Thursday, September 21, 2017

Make CPG More Like God's Kingdom


Preachers like me are thankful that the parable of the laborers in the vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16) only comes up once every three years in the lectionary. Otherwise we might be forced to acknowledge that, despite working for Jesus, our system for compensation and retirement not only fails to reflect Jesus' vision of the kingdom of God but actually stands in opposition to it.

I'm not talking about all preachers. There are plenty of clergy who struggle to make ends meet. A recent survey of clergy spouses suggests that over two-thirds of clergy families worry about having enough money for retirement. But that's not me. I did not answer a call to ordained ministry because I thought it would pay well. In fact, compared with my peers, I expected to be relatively poor, but things have turned out much better than I anticipated. How did that work out? Well, as an Episcopal priest, I participate in a system that pays men better than women, that rewards clergy for serving in wealthy congregations while punishing those who serve in poor communities, and that enshrines the economic disparities on display during active ministry in a pension system that focuses primarily on income replacement. In other words, once we retire, the clergy who were rich stay rich, while the clergy who were poor stay poor.

Because I am male, because I am white, because I am straight and married and have children, because I was sent to seminary from a congregation that could afford to supplement my educational costs at an elite institution, because I was raised in a family that had financial and social access to opportunities that made me attractive during the college admissions process, because I was hired by a wealthy church and am thus attractive to other wealthy churches, I am on a career path that rewards me richly. Yes, I have worked hard. Yes, I have gifts and talents for parish ministry. Yes, I take care of myself physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Yes, I am good at what I do. But I am also the product of great privilege, and, as a follower of Jesus, it is up to me to figure out how to use that privilege for the sake of God's kingdom.

Since we don't have to preach on this text very often, we may get away with telling our congregations that Jesus' parable isn't really about earthly economics but only uses the image of money to convey a deeper spiritual truth--that those who come to faith late in life are given just as much of a heavenly reward as those who have been faithful since they were born. I agree with that. We may also use this parable to remind our congregations that, in God's kingdom, people are not rewarded for their efforts but are the beneficiaries of grace no matter how hard (or not) they worked. Again, I agree with that. But, even if this parable isn't a mandate for socialism, don't we expect the spiritual principles it espouses to be manifest in the mechanics of the church? Or do we believe that grace and universal access and unequivocal reward have nothing to do with this life and the money we use to live it?

I serve on the House of Deputies Committee on the State of the Church, and one area we have been asked to explore is the extent to which the Church Pension Fund is meeting the needs of the current church. In case you don't know, we have an exceptional pension fund. It is well managed. It is responsive to the needs of clergy and clergy families. It uses its resources to support them in many ways beyond retirement. No one argues that the returns achieved by the fund are anything less than stellar, and no one thinks they are failing in their fiduciary responsibilities. But the Church Pension Fund operates under the same principle that governs most pension plans--income replacement. In economic terms, that makes sense. People who get paid more during their ministry will need/want more in retirement. If you are ordained late in life and only work five or six years before retirement, you wouldn't expect to get the same monthly benefit that someone who has worked forty years in ordained ministry. That person who only worked a handful of years probably has retirement benefits from a previous occupation. It would be irresponsible to take money away from those who have worked their whole careers for the church and give it to those who left a lucrative career as a lawyer in order to answer a call to full-time ministry. But isn't that what Jesus portrays in this parable?

Sure, the laborers in the parable who have been idle all day aren't leaving their first job to come and work in the garden. But the end result is that everyone has enough. Is that true of our pension fund? Is that true of our clergy compensation? There are clergy in my diocese who struggle to pay their bills. There are clergy who will work their entire careers for the church and never receive the same level of pension benefit that I will receive because they didn't come from a wealthy church, because they had to step away from full-time ministry to raise their children, because they didn't get past the phone interview because the search committee at the elite church didn't think they would "fit in" culturally with the congregation. Shouldn't our pension system reflect the kingdom of God more fully?

Yes, it's true that the pension calculation isn't purely based on income. In the formula, there's a base amount, and, for the purposes of calculating the benefits, there is a minimum compensation for all clergy who work more than a certain number of hours no matter how much they actually get paid. The Church Pension Fund has recently changed the way the highest average compensation is calculated, freeing up the consecutive years requirement, which may help those who worked in a highly compensated position for a few years here or there during a career. These are all good things, but they are not enough.

What about lay employees? The canons mandate that lay employees who work more than 1000 hours a year be given a 5% base contribution plus matching contributions of up to another 4% into a 403(b). Relative to other businesses, that's a great benefit. But the clergy pension plan is a mandated defined benefit plan that costs parishes 18% of clergy compensation. Almost all lay employees participate in a defined contribution plan, and, by the time of retirement, the disparity is enormous. Plus, how many parishes can afford 18% on top of clergy compensation? I don't have data to show it, but I suspect that parishes without full-time clergy presence often get stuck in a cycle of struggling finances. It would cost a tremendous amount to level the playing field and provide equal pension benefits for lay and ordained people, but isn't that level playing field what the kingdom of God looks like?

This summer, I had a casual conversation with some clergy friends about possible changes to the way pensions are calculated. I asked about lowering the income multiplier and raising the base amount or putting a cap on highly compensated clergy, and the response was ferocious. "That's my pension! I worked hard for it!" one colleague replied. He's right, of course. And so were the laborers who worked all day. They worked in the scorching heat, and the owner of the vineyard made them equal to those who only worked one hour. This kingdom of God thing? It isn't going to be easy.

In a very unofficial, not-connected-with-the-Committee-on-the-State-of-the-Church way, I propose that we change the way pensions are calculated. I suggest that the General Convention pass a resolution that instructs the Church Pension Fund to change the way it thinks about pensions from an income-replacement model to a model that more closely resembles the parable of the laborers in the vineyard and, thus, the kingdom of God. I believe that the Pension Fund, with oversight from the presiding officers, can work out the details, but I think lay and clergy benefits should be the same and that there should be a hard cap on pension benefits and that the income multiplier should be reduced considerably. This would result in higher pensions for lay employees and for lower-compensated clergy, and the money for it would come not from increased parish contributions but from the pensions of those clergy who are highly compensated, trusting that higher-compensated clergy can use that higher compensation to save for their own retirement in a 403(b). If a defined benefit plan is maintained (and that's a big "if"), I think the mandated contribution for parishes should be significantly reduced from 18% and that parishes who want to make up for it by continuing to over compensate higher-compensated clergy can shift those funds into employer-contributions to a 403(b). I suspect this will need to happen gradually, but I don't think we should "grandfather" in everyone who is already ordained and working for the church. There will have to be stair-stepped reductions and increases, but to suggest that only future laborers in the vineyard will come under this new scheme is disingenuous.

Want to see the most unpopular person at General Convention? He'll be the guy who proposes this. I cannot imagine that such a change would ever pass. Remember that half of the deputies and all of the bishops at General Convention are usually the ones who have worked in the church for a long while, who get paid more than the average clergyperson, and who have a lot at stake. But in Jesus' parable, the laborers didn't get a vote. I suppose it could be worse. We could be debating universal compensation like they have in the Church of England. Maybe then we'd really look like the kingdom of God.

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