What “Dues Plus” Would Mean

The Board of Pensions of the PC(USA) is proposing a new dues structure (Dues Plus) for healthcare coverage for pastors. By way of explanation, in the PC(USA) we share the burden of healthcare for clergy among congregations with differing financial resources. Every congregation is required to pay in the same percentage of their pastor’s salary (currently 21%). So, a congregation that is able to offer its pastor a very generous compensation will pay more than a congregation that can only offer their pastor a minimum salary. Additionally, pastor’s dependents (and spouse) are automatically covered under that same percentage, so that a church with a pastor without dependents pays the 21% the same as a church with a pastor with, say, a husband and 3 kids would pay. What this does is ensures that there aren’t pastors and their families who are seen as more “expensive” pastors to call. And, it ensures that all of the full time pastors in our denomination, and their families, get good health care.

My simplified explanation of “Dues Plus” is this: starting in 2014, the percentage a church pays for coverage for its minister would be rolled back to 19%. But coverage for dependents would only be partially supported from that 19%. A pastor with a spouse or children to put on the plan would either need to negotiate with his or her congregation to cover that additional cost or take it out of his or her current compensation package. In other words, a spouse and kids on the plan would be more expensive for either the church or the pastor.

The great health coverage we currently have is a perk. I am well aware that this amazing insurance plan is a perk that not everyone has: many pastors in other denominations don’t have as wonderful a deal; many pastors in the PC(USA) are employed part time and don’t carry this insurance. (I wish we had national health coverage, but that’s another post). I know that the people in our churches are also struggling financially in this economy. But the argument that we pastor should give up this perk just because our parishoners don’t have it is a variation of the argument that a pastor should never be compensated more than the least-well-paid of their congregation.

I do believe fiercely in the priesthood of all believers. But some of us have discerned a call into career ministry. I know it’s not the cool thing to use the words “ministry” and “career” in the same sentence. But, a solid Reformational theology of vocation says that career ministry is as valid a calling and profession as, say, writing web code (that’s what my husband does). Thus, my call, and my spouses call are equally calls from God. And there’s nothing evil about making a living. I am happy to serve the church as a member, part of the priesthood of all believers, but I would like to be able to devote my time, my skills, and my training in ministry to the church as a profession. I know many of my colleagues feel the same way.

Dues Plus is a proposal. And maybe it really is the only way to save health insurance for Presbyterian pastors. But before the board votes, I’d like them to hear how it will affect those of us in ministry. Most importantly, though, how it will affect the Church and the churches we love.

If you’re a PC(USA) minister who blogs, would you be willing to write a post that gives your version? Let me know if you have in the comments section.

Here’s what it would mean to me:

I’m on a little hiatus from full time professional ministry right now. About 2 years ago I left a lovely associate pastor position so that my husband and my two kids and I could move closer to my husband’s job as a web developer and eliminate his long commute. Since then, I spent a summer working full time filling in for a pastor taking a sabbatical; and, my husband was offered a new, wonderful job clear across the country. We decided to move because he had spent 13 years of marriage moving for my career. It was our turn to focus on his career. Plus, we have two little kids.

I don’t know when I’ll be reentering ministry full time yet. Some days, I love being home with my kids. Other days, I would work for free starting tomorrow. I know myself well enough to know that I will not stay home with my kids for more a few years. I also know my finances well enough to know that we will not be able to afford me not working for more than a few years.

My husband’s new job came with a decent salary and wonderful benefits, including affordable health care options for our family. So I am not currently enrolled in the B0P health plan. On the face of it, Dues Plus wouldn’t affect me much.

Except for this: sometime down the road, my husband and I will decide that it’s time for me to think about what God is calling me to do next. This is how our bi-vocational marriage has worked: we both believe in each other’s God given gifts, and we covenanted to support each other in the growth of those gifts and the use of them to the glory of God.

My husband will be the first to tell you that he wants me in active ministry again. And if, several years from now, that might mean that we had to pull up roots and move again, we had talked about how that might work. Because we trusted that there were decent benefits, healthcare particularly, available to me as a Presbyterian minister, we thought there was a possibility that I could take a call that would take my husband away from a job he had (with excellent benefits); that he could work independently, or find another position. But the existence of those benefits meant we could always be open to possibilities of many locations; positions that didn’t pay as well; even the idea of having another child.

In the grand scheme of things, Dues Plus wouldn’t “hurt” my family in our current situation that much. But it makes me wonder: would we be able to afford uprooting to a new place and a new work situation for my husband, essentially, being able to go wherever God might call us? Will my two children strike a potential calling church as a liability, an extra expense? (Should I rewrite my Pastoral Information Form to indicate that I do have two children, but if I can stay in this area, my husband has them covered. So we would be a great deal for a church!)

How does the Church really feel about young parents, working two careers, struggling to be faithful to God’s call?

And what about the Church? How is it affected? I’ll dispence with my normal Midwestern-female inclination to not speak too highly of myself and say this: I think I’m a good pastor. The Church has put some investment into my education, training, and growth as a leader. I’d like to keep serving. I’d like to be open to where God might need me. I’d like to be open to where the Church might need me. Plus, good boundaries aside, my family has been part of my ministry. Being a Mom gives me credibility and access to other women in my neighborhood; my husband has done so much to support me and my congregations; my kids (and, of course, I’m biased) have blessed people on church trips and at potlucks, in worship, and on visits to elderly ladies who just wanted to touch someone who was new to the world.

I’ve been proud to explain to pastors from other denominations that the PC(USA) has a just system of health coverage. It’s a witness to how things ought to be.

I know it’s going to have to change, but I pray that whatever change happens, it happens with an eye to justice.

5 Responses to “What “Dues Plus” Would Mean”

  1. susan Says:

    It seems like the only way that the pension plan can change and still be equitable is to continue the “size-blind” system in some way, even if that means pastors or congregations pay more out of pocket. I understand that it’s hard to do, but to me, it’s the right thing to do.

    I say this as someone who has never been on the PPP.

  2. Susan SB Says:

    Erica, thanks for taking time to write about this change and to encourage others to do the same. It is a justice issue. At a time when congregations are shrinking and pastors are taking tent making positions, or calls in small churches there is great need for parity for the sake of the body.

  3. Making Babies: PCUSA and Health Insurance – first day walking Says:

    [...] past year to struggle with co-pays and deductibles that are already a burden in the current system. Erica Shemper doesn’t necessarily criticize the new plan and sees the potential benefit for th…, but admits that it will have an impact on how she and her husband pursue God’s calling. [...]

  4. All Things are Lawful: The Board of Pensions and the Church’s Call – by Cynthia Holder Rich | Ecclesio.com Says:

    [...] and with those who can make a faithful difference. [1] Carol Howard Merritt, Stephanie Sorge Wing, Erica Schemper,  Ryan Kemp-Pappan, John Fife and Deborah Fortel and others have written on this issue as well – [...]

  5. All Things are Lawful: The Board of Pensions and the Church’s Call – by Cynthia Holder Rich | Ecclesio.com Says:

    [...] and with those who can make a faithful difference. [1] Carol Howard Merritt, Stephanie Sorge Wing, Erica Schemper,  Ryan Kemp-Pappan, John Fife and Deborah Fortel and others have written on this issue as well – [...]