Monday, June 27, 2005

Out Of Order Alert!!!
[that's out of publishing order, actually; watch the date after the column header, but normally these go up in order that they're published on wood pulp - jbg]

Faith Works 6-25-05
Jeff Gill

Insuring Good Pastoral Leadership

Did you know that General Motors spends more per car on health insurance for employees than it does on steel?

OK, you answer, I didn’t know that and it’s an interesting but disturbing fact, illustrative of modern economic trends. But I turned to the "Your Faith" page today to read the "Faith Works" column, not "Business Round-Up."

And so you did. I’m telling you this because many denominations are finding it harder and harder to insure their clergy, let alone other full-time employees, which leaves congregations and local faith communities of all sorts scrambling. How do we properly provide for our pastors, preachers, staff of all sorts?

Small business owners and managers have been dealing with the premium increase spiral for years, but most church boards or budget committees have been either sheltered from the chill winds of reality or left thinking someone else was covering the question. Fewer options and skyrocketing costs whether self-insured or through a large company have started to wreak havoc with public entities like school systems (most of the large ones like Columbus are self-insured, with their own pool of funds set aside for paying out claims) and not-for-profits.

Church groups have, as a whole, tended to keep the playing field even across their participants, with everyone paying the same rate regardless of age, part of the country, or specific circumstances.

But even the Catholic Church or United Methodists, who have very large pools to work with to balance payment in to costs going out, are finding it increasingly burdensome to maintain coverage without starting to cut into other programs.

More "free church" traditions have long left it up to individuals to buy individual coverage, but even loosely organized denominations have tried to offer a group insurance plan that can be paid for by the employing body (you have to pay taxes on money given you to buy individual coverage, which makes the apparent savings of individual coverage much less), and group insurance can go across state and regional boundaries. Clergy who may want to hold onto the flexibility of relocation later in their career are often unwilling to get a modest savings in cost in exchange for possibly tying themselves to one state for the rest of their career.

My own ordaining body, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), is now having to ask for $14,000 for the highest deductible family plan: almost half the average salary and housing allowance paid across the denomination. You can get your own coverage for around $9,000, but since you pay taxes on that money (individual vs. group), we’re looking at $12,000 and less or no portability.

And it doesn’t matter, because the agency of the church that manages the group plan for the church is still losing $3 million a year, and says they will bail out at year’s end, leaving anyone on that plan to scramble for coverage, unless they are authorized to make drastic and equally painful changes to how the plan is offered.

That’s one modestly sized church body in the US. Your group, I can assure you, is facing equally hard choices of one sort or another.

One result of this trend has been two quiet but widespread developments: an increase in bivocational or what’s known as "tentmaking" ministries, where the pastoral leadership is part-time and works a secular job which carries benefits. If you weren’t clever enough to anticipate all this and marry someone with a benefits package (insert irony here), that may be your best option.

The other development is a sharp increase in ordained clergy leaving full-time ministry, working in other fields altogether and fitting in church work like everyone else does, as time allows.

For churches accustomed to full-time, ordained clergy, it used to be that you had to have at least 50 or so average worship attendance to have your own minister. When I started seminary in the mid-80’s, it was said to be 75, then 100, then... Now we’re looking at about 150, all because of insurance costs.

How is your church caring for your leadership at the size you are now, and with the expectations you have of ministry? The time for conversation is past, and action is needed.

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio; he and the Little Guy are on his wife’s insurance. If your faith community has an innovative solution, tell him at

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