Direct billing: Good deal


By Rev. Andy Ray
Guest Columnist

This Annual Conference, delegates will have an opportunity to take an honest look at the cost of ministry and mission. Presently, the cost for local pastoral ministry is included in the apportionment that also includes the mission efforts of the church.
The Conference Committee on Finance and Administration has boldly separated these two categories for delegates to consider. The cost of pastoral ministry has been the source of the rising apportionments due to increased health insurance and pension. They are the fixed costs. On the other hand, the mission costs of the conference have remained constant or have been reduced so that these items have suffered. This past year the conference may have reached the proverbial “tipping point” where churches have reached a limit in what they can give. More and more churches are faced with the dilemma of supporting local church ministries or the apportionments.
Small membership churches pay the most and receive the least. Approximately 260 charges (484 congregations) are served by retired, supply and part-time local pastors. These are the most vulnerable churches in the conference whose resources are very limited and where every penny matters. Some have to choose between paying the utility bills or the pastor. These churches have pastors who will not receive conference supported insurance or the full benefits of pension. Yet, these churches are supplementing the health and pension benefits of medium and larger church pastors. Is it right to put this financial burden on these small churches that are so vulnerable to even a single member’s offering? Many of the pastors who serve these small membership churches never receive a raise in salary the entire time they serve the charge.
These 484 churches will not pay anything under Phase 1 of the proposed plan and will receive no direct bill, only a reduction in their apportionments. Essentially their apportionments could decrease eventually by as much as 46 percent. This will vary according to the salary paid to the pastor by each local church on the charge. Such a financial relief could free those churches to make local church improvements, provide funds for additional ministries in their church or community or add to their local pastor’s salary.
Medium membership churches need to define what a fair share is. The Mississippi Annual Conference defines a workload for a church-charge as having 150 members or three churches on the charge (Mississippi Conference Journal 2007, Equitable Salary Report, para.B.4, page 212.) A church or charge that meets these minimum standards should be able to support its own pastor. In other words, the church-charge should be responsible for the average $16,866 health insurance and pension benefit. If a church or charge line item in the apportionment for health and pension benefits does not equal an average $16,866 then another charge, whether small or large, is having to support their pastor.
The Clergy Retirement Security Plan (pension benefit plan) requires that every time a local church raises their pastor’s salary, the pension amount for the apportionment goes up proportionately. While one church may be able to raise their pastor’s salary, another may not. However, the apportionment goes up for every church.
Many congregations desire to have their own pastor but do not realize what the true cost of a full-time pastor means in terms of financial responsibility or the cost to other churches, small and large. Why should the middle sized churches not be accountable for the true cost of pastoral ministry? Why should those churches able to raise their pastor’s salary cost those churches which are not able?
Every full time pastor actually receives an additional average $16,866 in health and pension benefits. This should be reflected in each local church budget. This will help Pastor Parish Relations committees, congregations and pastors understand what the true salary package is.
Large membership churches pay more than their fair share. The General Board of Discipleship defines a large membership church as having 350-plus in average weekly worship attendance. Thirty Mississippi congregations meet this definition. While they account for 3 percent of the total congregations in the Mississippi Annual Conference, they pay 33 percent of the total apportionments or the health and pension benefits for 187 pastors (three times the number of pastors serving the large membership churches.) These congregations are among the most faithful to pay 100 percent of their apportionment. Even these congregations have to be fiscally responsible and account for every penny. One of the reasons these churches have been able to grow is that they are doing healthy things. Large membership churches are faced with the same financial pressures as every other congregation.
The present apportionment of health and pension benefits is not healthy for the large membership churches. Did you know that you never have to put a lid on a crab bucket? As one crab may crawl to the lid’s edge, there is always another crab to pull it back down. We are not a healthy conference if we allow anything to keep the small congregations down or to pull the large membership churches down.
It is not the mission and ministry items that are the increases in the conference budget. Frankly, it is embarrassing for pastors to have almost half of the apportionments to be spent on ministerial support and not mission concerns. How passionate can pastors be about getting their own health and pensions paid? If we go to direct bill and then apportion ministry items, we will have much more passion about paying the apportionments because they are about ministry and mission and not about the clergy.
Ray is pastor of Tupelo First United Methodist Church and was an alternate delegate to General Conference.