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Q&A: Wespath (Board of Pension and Health Benefits)



Note: This interview was part of a 2012 series conducted by United Methodist News Service offering information to help readers better understand how the church works. UMNS asked the top executives of each agency to answer five questions about their agency's role in the church.

What is your agency’s primary mission? How do you accomplish this in the most effective manner?

Barbara Boigegrain

Our mission is “to care for those who serve by providing investment and benefit services according to the principles of The United Methodist Church.”

We are fiduciaries and stewards of the pension and benefit assets entrusted to us. Pension and Health Benefits is supported by the investment earnings on the funds we manage. This is important to understand because the benefit funds are independent of any general church assets, ensuring they only are used as legally allowed — to support clergy and lay workers.

We provide retirement plans designed to reflect the values of The United Methodist Church — what the church desires and determines is most important — providing a financial safety net.

Pension and Health Benefits administers the pension plans that help secure the retirement futures of 91,000 clergy and lay workers, providing a lifetime benefit for clergy and financial support in retirement for all plan participants.

Under the Center for Health, we provide health and welfare benefits to 28,000 participants through 31 HealthFlex plans sponsored on their behalf.

The board’s Wespath Investment Management division is the fiduciary and steward of assets that support current and future pension benefits, managing $17 billion, investing in a socially responsible manner aligned with United Methodist Social Principles. We are actively involved in shareholder advocacy, proxy voting, portfolio screening and community investing.

Our Central Conference Pension Initiative provides pension payments for clergy and surviving spouses in the central conferences, supported by the investment earnings on a challenge goal of $25 million donated and pledged by individuals and conferences across the denomination.

Name at least one exciting thing in which your agency has been involved. How does it relate to the Four Areas of Focus?

Here are two exciting things.

Positive Social Purpose Lending — Ministry with the Poor Focus Area

Pension and Health Benefits recently celebrated the 20th anniversary of the Positive Social Purpose Lending Program. PSP promotes affordable housing, community development and expanded loan opportunities for poor communities in the United States and around the world — all while earning a market rate of return commensurate with risk.

PSP’s mission is in direct alignment with the Ministry with the Poor focus area. Begun in 1990 with a $25 million commitment to affordable housing, the program now has more than $750 million invested for the creation and preservation of affordable housing and other community-development facilities. PSP has invested in affordable-housing projects in all 50 states; helped create or renovate more than 30,000 affordable housing units; provided loans for community health centers, homeless and transitional housing centers, and charter schools throughout the United States; and provided microfinance loans to help seed minority-owned businesses in countries around the world.

In the 20 years since its inception, the affordable housing/community development lending program has earned an annualized rate of return of approximately 7.5 percent, giving retirement plan participants an added benefit from this program’s success.

Central Conference Pension Initiative — Ministry with the Poor and Global Health focus areas

We raised $25 million to seed the funding of pension programs in the central conferences. We currently provide payments in retirement for 1,137 clergy and their surviving spouses in Liberia, Mozambique, Angola, Côte d’Ivoire, Sierra Leone, Zimbabwe, Nigeria and Russia.

By providing pension payments to ministers who have little or nothing for retirement, CCPI has supported more than one of the four focus areas. Ministers now have additional monies for personal health care and housing. By having additional support, these ministers and their surviving spouses remain vital, active members of their congregations.

The Rev. Pilar Page of Liberia was ordained in 1983 and retired in 2004. She recently purchased a mattress with her CCPI-supported pension payments. It is the first mattress she has ever owned. “Until now, I have slept on the ground my entire life,” she said. “Now I sleep so much better. It is the best thing I ever did for my health.”

Ordained in 1980, another Liberian — the Rev. James V. Piah — served the church as a senior pastor and assistant to the director of connectional ministries until his retirement in 1996. At times, he was responsible for three churches at once. In retirement, Piah had problems with his eyesight. His CCPI-supported pension payments allowed him to afford operations on both eyes. He also was able to repair his home. Now, he is enjoying his retirement and says it is “very, very good.”

How does the average United Methodist pastor or member benefit from your agency’s work? Social advocacy? Curriculum? Scholarships? Please give a concrete example, ideally quoting a testimonial from someone outside of your agency.

Pension and Health Benefits helps to provide a financial safety net so ministers can focus on ministry, assuring that:

  • Pastors in the United States and around the world will have dependable financial support when their careers in ministry end.

  • Local church members will have healthy, vital congregational leaders to continue the United Methodist mission with the guidance and support of the Center for Health.

  • Local communities will benefit from the community investments we make through our Wespath Investments Management division that helps revitalize and sustain them.

For example, the Wespath Investment Management division’s Positive Social Purpose Lending Program promotes affordable housing, community development and expanded loan opportunities for poor communities worldwide, all while earning a market rate of return commensurate with risk. The program began in 1990 with a $25 million commitment to affordable housing. Today the program has more than $750 million invested to create and preserve affordable housing and other community-development facilities.

“The need for affordable housing in the United States continues to grow to tremendous proportions and represents a great challenge for people in all walks of life and communities of all kinds,” said Debra Schwartz, who directs program-related investments for the MacArthur Foundation in Chicago. “The program that Pension and Health Benefits operates, as one of the biggest affordable housing investors and lenders in the country, is vitally important to the overall effort.”

Learn more: Wespath Benefits and Investments website.