Presby-Agitation: A List of Links and Resources for the Board of Pensions

If you're connected with me on Facebook, you've gotten updates from me about the proposed change to the Presbyterian Board of Pensions medical plan. We currently have a communally-based plan, in which the burdens and costs are shared in an equitable way, but this could change, and change quickly. In fact, the proposal means that in many cases the costs will be borne by those who are least able to manage them. This change will be very difficult for many young pastors, pastors with families, and small churches. I've felt very discombobulated with all of the stuff floating around out there, and worry that any advocacy efforts will be blunted as a result. So here is my attempt to put a bunch of stuff together in one place. Please let me know what key items I am missing.

Here's your kit for your own presby-agitation around this issue:

Understand What is Being Proposed:

  1. Here is the original news article that describes the proposed change. Read the comments for a sampling of responses. In a nutshell, the Board will decide next month whether to reduce dues across the board from 21% to 19% and cover dependents at 65%, leaving the rest of the cost for churches and/or pastors to cover. They claim if they do not do this, dues will have to go up to 25% across the board. Which they say could be crippling for churches. So instead, their plan would severely cripple a subset of plan members, in many cases people who are least able to bear the brunt. This flies in the face of call neutrality and the communal nature of the plan, both of which are long-held and cherished values.
  2. And here is an Excel spreadsheet which allows you to calculate what the proposed change might mean for you or your pastor. UPDATE: Here is another from the same source that purports to be more complete and accurate.

Get Organized:

  1. Cynthia Holder Rich writes about how we need to approach our advocacy on this issue. See her footnote for many other articles on this issue.
  2. Join the Facebook Group that's been organizing and conversing on this issue. There may be a group coming together to attend the BOP meeting in Philadelphia on March 8-9.

Make Your Voice Heard:

  1. Here is the change.org petition. Petitions have limited value in such cases; on the other hand, they're easy to sign, so no harm in adding your name. We know that the Board is aware of this petition.
  2. Here is the address list of Board members. These are the people you want to contact with letters. Include both stories of how this will impact real families and churches, as well as counter-proposals. We have heard from allies and other knowledgeable parties that they want and need to hear both.
  3. Write a letter to Andrew Browne, corporate secretary of the Board of Pensions, at abrowne@pensions.org. In the words of my friend Ken Sikes, "The quantity of letters they receive as much as the content will indicate the power of our protest.  Ten letters would be a whisper, 100 moderately audible, but imagine how loud 1000 letters would shout." Andrew's snail mail address is The Board of Pensions of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), Attn: Andrew Browne, Corporate Secretary, 2000 Market Street, Philadelphia, PA 19103-3298

Some Examples:

I believe the Board when they say that something needs to change in order to respond to rising health care costs. With the caveat that I am no insurance expert, here is my modest counter-proposal:

Our current dues are set at 21% of salary. The proposal is to go to 19% across the board and set dependent coverage at 65%. The board committee who studied this warned that if they did not act, dues would go up for everyone, to 25%. It makes no sense to bemoan a fiscal crisis in one breath and lower rates in the next. So how about we raise rates from 21% to 23% across the board, and if dependent coverage is what's bankrupting us*,  then cover dependents at 80%. Call neutrality takes a hit, but it's much easier to come up with 20% of dependent coverage than 35%.

*By the way, I don't think it is dependents. Or at least, not completely. It's aging boomers, who are living longer, and I celebrate that. We made a commitment to care for them; they have served the church faithfully. So let's do that---all of us. Shared burden, shared sacrifice.

I have no idea whether this would get the job done. This is a back-of-the-napkin proposal, but it has the benefit of preserving the communal nature of the plan.

(Another friend proposed that if 25% is what it takes to cover people, then raise rates to 25%, for heaven's sake!)

Here is another counter-proposal, actually three, written by my friend Ken Sikes. It's within a letter that he wrote, and I think it's a good example of the kind of letters we should be writing, so I quote it in its entirety below.

Again, please let me know what critical links I've missed.

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January 18, 2012

The Board of Pensions of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Attn: Andrew Browne, Corporate Secretary

2000 Market Street Philadelphia, PA 19103-3298

Dear Mr. Browne,

My name is Ken Sikes and I am the pastor of Manitou Park Presbyterian Church in Tacoma, WA.  For several months, my wife and I have been a bit anxious about the recommended changes to the medical plan.  I am writing to request that the board adopt a different and more equitable plan.   If the board chooses to adopt the current plan, the consequences will be dire for my family, our church and our community.

According to the estimates I heard on the Webinar and personally from my regional representative, Mark Frey, covering myself, my wife and my three children will cost an additional $475 per month.   There is no way we can meet this bill. I know the church will get charged only 19% instead of 21% but this is only about a $75/month savings still leaving us with $400 left to pay.  This is no where close to feasible for us or the congregation.  I implore you to choose a different option.

