The Board of Pensions of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has announced the most extensive changes to the Assistance Program in a generation. The changes steer financial help to ministers where their need is greatest and loosen requirements to extend access across Benefits Plan membership. The changes take effect January 1, 2022.
"The Assistance Program plays an important role in the Board's support of wholeness," said the Reverend Frank Clark Spencer, agency President. "None of us can experience shalom, the flourishing of life, which God wishes for us, if we're worrying about money. Financial stability reduces stress and allows us to care for ourselves and for others."
The changes, which the agency's Board of Directors approved October 23, 2021, include a new grant to address minister debt. The Minister Debt Relief Program is for enrollees in Minister's Choice or Pastor's Participation whose salaries are below the median effective salary. The program, a three-year pilot, includes financial planning and up to $10,000 in assistance.
"Our Healthy Pastors, Healthy Congregations program showed us just how much of a problem debt is for our ministers — and for the vitality of ministry," Rev. Spencer said. "Participants in Healthy Pastors showed great appreciation for the financial planning element, so we've included that in Minister Debt Relief."
The Board will promote Minister Debt Relief widely among communities of color and groups that have been historically marginalized in the denomination. That approach reflects the commitment the agency shares with the Church to diversity, equity, and inclusion.
Equity and inclusion are at the center of eligibility changes for Income and Housing supplements. More pensioners will benefit from this quality-of-life assistance, with a focus on church workers who have experienced off-and-on enrollment in the Defined Benefit Pension Plan. Currently, a retiree must have 20 years' participation in the pension plan; that will drop to 15 years. But, most significantly, individuals who served congregations, mid councils, and/or agencies for at least 10 years without pension enrollment will receive a credit for those years. As a result, they will need only five years in the pension plan to apply for supplements.
"The Assistance Program has the potential to do so much good for so many more members of the Benefits Plan and their families," said Executive Vice President Linda Jacobsen, who oversees the program. "These latest changes loosen requirements so that more church employees might have access, and they also respond to the fact that our plan membership is becoming more diverse with the growing participation of affiliated organizations."
Five years ago, the Board acted to expand plan membership. The goal was to strengthen the church plan even as the denomination contracted. Key to its effort was bringing employers with a PC(USA) affiliation into the plan. These affiliated organizations include educational institutions, senior housing communities, and human services organizations. Their employees represent various racial and ethnic groups, religious affiliations, career paths, and educational backgrounds.
"These employers have given the Benefits Plan new life," Ms. Jacobsen said. "They essentially had been overlooked as potential participants. Now, they are driving growth in the plan, making it stronger so it is better able to support our ministers and church employees."
Transition-to-College is a point of change that spotlights a diversifying membership as well as the high cost of college. This grant has been available only for students beginning a full-time, four-year college career. Now, any education or training will qualify, including community college and technical or trade school. Enrollment can be part time or full time. And the grant is increasing from a maximum of $1,000 to a flat $2,000, with an additional $1,000 for enrollment in a Presbyterian college or university.
Other changes effective January 1, 2022, include the following:
"We've redefined stewardship as delivering the most benefits to the most people without jeopardizing financial sustainability so we keep the promises made to members and retirees," Rev. Spencer said. "The Church has called on its members to be the hands and feet of Jesus, to be agents of change in the world. The Board answers that call, in part, through the Assistance Program."