Burning questions about retirement and relevance
Note: Each month, the Rev. Dr. William Dobbs, Michigan Area Clergy Assistant to the Bishop , answers your most pressing questions about the Michigan Area of The United Methodist Church. If you would like to submit a question to be answered please email him at email@example.com.
I have received three questions this month (thank you very much to each person who sent one!) and I would like to answer two this month and one next. In addition, I will be answering at least one question next month which no one has asked “yet” but almost certainly will before we get to Annual Conference. So if you are just “burning” to ask a question, please look for your answer in April or May. Thanks!
Burning Question #1 came from an Elder in the West Michigan who asked about Conference Health Insurance in retirement. “Will pastors who do not subscribe to Conference Health Insurance (who participate in their spouse’s insurance plan) receive benefits from the Conference at their retirement?”
As of this moment in time, persons in both conferences have to be enrolled in the Conference Health Insurance plan during the open enrollment period prior to their retirement in order to participate in the retiree health plan after retirement. So that, if I was going to retire in June, I would have had to be enrolled in the Conference Health Plan last fall in order to participate in the Conference Health Plan in retirement. This often trips clergy up who are serving in places outside of the conference, either in extension ministry appointments or “on-loan” to another conference. Notice that I said, “at the present time.” That qualifier is because things do change with regard to retiree health care and persons who have specific questions should contact their Conference Benefits Officer.
There was an implied question which was not asked directly but I would like to try to answer anyway. There is a difference between pension benefits and retiree health care benefits. For our clergy pension benefits, congregations and clergy make contributions into a pool of money which is invested. The money which is available at retirement is a combination of the money contributed and the earnings on the investment. (I can, even now, hear Don and Pros saying “It’s much more complicated than that!” and they’re right, of course. But for those of us not directly involved, this simplified explanation seems to make sense.)
This is different than health care, which is a cost billed to the conference and which is paid out of currently available funds and the earnings on funds which have been set aside over the years and invested. The problem for many retiree health care programs is that we have more expenses than we have money set aside to fund health care (people are living longer and have greater health costs than anticipated) so that we have an unfunded liability which would (will) have to be met out of current budgets or from borrowed funds. In West Michigan, there is an unfunded liability which the Board of Pensions and Health Care is trying to reduce by asking every charge to make a $1,500 contribution - over and above its pension and health care contributions - to reduce the unfunded liability. This contribution is not related to the current pastor, but is an attempt to reduce the conference’s future budget costs and enable the conference to continue paying for a portion of retiree health care into the future.
Burning Question #2 came from a lay person who has seen a lot of changes over the years and is wondering: “Is The United Methodist Church relevant to Christianity?”
The short and somewhat flippant answer is “I certainly hope so!” But the questioner deserves a serious answer to their troubled and troubling question, so please permit me to answer in this way:
When The United Methodist Church is true to its vision of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world, then it is very relevant to Christianity. But, when we forget why we have been called and who we are called to be, when we spend more time fighting with each other than we do in fighting injustice and evil, we are of no use to anyone and certainly not relevant to the world in which we find ourselves… nor to Christianity.
And the hard truth is that too many of us are worshipping in congregations that are dying and have lost their will to live or belief that they can still make a difference no matter what denominational name is over the door. Harsh, you say? Perhaps! But listen to this passage taken from Rev. Dottie Escobedo-Frank’s book Restart Your Church:
If your congregation has an average age of eighty or more, and your numbers are dwindling at the same rates as the natural deaths in your midst, then you are dying. If new people do not become a part of your community on a regular basis, then you are dying, because life requires new disciples of Christ. If you do not have baptisms, or members who join by a profession of faith in Jesus Christ, then you are dying. If people come to church because it is their habit but they lack a passion for serving Jesus Christ, if your members are more concerned about the music than they are about the praise, if the battles are inward and not outward, then your church is dying. (pg. 26-27)
Too many of the churches I know, when measured against this yardstick, are, if not dying, most certainly on life-support, and if we don’t allow God to infuse us with a life-giving and life-defining dose of the Holy Spirit soon, it will be too late for anything but a miracle. But I don’t believe it is too late yet! With God’s help, our churches can be resurrected or restarted for relevant ministry in the 21st Century and beyond. It won’t be easy but it can be done. And if you are wondering where you might turn for help turning the ship of your church against the tide of culture and context, I would encourage you to register and attend your Annual Conference this year! I know enough about the plans and resource people who will be present at either conference to confidently predict that you will not be able to come away from this year’s AC session without being transformed and equipped to help your congregation make disciples and transform your communities. And that sounds like an affirmative answer to another Burning Question.
Till next time… Blessings!