Church & State and the Augsburg Fortress pension problem

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.

Published by Chris Duckworth

Spouse. Parent. Lutheran Pastor. Veteran. Jedi. Political Junkie. Baseball Fan.

9 thoughts on “Church & State and the Augsburg Fortress pension problem

  1. Chris – I put this up at Facebook, too, but wanted to comment here.
    “A church spokesman said Tuesday that the 4.5 million member ELCA had decided it had no legal obligation to the Augsburg Fortress retirees.”
    Two thoughts. First, regardless of the legal question involved here, I have a serious problem with attributing the opinion of one ELCA Churchwide Office employee to the entire denomination. That’s either sloppy reporting (most likely) or sloppy commentary from Churchwide, and it should be addressed ASAP.
    Secondly, I’m embarrassed that the legal arm of the ELCA has come to this conclusion. A good many of us believe the ELCA has a moral obligation to Augsburg Fortress at the very least, and possibly a legal obligation as well. None of us work for the church to get rich, but it is right to expect basic needs to be covered. Hence, our own pensions and medical benefits as rostered leaders in the ELCA, in which my confidence has been seriously shaken by what has happened this week.
    Thanks for your thoughts here, Chris – I always appreciate how you address the church/state issues, and like you, I’ll be keeping our friends at Augsburg Fortress in my prayers.

  2. A couple of cursory thoughts: I am more than willing to not have my pension guaranteed by the feds if the trade off is the tax breaks I get. What this means, however, is that I am NOT depending on my pension as anything other than a supplement. Other investing goes on elsewhere. I hope every pastor in the ELCA, but especially those of us on the front end of this crazy ride, see the wisdom in this approach.
    As an aside, I think the questions you ask in the back half of this essay are slightly ironic in that you are asking about institutional survival in the midst of institutional decline. Bp. Hanson said in a speech a couple of years ago that 2042 will pretty much be the last year of the ELCA. But we know that God’s Word forever shall abide, no thanks to foes who fear it. Maybe the ELCA decline should be taken as a swift kick in our rear ends to figure out what we must do to faithfully proclaim the Gospel to this generation and the coming generations, just assuming that we won’t be doing it in and through the ELCA structure. We talk about the “emerging” church…what is going to emerge from the ashes of institutional Christianity? That’s what we need to figure out and what we need to start working toward.

  3. In our area, a number of very large companies went bankrupt some years ago. I know it affected the pensions, but there might have been some federal pension backup for that, I don’t know. Even more, it affected these people’s health insurance, especially for the retirees. Those who were veterans might sign up to be on Veteran’s medical care, with its pluses and minuses, but the other people were left out in the cold.
    This sort of thing was what prompted some companies/people to invest in pension accounts individually, so that the employee owns his pension and isn’t so dependent upon the health of the company. Unfortunately, with the crash of the stock market, those funds also collapsed.
    [We have some pension money investments that are worth less now than we put in, not just less than what we had “made”. At our age, it is highly unlikely that we will recover what we lost before retirement age.
    I am not defending Augsburg, et al, but just saying that it is likely that no matter how they had funded their pensions there probably would have been losses for the employees and retirees.
    The biggest differences with church employed people is that they are likely to start employment at an older age and they are likely to earn less than others in society with similar length of education (and school loans.) There is no extra cash to invest. It would certainly help if the church/denomination would make seminary education more affordable; there could be money for a young pastor to invest at an earlier point in his/her employment.
    These issues are all tied together. How do we care foe the shepherds of our flocks?

  4. Churches and church organizations can always choose to insure their pensions (even though they are not forced to by ERISA). If you’re worrying about church employees being more vunerable, then churches should take this extra step to protect them.

  5. Those who are working for the benefit of others like the people working in a church should have at least special consideration in any pension plan regulations. Give them an option, not totally an exemption. It is their choice to serve the community through a non-profit organization but don’t take their rights not to have pensions in the future.

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