Feelings of celebration, gratitude and hope dominated the Board of Pensions dinner Sunday at the 222nd General Assembly (2016) of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).
Cynthia Jarvis opened the dinner with a prayer beginning, “Lord, we thank you for the Board of Pensions, for the way our lives are upheld and directed and secured even as they are upheld by your providential hand each day.”
Board Chair John Hamm recalled the agency’s long history of providing health care, disability insurance and clergy assistance, citing its founding mandate from 1717: “A fund for pious uses to care for widows and children of deceased Presbyterian clergy.”
“We currently have over $8 billion in our pension fund,” Hamm said, praising predecessor trustees for their contributions to the legacy and mission of the almost 300-year-old board.
Hamm said the 29-member board of directors, comprised of one-third clergy and two-thirds lay volunteers elected at the last four General Assemblies, “bring to the table the technical skills and talents we need to implement best practices.”
Frank Clark Spencer, the board president, noted highlights of the 2017 benefits plan and its three goals: Serve more, serve better and serve the church. “All three must be in alignment,” he said.
“Serve more,” he said, “is a question of stewardship, plain and simple.” He noted that the number of people participating in Board of Pensions benefits has declined each year since reunification in 1987, and that fewer than 10 percent of non-clergy employees are now covered.
“The more we serve, the better buying power we have, the greater the array of benefits we can provide,” he said. “The Board of Pensions will indeed grow the number of people we serve with these new offerings.”
In serving better, he said the goal is “to serve as Christ would have us serve,” noting that “economics cannot define our values.”
Referring to the board’s recent work to develop a theology of benefits centered on wholeness, Spencer said: “God’s desire for God’s people is to experience shalom – wellness and health. It’s the ‘life abundant’ promised by Jesus.”
“We are called to justice in how we provide benefits,” he added. “In reality, we have a plan for the few, and nothing for the many.” In 2017 and beyond, he said, the benefits plan must be flexible enough to meet the budgets and needs of many more people, while upholding the communal nature of the church, encouraging healthy living, and providing compassion and dignity for recipients in need of supplemental income. “Not every one will have identical benefits, but all should have what is just,” he said.
“We provide this plan because we are the church of Jesus Christ,” Spencer said, promising that the board will try to “extend these benefits to tens of thousands of members.”
The Board of Pensions, he said, wants to follow the example of Jesus Christ, “who talks of the Samaritan provided care with no expectation of repayment. It’s Jesus Christ who [guarantees] income, no matter when the worker went to the vineyard.”
Calling interagency and ecumenical partnerships “the hallmark of our church life,” Spencer said “reports of our imminent demise have been grossly exaggerated … We must hold on to what has worked well and support traditional forms of church, even as we adopt a posture of flexibility for those on the wane or in ascendance.”
Spencer said the board will remain faithful, flexible, transparent and hopeful, and will uphold “the promises that we, the PC(USA), have made to those who serve God and neighbor in full-time ministry.”
“We undertake this work with faith that our sisters and brothers on sessions throughout the country are disciples of the risen Lord,” he said. “Our operative assumption is that they want to do the best they can for their employees. The board will continue to believe in the transforming work of the Holy Spirit and expect that transformation in our work every day.”
Encouraging commissioners and delegates in their work at the assembly, Spencer concluded: “As you go into the work of the General Assembly, turn your back on decline, proclaim the transforming gospel of Jesus Christ in which all things are new, and live in the hope of that transforming Word, never waiting to be disappointed.”