|Economy threatens 'Cokesbury checks' for clergy pensions outside United States|
Neil Alexander, top executive of the United Methodist Publishing House, says the sputtering economy's impact on sales may decrease the agency's annual
distribution to pension plans supporting retired United Methodist clergy
outside of the United States. UMNS photos by Linda Green.
By Linda Green*
Nov. 18, 2008 | ST. SIMONS ISLAND, Ga. (UMNS)
Economic woes in the United States are jeopardizing financial support for retired United Methodist pastors in other parts of the world.
Since 2000, the denomination’s U.S. annual conferences have donated more than $4 million in earnings from the United Methodist Publishing House to support pensions for retired clergy and surviving spouses in the church’s central conferences, especially in Africa.
During the 2007 annual conference season, 62 of the 63 U.S. conferences raised almost $1.4 million by forwarding this annual distribution to the Central Conference Pension Initiative, the church's retirement plan for clergy outside of the U.S. In the last 50 years, the Publishing House has given $50 million to annual conference pension programs through what is known as the "Cokesbury check," named after the agency's retail division. A total of $1 million is divided annually among the conferences, based on the number of clergy in each conference.
"There is the likely chance that there might not be a Cokesbury check from annual conferences next year," said Neil Alexander, top executive with the Publishing House, during a Nov. 7 meeting of the Central Conference Pension Initiative Committee.
“There is the likely chance that there might not be a Cokesbury check from annual conferences next year.”"This is an extremely challenging year. We are looking at evidence that we won’t have the funds to allocate."
Publishing House sales were off 12 percent for the first three months of the new fiscal year, which began on Aug. 1, and the agency also has seen reductions in values of long-term investments. For the last two years, the publishing agency has drawn from its reserves to pay $1 million to the annual conferences.
Alexander called the downturn in sales "dramatic" and said it "indicates lessening of money" among individuals and congregations.
The economic downturn also has affected investments for the Central Conference Pension Initiative, resulting in a $125,000 loss, said Dan O’Neill, managing director for central conference pension at the United Methodist Board of Pension and Health Benefits. But he noted that "investing by the pension board tends to be long term, and we believe that the loss will be offset by future earnings."
The 2000 General Conference, the top legislative body of the denomination, asked the pension board to find ways to fund pensions for pastors serving in 67 annual conferences in Africa, Eastern Europe and the Philippines. These pastors often retire after more than 40 years of service without resources to meet their daily needs. The 2004 General Conference reaffirmed a pension support plan for the central conferences and authorized an effort to raise money to support a pension fund initiative for those pastors and surviving spouses.
The "Cokesbury check" has been the primary starter fund for the pension initiative, but the committee has been working to broaden understanding about the needs and find new sources of contributions in light of the economic turmoil.
North Georgia Bishop Mike Watson is chairperson of the pension
The pension board hired a professional firm in 2007 to help raise $20 million to invest for the overseas pension initiative. Since the campaign’s launch, the board has raised $13.4 million, and campaign leaders hope to connect with large United Methodist churches to further boost coffers. Annual conference boards of pensions, clergy and churches also have contributed.
"We are doing something new and we are doing it in a new way," said North Georgia Bishop Mike Watson, chairperson of the pension initiative committee. "We are truly out there on the cutting edge."
Barbara Boigegrain, the pension board’s top executive, said a pension system is a framework for economic justice that supports those who serve the church and the world so that they have dignity, self-respect and the basic necessities of life. But, before a pension program can be established, the church must understand cultures, politics and government systems in the various countries where retired clergy live.
"People are dying," she said. "People do not have enough to eat. They have nothing but hope for what we do today."
In 2007, the Central Conference Pension Committee designated Mozambique as the second African country to implement a pilot pension program. Beginning in 2009, the action will provide additional pension benefits to 132 ordained clergy, 32 deacons and 278 evangelists in Mozambique.
Also beginning in 2009, the nation of Mozambique will embark on a new phase of social security administration and require each citizen to have a bank account for electronic transfers. The annual conference will piggyback on that technology for electronic transfer of pension payments to 100 people thus far. Conference officials have traveled throughout the country helping retired pastors and widows open accounts in the provincial banks, said committee member Paul Dirdak.
The Mozambique Annual Conference also will provide cell phones to its pensioners and send text messages notifying them when pension disbursements have been sent to their banks, Dirdak explained.
The first pilot pension project started in Liberia in 2006. Nearly 500 retirees and surviving spouses who served the conference on the west coast of Africa now receive quarterly payments up to $55.
The committee is considering Angola and the Philippines for the next two pilot pension programs. With the exception of Mozambique and Liberia, retired pastors and spouses in the central conferences could begin receiving one-year grants of up to $80 beginning in January, Dirdak said.
*Green is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in Nashville, Tenn.
News media contact: Linda Green, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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