Shortfall hurts Central Conference pensions

6/12/2009

By Linda Green
United Methodist News Service

The news that the United Methodist conferences in the U.S. would not receive their yearly allocation of “Cokesbury” checks has been a wakeup call this summer.

A financial shortfall at the United Methodist Publishing House meant that 62 annual conferences in the United States would not be able to redistribute their allocation from a total of $1 million for retired clergy and surviving spouses in the church’s central conferences, especially in Africa. The amount of the Cokesbury checks is based on the number of clergy in each conference.

The office of central conference pensions at the United Methodist Board of Pension and Health Benefits encouraged each annual conference to consider a gift or matching grant from their coffers that is the equivalent of last year’s Cokesbury gift for the initiative.

“A number of annual conferences will be taking special offerings,” said Dan O’Neill, managing director of central conference pensions, the denomination’s long-term effort to help pastors and church lay workers in annual conferences outside the United States retire with dignity, hope and an adequate income. Many pastors have given from 20 to 50 years of service to the church.

Two U.S. annual conferences—Red Bird Missionary and North Central New York—have answered the challenge.

“We already have Red Bird’s check,” O’Neill said.  

Yearly, the 1,472-member conference has received a little more than $100 as a Cokesbury check and forwarded it to the Central Conference Pension Initiative. Judith Fowler, treasurer of the Red Bird conference, said the regional group sent $123 to the initiative “because we felt the need to make sure that all of the pastors in the central conferences were taken care of.”

Annual conferences along with the entire United Methodist Church face financial shortfalls due to health care costs and the economic distress.

Red Bird is also facing a $200,000 deficit for next year but “felt that our pastors should be taken care of in their retirement,” Fowler said.

The North Central New York conference, which ended May 30, voted to receive an impromptu offering for the Central Conference Pensions Fund. Bishop Marcus Matthews encouraged all to “dig deep,” and $5,302.07 was collected, almost three-fourths of what would have been given in the Cokesbury check. 

Since the inception of the Central Conference Pension Fund, North Central New York has supported an action originally proposed in 2000 by the Rev. Robyn Hays to donate the Cokesbury check to the Central Conference Pension Fund each year.    

When Hays made the original proposal, she said, “It seemed like the right thing to do.” A member of the conference board of pension since 1995, she said giving the money to support retired pastors outside the United States “was a matter of justice.”  She expressed excitement that the annual conference, in light of not receiving a check this year, took a love offering that benefited missions needs throughout the world.”

 “It feels good to see this effort continue,” she said. “It would be a wonderful thing if we could say that all pastors, regardless of where they live and serve, are guaranteed a pension that would allow them to live after they retire from active ministry.”

According to O’Neill, the actions of both Red Bird and North Central New York are a response to the needs of the retirees outside the United States and “indicate our denominational connectional commitment.”

The participation of annual conferences in returning their United Methodist Publishing House pension contributions has grown significantly in both numbers participating and in enthusiasm over the years, said Neil Alexander, president and publisher.

“The actions by some conferences this year to give sacrificially in order to continue that practice in a time of unprecedented world-wide economic hardship demonstrates that the commitment to central conference pastors and church workers runs deep and is abiding. This outpouring of love and support is a tremendous witness of fellowship and hope for our church’s future around the world,” he said.

The 2000 General Conference asked the pension board to find ways to fund pensions for pastors serving in 67 annual conferences in Africa, Eastern Europe and the Philippines. These pastors often retire after more than 40 years of service without resources to meet their daily needs.

The pension board hired a professional firm in 2007 to help raise $20 million to invest for the overseas pension initiative. The United Methodist Council of Bishops, during their May 3-8 meeting, committed to help the Central Conference Pension Initiative raise the remaining $5 million of the pension initiative’s goal.