An excellent report by Minnesota Public Radio on the recent cancellation of Augsburg Fortress' defined benefit pension plan highlights the special relationship that exists between the church and state. From the article:
The federal Employee Retirement Income Security Act, passed in 1974, has a special exception for churches and their affiliates. That means they don't have to comply with many pension regulations — but they're also not covered by the Pension Benefit Guarantee Corporation, the federal pension insurance program.
Augsburg Fortress's religious affiliation is written right into the ELCA's constitution, which means there's no safety net for the publisher's pension plan.
Though I have many concerns about the situation with Augsburg Fortress (see below), a former employer of mine and the publishing ministry of the church in which I serve as a pastor, I have even more concerns about what this situation highlights about the church's relationship with the state. (Longtime readers know that church/state issues are of particular concern for me.)
In treating church organizations differently than other private corporations in their human resources practices, the state provides fewer protections for church employees than it does for employees of private corporations. Perhaps the intent was to grant religious organizations more sway in the way they manage their affairs, and/or to save them the costs of paying into the Pension Benefit Guarantee Corporation. However, the result is that those citizens who work for religious organizations carry significant more risk than do their counterparts at non-church organizations.
Is this fair? Is this right? Is this faithful? The church as an institution receives a special benefit from the state, but the "least of these," the employees, are left vulnerable. Is this the kind of dealing that the church wants to be party to? Would it be better for the church to subject itself to fees and taxes that other corporations pay in order to better care for its employees? I understand the financially crippling effect that losing (or modifying) the church's special status could have on our ministries, but I wonder if such a change would nonetheless be more fair and faithful.
My heart breaks for those who were affected by the cancellation of the Augsburg Fortress defined benefit pension program. I recognize the financial challenges facing the leadership of Augsburg Fortress, and I don't envy their position. Yet I don't understand how or why this crisis wasn't seen and addressed sooner. I am angry and sad for my former colleagues who are suffering at this time, and I am fearful about what this situation says about the financial future of our church.
I expect to be in the ministry for the next 30-35 years, and I fear that our church is in a (controlled?) economic collapse. Out of pocket healthcare costs keep rising, denominational programming budgets keep shrinking, staffing at synods, seminaries and churchwide ministries is frozen or reduced … How will we organize for ministry in the coming years? How will we provide benefits and support to church staff members and to congregational ministries? How will a diminishing denomination maintain – or rearrange – its various ministry organizations and institutions?
Perhaps all newly-minted pastors suffer through this anxiety. Perhaps in a few years everything will look better. Perhaps, but I'm not banking on it. The economic outlook ain't grand, and the forecast for church membership and revenue is also not very rosy. I'm concerned for our church and its mission. As someone who once proudly proclaimed himself an "institutional type," I fear for the future of our church institutions, and wonder if I've put too much of my dependence, trust and pride in those institutions.
Let us pray for our church and for those who lead it, that they might be faithful to Christ in carrying out his mission, humble in times of trial, and trusting always in God's grace.