fairly, with benefits, in the changing Church will likely continue for some time — as will the search for solutions. The RBCs are part of the process to find those solutions, Rev. Spencer said, as he thanked participants for serving “with the best interests of the Church in mind.”

Rev. Spencer preached about facing the unknown in his sermon What are we afraid of? People grow fearful when life can no longer be lived based on long-held assumptions, he said. But in his sermon, he reminded RBC participants that the resurrection turns cultural assumptions upside down, and life can no longer be the same.

The sermon echoed words Rev. Spencer had spoken early on in the RBCs, when he pointed out that the number of Benefits Plan members is a small fraction of all church workers and has grown smaller every year since reunion. One plan for all is a myth we tell ourselves, he said.

Rev. Spencer and other Board leaders made clear at the RBCs and in meetings elsewhere that the Church can no longer live with that assumption about the Benefits Plan. Change is needed to make it accessible to more servants of the Church and to help employers be the best they can be. “We want to serve more people every year than the year before,” he said.

It’s a “both and” proposition.