By Kathrin Chavez
After retiring from his calling to United Methodist ministry, the Rev. James Z. Mazdeh, now 86, is facing the hardest challenge of his life – survival.
The small pension he receives from his annual conference in Liberia isn't enough, and infirmities prevent this once vigorous clergyman from finding alternate sources of income.
"When I had more strength, I farmed. But now I couldn't make it. I have no strength and power to go in the bush and plant ... When I was young and strong, I used to go everywhere and find ways and means of making a living. But now there is no way to go up and down, and I just stay.
"Whatsoever God will provide in one day, I eat it, and pray for another day," Mazdeh said.
To devote one's life to ordained ministry and bring the hope, love and grace of God to others seems to many the highest calling.
|The Rev. Karmah Early, blind for many years, endured the snakes and scorpions that entered her house through cracks in walls she had no money to repair. She tells her story to the Rev. Albert Barchue, a district superintendent in Liberia|
|KATHY L. GILBERT/UMNS|
But many aged United Methodist clergy and their widowed spouses outside the United States struggle to survive once their ability to fulfill their pastoral duties has faded. They have little or no pension income to provide for the rest of their lives at a time when their strength and health are failing.
The Central Conference Pension Initiative (CCPI) was established by The United Methodist Church to improve their physical lives and "to ensure retirees and surviving spouses retire with hope," according to the initiative's website. Seventy-two annual and provisional conferences in 47 countries outside the United States comprise the central conferences.
While some funding had been provided over the years, the 2000 General Conference created a task force to form a pension support plan for retired pastors and widows in the central conferences. General Conference 2004 reaffirmed that mandate and authorized fundraising for it. The General Board of Pension and Health Benefits administers the initiative.
About 2,700 retired pastors, lay workers and surviving spouses served and live in the central conferences. They do what they can to provide for themselves. Some have gardens or sell homemade items. Others have children who support them at least in part. But as they age, their options for support lessen and their own conferences are generally unable to help
These are pastors who have served under conditions undreamed of in the United States. Their countries are extremely poor, political and economic situations are volatile, and violence is not uncommon. Their stories, gathered several years ago as the initiative was being developed and found at www.ccpi-umc.org, are challenging and heart-rending.
During almost 50 years of Soviet occupation in Estonia, pastors and even their spouses were interrogated and sometimes imprisoned for their work that kept Methodism alive there.
In Zimbabwe, the Rev. Willie Marare, interviewed in his 80s, was imprisoned and endured attacks on his home and the deaths of his two sons. Blind since 2001, he was no longer able to serve others in ministry or even to keep up the small garden that previously helped to provide food.
The Rev. Elijah Kabungaidze, a district superintendent in Zimbabwe, says the pastors there face hard lives. Several years of hyperinflation in the country's economy made the situation more difficult.
"Many times, pastors go for two or three months without a salary, and the situation is worse for retired pastors. Retired pastors and widows come to me for help to buy maybe a loaf of bread. I have nothing to give them," Kabungaidze said.
A brochure about the Central Conference Pension Initiative tells of Agnes Toe, a Liberian pastor's widow whose husband and adult daughter died the same day in 1991. Her son says Agnes and her husband's whole lives revolved around the church.
"During a visit by a team from United Methodist Communications," the story continues, "one of Toe's grandchildren is frying fish heads in the family's humble kitchen. The fish heads are the only food she has in her home."
The stories of deprivation are many.
|Virginie Sonan's trust in God helped sustain her when her monthly pension was insufficient to cover her rent and a bag of rice. The Central Conference Pension Initiative was designed to assist retired pastors and their survivng spouses like her.|
Another widow, Virginie Sonan of Côte d'Ivoire, said paying her rent and buying a 50-kilo bag of rice each month cost slightly more than her entire monthly pension – leaving nothing for medical needs or other living expenses. And medical problems are prevalent among these elderly retirees.
The Rev. Francisco Macitela Macie survived the struggle of Mozambique for independence, but keeping independence for himself was not so easy at 83. His seven children helped support him, but medical bills were nearly impossible to cover. A single doctor's appointment cost 60 percent of his monthly pension.
Kabungaidze says the financial hardships suffered by working and retired pastors is affecting the quality and number of active United Methodist clergy.
"Sometimes young people join the ministry and leave because of the financial situation. It is difficult to get highly educated pastors," he said.
Eight years after General Conference mandated it, help has begun to ease the lives of these retirees and widows.
More than $1.5 million in investment earnings from contributions has already been distributed in pension payments through eight programs serving 1,137 retirees and surviving spouses in Liberia, Côte d'Ivoire, Sierra Leone, Zimbabawe, Angola, Mozambique, Russia and Nigeria. Five more programs are in development.
Receiving a regular pension payment is making life easier and more comfortable – sometimes in simple ways.
In Liberia, the Rev. Pilar Page used her payments to purchase a mattress. "Until now I have slept on the ground my entire life," says the 85-year-old clergywoman. "Now I sleep so much better. It is the best thing I ever did for my health." She plans to donate part of a 150-acre farm she owns to the church.
In his late 70s, the Rev. Naftal Taimo Nhavotso used part of his pension to paint his traditional reed house to keep it from rotting. After serving many appointments in the North Mozambique Conference, he and his wife, Marta Joao, continue to minister. After they discovered a destitute elderly man living in the wild nearby, they built a small house for him behind their own.
More than $23.5 million has been raised toward a goal of at least $25 million to establish the programs. Currently, 9,300 clergy in the central conferences serve more than 3.5 million church members.
United Methodists worldwide have contributed, although most of the donations have come from the United States. The gifts are invested to provide income to get the programs started. The pension board then works with church leaders in each conference to design a program that fits the setting.
As the pension programs become operational throughout the central conferences that need support, the pension board will continue to monitor and evaluate them to ensure they are self-sustaining and that pension payments are made in full and on time.
Kathrin Chavez is a freelance writer based in Franklin, Tenn.
|Although he survived Mozambique's struggles for independence, medical bills make it difficult for the Rev. Francisco Macitela Macie to be independent.|
|KATHY L. GILBERT/UMNS|