Bleeding Body

janknegt-forgive-5
Photo: James B. Janknegt, “Father Forgive Us,” 1990

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.

6 thoughts on “Bleeding Body

  1. This talk, and the plan these folks created shouldn’t be a surprise. The Church is a fully secularized organization and the plan they came up with – where highly paid single, mostly guys, have their costs go down, while families of 4 making 40K see their costs go up – is straight out of Wall Street. We have come to this point because we would never even question whether a millionaire in a 5,000 sq ft house should be allowed to call himself a Christian and be a leader in a Christian organization. Meanwhile NO ONE is even questioning whether a Church organization whose assets total over $7 billion and whose growth in assets just this past year was 13.5% should be in the business of raising rates AT ALL on families who serve the church and barely live above the poverty line.

    1. Thanks Dan, for that honesty. Your points about the assets and income growth are so important in this conversation. I have to say, thought, that I don’t know that Mr. Hamm is a millionaire but I believe the kingdom is wide open to everybody, rich, poor and in between.

      1. Hey Debra, The Kingdom of God is open to everyone. Do we all choose to participate? Not really. Challenging the economic life and order of those he encountered, as individuals and as institutions, was a significant aspect of Jesus’ teachings. In His (?) Church today in America, not so much.

  2. welcome to my world. I am a Lutheran pastor who took 3 years to pay off my share of the cost of my cancer treatments (which meant, among other things, that I couldn’t deduct the payments because although they amounted to a hefty portion of my income, they didnt’ rise to the 10% required to be deductible), and as I have been serving as a part-time interim pastor at a small congregation, went 2 years without any health insurance, and have finally managed to receive converage through my secular job – which will cost me as much as $4,600 out of pocket for the year between deductibles and weekly costs for the coverage. I, too, am beginning to have my doubts about what the church is and what it has become.

  3. Thank you for making me aware of this, Deb. Of course I’m appalled, though not surprised. We just spent $14 million renovating our 1845 church, but we can’t seem to afford a clergy person to assist our associate who is trying to carry the entire load on her young but strong shoulders. That’s why I agreed to be on the Session next year. I’m so sorry, on behalf of our denomination, that we treat so poorly those persons with whom we entrust our souls. I suppose that’s indicative of what we think our souls are worth.

    On Sat, Mar 9, 2013 at 6:15 PM, Improvisations

  4. Pay equalization. Other churches (Reformed Church in Australia, I believe, as well as others) have done it, and it works wonders to solve many of these problems. Until then, young ministers and their families will continue to suffer.

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