I am responding here to an article published by The Presbyterian Outlook and the comments of a Director (Elder John Hamm) of the Presbyterian Board of Pensions. I’m grateful for the witness of The Outlook which strives to bring us reports of our denominational goings-on across the country. I tried to post these comments directly on the response section of the article, but it doesn’t seem to be working, so here it is.
If you’d like to take a look at what got me stirred up, click here to link to the article.
Now to my response:
The comments in the article are among the most painful things I’ve read. Though I have a few trusted friends who are part of the Board of Directors, with comments such as those by Elder Hamm, it is hard not to feel that our livelihoods are being managed by people who don’t make the same connection regarding life in the Body of Christ as I do. Elder Hamm’s statement: “We had no idea it would be our blood” strikes me as the worst kind of arrogance. If we are truly part of the same Body of Christ, shouldn’t there be a continual awareness that whenever one member of the body bleeds, we all bleed?
It is incredible to me that Elder Hamm, who lives in the tonier part of North Dallas in a nearly 5,000 square foot home, would make this statement. (NOTE: Directors’ addresses are publicly noted in Board documents and home sizes are easily found on Zillow.com) Even more incredible is that he would then follow with a description of his “secular” story, stating: “I have been covered by a health care plan for 43 years. If you look at the secular world, that $5,700 is a bargain.” I would like to invite him and his family to live for just a month as many of us who faithfully serve the majority of congregations in the PCUSA. While we lead Sessions and guide Sunday School teachers, we live in small homes and apartments, making do with three kids in one bedroom. While we put in a month’s worth of 50-60 hour weeks because three parishioners died and the boiler blew up, we also have to struggle with old cars that have to be sidelined until we can save enough to pay for the repairs. While we preach and teach and encourage our congregations to live into the call to do justice, we find ourselves in an unjust world where we can’t afford to send our children to college and where one major health problem means taking on years of debt just to pay off the lifetime deductibles.
The appropriate phrase isn’t: “There will be blood.” There already IS blood. Our young clergy families who are just getting started in staff positions and solo pastorates in underserved communities and others among us who for our entire ministry have understood God’s call to be that of service to small congregations are already stretched too far with extraordinary seminary loans and simple costs of everyday life with salaries that never come close to what a partner at Ernst and Young earns. If true comparisons are to be made, Elder Hamm might consider trying to live on the pension of a pastor who never made more than $50K a year and who spent the first decade or two of his/her career earning less than $35K. In churches which can only afford to pay these salaries, there is no question where the burden of the increased insurance costs will go. The families who need the most help will be the ones who will suffer.
Of all the battles we have engaged over ordination standards, women’s involvement in the leadership of the church and confessional interpretations, I have stayed true to the denomination that raised me and our theology which has filled me with hope. I have believed it is more important to seek unity in the midst of diversity and that our struggles have bound us more closely together in Christ’s Body. For the first time, I am beginning to wonder if that is true.