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Agency focuses on centennial, health initiatives

By Deborah White*
May 2, 2008 | FORT WORTH, Texas (UMNS)

Leaders of the United Methodist Board of Pension and Health Benefits told the 2008 General Conference about 100 years of accomplishments and pledged to focus on the health of clergy and lay workers in the future.

The agency's history is a "legacy of care and concern for the welfare of those who are called to serve — clergy and lay workers alike," said Bishop Ben R. Chamness, chairman of the agency's board of directors. He spoke May 1 during a centennial celebration for the agency, which was created by the 1908 General Conference.

Bishop Ben R. Chamness

The Board of Pension and Health Benefits, one of the top 100 pension funds in the United States, cares for more than 74,000 participants. It has grown from managing $200,000 in assets to managing $16 billion today. It also has become the largest denominational investor in affordable housing in the United States, with commitments of more than $1 billion.

"We have a vision for the next century that includes implementation of pensions for the central conferences and a focus on the health of our clergy and lay workers," Chamness said.

Health petitions approved

The centennial celebration came the same week that General Conference approved a series of health-related petitions sponsored by the Board of Pension and Health Benefits.

As a result, the agency will work to establish denominationwide wellness guidelines for clergy and lay employees.

It also will form a task force with the Board of Higher Education to examine employment systems and culture and to provide guidelines for sustaining a healthy work/life balance during ministry. Systems to be examined include itinerancy, appointment-making, supervision and processes for entering and exiting ministry.

General Conference also approved legislation to:

  • Require annual conferences to share health-care data with the Board of Pension and Health Benefits to increase access to information about best practices and health-care plan designs;
  • Require group health insurance plans for bishops, full-time clergy and full-time lay employees of annual conferences and general agencies;
  • Require access for retired bishops, annual conference clergy and lay employees to Medicare supplemental plans and prescription drug plans.

The health petitions grew out of in-depth research by the Denominational Health Task Force, created by the 2004 General Conference to examine the feasibility of a mandatory health insurance plan for the denomination. Task force members did not recommend a mandatory plan, but instead made recommendations to deal with the root issue of health among clergy and lay employees.

Next steps

In an interview after the celebration, Barbara Boigegrain, the agency's chief executive, outlined the next steps for the health initiatives.

"Now that General Conference has given the green light, we have several steps to go. Much of that is now gathering voices to provide input to shape how we go forward," she said.

Boigegrain said the agency will meet with conference benefits officers for input about what data to share and how to collect and disseminate the information.

The agency plans to work on ways to support wellness and motivate people to make positive changes, she said. Part of this effort will include pilot programs with Drew Theological Seminary, Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary and Union Theological Seminary to promote wellness.

"We will work with their seminary classes, especially the very first group coming in next fall, to start to measure current health, and provide curriculum and support to see if we can help people develop good health habits.

"We are always in pursuit of this elusive concept of 'how do you get people to change behavior?'" she said. "Teachable moments are fairly rare, and they usually happen after an extreme event."

*White is associate editor of Interpreter magazine.

News media contact: Deborah White, e-mail: newsdesk@umcom.org.

Phone calls can be made to the General Conference Newsroom in Fort Worth, Texas, at (817) 698-4405 until May 3. Afterward, call United Methodist News Service in Nashville, Tenn., at (615) 742-5470.

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