When I asked Mark what I could do to stop the board from affirming the recent recommendations of the Healthcare Committee he said the best thing to do is to share my story with the board.  He gave me your contact information and said you would ensure my story, and others, were shared with the board before their vote in March.  I thank you in advance for passing along my story.

Through a series of experiences to long to share in this letter I felt God’s call to pastor a small, struggling, urban congregation.   Aware of the financial constraints of redevelopment congregations, my wife and I prepared for this call while in seminary by making sure all of our school, car and credit card loans were paid off before I searched for a call.  This allowed a fair amount of freedom in our search which God blessed with a call to Manitou Park in 2003 at the presbytery minimum salary.   Since arriving we have been blessed with three children who have made Manitou their home as well.  Despite the single income, we have been able to stretch this salary to cover the cost of our modest expenses.  Through simplicity, the kindness of family and God’s grace we have been able to end each year with no more money in the bank, but no less.  With the Lord's help, we are making it.  And this is why it hurts so bad to hear that the straw that might break our back comes from the very organization pledged to support us.  If the current plan passes I fear we will not be able to remain at Manitou.  For the sake of our call to this ministry I implore you to choose a different plan. 

Manitou is a small struggling congregation in a low-income neighborhood of Tacoma.  From its formation in 1912, it has been committed to the people of this community.  Though that commitment has never been met with financial wealth it has resulted in the sharing and nurture of faith in Jesus Christ to thousands of people over its ten decades of life.  Our food bank serves over 3,500 a year. Our building serves as meeting space for two Narcotics Anonymous groups, a summer tutoring program and a Latino congregation.  For the last five summers several dozen neighborhood kids have participated in our Arts Camp which shares God’s love through drama, pottery, music and the other arts.  All of this, and more, has been done on a budget of less than $90,000.  Everyone from pre-schoolers to the homebound have shared not only with financial gifts but with their time in volunteering to keep this budget so low.   Such efforts have led to a reduction in our deficit from over $40,000 five years ago to less than $12,000 last year.  Every year has led us a little closer to the goal of a balanced budget.  That will all change if you vote to approve the recommendations of your Healthcare committee.  If Manitou were to attempt to continue to cover my wife and three children, it would cost the church approximately $4800 more per year.  Manitou, very simply will not be able to pay this.  If this change takes place, there is a good chance that Manitou will soon move the full-time position to part-time making it impossible for me to remain their pastor.  For the sake of the Manitou congregation and community I implore you to choose a more equitable plan.

I, and my colleagues, recognize health care costs are rising and the board must do something about it.  Some one must carry the burden.  Unfortunately, the current recommendation unfairly distributes this burden.  As one who preaches each week, I can’t help but steal a tactic from Jesus and offer this parable.

The plan of the health care committee is like ten hikers ascending a mountain, each of them carrying 21 pounds on their backs.  Half-way up the mountain they come across an additional 40 pounds that must be carried.  Instead of distributing the weight evenly by giving 4 pounds to each hiker, the leader only divided the weight amongst 4 hikers by adding 10 pounds to each of their packs.  Oddly, the leader then proceeded to remove 2 pounds from 6 of the hikers and put 3 more pounds in the packs of the 4 hikers bringing their total load to 33 pounds while the other six carried only 19. Where is the kingdom of heaven in this parable?  For the sake of our commitment to share one another’s burdens I implore you to choose a plan that shares the load more equitably 

I was encouraged by a mentor never to critique a problem without offering a potential solution.   Here are three.

Option 1. Keep the 21% rate for all congregations yet require members to pay an affordable flat rate for spouse and dependents.  We recognize there is a need for change and we are willing to incur some additional cost to cover dependents.  My hope is that this flat rate can be brought to a more reasonable amount.

Option 2. If 21% leaves the flat rate too high, then raise the rate one percentage point to 22% for everyone.

Option 3. Phase the change over time to give ministers and congregations time to adjust.  Keep the rate at 21% in 2014, but begin to require members to cover spouses but not dependents at an affordable rate.  In 2015, keep the rate at 21% but begin to require members to cover children at an affordable rate.  Make another adjustment in 2016 if necessary.

Let me close by thanking you for your service on the board of pensions, I believe this is your way of serving God by serving others.  As you meet and discern God’s will in this plan I strongly encourage you to listen for God’s voice so that what Paul wrote to the Corinthians might be true for Presbyterians, “If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.” (1 Corinthians 1:26)

Thank you,

Rev. Kenneth W. Sikes

Pastor, Manitou Park Presbyterian Church