In Support of a Changing Church: Extending Financial Wellness for Ministers

“A far-reaching program unlike any in the Church in recent years.” This is how Andrew Browne describes Healthy Pastors, Healthy Congregations. Mr. Browne is Senior Vice President, Church Engagement, for the Presbyterian Church Pension Board (USA). He oversaw the program’s 2016-2021 run.

The financial well-being of ministers — and its effect on sustaining a ministry vital to the future of the church — was at the heart of Healthy Pastors, Healthy Congregations, which closed at the end of 2021. The goal was to remove financial constraints so pastors could focus on the ministry.

Congregational leaders and pastors are committed to the work of the program. They met for seminaries, based on the Scriptures, on the care of the ministers. “We thought about finances through a theological lens and then we talked, in a very practical way, about the realities of pastors,” said Rev. Dr. Kyle Goodman, senior pastor at Alamance Presbyterian Church, Greensboro, North Carolina. .

Program pastors studied financial education modules and received professional and personal financial counseling through Ernst & Young (EY) Employee Financial Services. A $10,000 scholarship was offered, for debt reduction or retirement savings. Reverend Goodman was the first recipient of the program. Burdened with consumer debt, much of which has persisted since his early years out of seminary, he found the $10,000 “life changing.”

Reverend Goodman’s $10,000 grant was part of more than $8.3 million awarded by Healthy Pastors, Healthy Congregations before it closed in late 2021. He was among 944 pastors who committed to the program, as well as 4,000 alumni who participated in the seminars.

Healthy Pastors began as a pilot project in 2016 in North Carolina with the support of a million dollar grant from Lilly Endowment. “Lilly contacted us,” Mr Browne said. “They asked us how we were going to address the lack of financial literacy among pastors, as well as the culture of shame and blame around debt.” The pilot’s success led Lilly to award an additional $1 million to help the agency take the program nationwide in 2019.

Mr Browne said the overwhelming demand for healthy pastors, healthy congregations illustrated how widespread financial concerns were among clergy. Seeing a need, the Pensions Council expanded support for ministers by committing an additional $8 million to the program – and sought to capitalize on it.

“It became a catalyst,” Mr. Brown said. “It made us think differently. We began to look at existing programs more broadly, and we modified and expanded our work. Over the past two years, the agency has made more people eligible for its programs and has begun to break down barriers to access. This has resulted in growing support for ministers.

The agency increased the Minister’s Debt Assistance for Education from $10,000 to $25,000, effective mid-2018. In 2021, he added a second set of benefits for ministers in the benefits plan of the Presbyterian Church (USA). The package, Minister’s Choice, including the defined benefit pension plan, provides essential financial protection to ministers who do not hold permanent positions. This year, the agency introduced Minister Debt Relief to help ministers achieve greater well-being through financial planning and a grant of up to $10,000.

“Five months after Minister Debt Relief opened, we already had 65 applications and had awarded over $500,000,” Browne said. “This program meets a real need. We hope to expand eligibility over time so that we can reach as many ministers as possible. »

“As a national agency of the Church, we are looking for ways to support ministers in their callings, support ministry today and for the future of PC (USA),” said Reverend Dr. Frank Clark Spencer, Chairman of the Board. “Helping ministers get their financial footing is an important contribution to that. Debt depletes energy – energy ministers could devote to the service of their congregation. And that determines which calls they can accept. This especially hurts our smaller congregations, which have fewer resources.

Reverend Bonnie Wilkins said the $10,000 grant she received from Healthy Pastors enabled her to answer the call of a smaller congregation. “It’s absolutely where God wanted me to be,” she said of Westminster Presbyterian Church in Sparta, Illinois.

Elizabeth Little, the Board of Pensions church consultant who led the Healthy Pastors pilot project, said her visit to a 46-member church showed her how far a small congregation can go for a pastor. She learned that congregants take trash home and clean bathrooms to save money — and keep their pastor.

When the Pension Board moved Healthy Pastors, Healthy Congregations to a national platform, it recognized that debt was not the only challenge PC (US) ministers faced. Language and cultural barriers blocked access to agency programs, said Ruth Adams, director of the aid program.

One of the first encounters with such a challenge was in November 2019, when Healthy Pastors was delivered to Puerto Rico. “A lot of effort has gone into translating not just the language, but also the differences in benefits and taxes to ensure relevance,” said Keenan Rodgers, a church consultant who delivered the program in Spanish.

“Healthy Pastors was designed and initially administered in a way that made it inaccessible to ministers and congregations whose first language was not English,” Ms. Adams said. “It also raised hurdles for those whose culture around finance ranged from resource sharing to taboo.”

These barriers are falling as the Assistance Program continues to evolve toward greater inclusion. The agency serves more ministers and employees and supports the welfare of a diverse membership in the benefits plan. In consultation with the PC (US) national color caucuses, the Council has significantly expanded access to retiree income and housing assistance. Along with the increase in grant amounts, eligibility has expanded to include more PC (US) employees, whether ordained or not.

The online financial education modules for Healthy Pastors have been translated into Spanish and Korean and are used today in Minister Debt Relief. In January 2020, Rev. Dr. Sung-Joo Park joined the agency to deliver Healthy Pastors in Korean. He has presented the program more than 100 times; 129 Korean ministers have received grants.

“We have thanked Dr. Park many times, although perhaps we can never thank him enough for laying the groundwork for future collaborations around culture and language,” said Ms. Adams.

“For those in our fellowship for whom English is not a first language, we have learned that active interpreting is the order of the day,” Browne said. “Simply translating program material into English is not nuanced enough. It does not break down barriers.

A pastor from Puerto Rico was the latest recipient of the Healthy Pastors Grant. “I feel gratitude,” said Reverend Richard H. Rojas-Banuchi of First Presbyterian Church in Puerto Nuevo. “I was able to continue my ministry in the most difficult times. … In spite of everything, to be able to stand in the pulpit and preach the good news of the Lord, to be able to call my brothers and sisters and to continue the ministry towards which I have always felt inclined, is the manifestation of the grace of God in my life. ”

“Every ordained minister in our denomination should have financial protection from our denomination,” Browne said. “It’s faithful. But it is also about the vitality of the congregation and the future of the Church. The Healthy Pastors experience has broadened our thinking about how the Board of Pensions can better serve more ministers and congregations.

About the Pension Council

The pension board is a non-profit agency of the Presbyterian Church (USA). We provide strong benefits and services to more than 65,000 individuals who represent PC (USA) affiliated churches, agencies and employers, including educational institutions, camps and conference centers, retirement communities and senior housing and social service organizations. As a nonprofit organization defined by faith, we support mutual care and integrity. We have joined an enduring, church-wide commitment to address racism and systemic injustice.

Jerry B. Hatch