My e-mail address lit up after the September column about church-staff compensation and benefits (it’s available at www.lcms.org/?5775). Thanks to all the readers who responded.
Many echo one reader: “It has been my observation that a congregation with money problems is usually one where the laymen are not being led and properly challenged by their leadership, both pastoral and lay.”
There were lots of comments related to the joint responsibility of lay and pastoral leadership to work together concerning stewardship education and motivation.
The bulk of responders said that the stewardship question should not precipitate a “we-they” attitude from either lay leaders or church workers. But there also was general consensus that a cooperative attitude would mean that church-worker compensation should not be a vehicle for balancing the budget or otherwise solving a congregation’s financial woes. “An increase in stewardship is the best course of action,” wrote one reader.
At the same time, some controversial sentiments also were expressed. I want to share one of them, and then offer a comment.
“The Concordia Plan cost structure is obscene,” a responder wrote. “If the situation is truly dollars and cents, then the best short-term advice is to drop the Concordia Plan and purchase health care elsewhere. This alone can save the congregation hundreds of dollars a month.”
Here is my response:
It is likely possible in some circumstances, especially for a larger congregation, to purchase a health plan that is cheaper than the CHP, at least for the first year or so of the new plan’s life. Changes in the premium will come as the congregation becomes experience-rated, and the premiums will become more costly if health issues emerge among staff. (This likely will cause the congregation to go “shopping” again.)
A less-expensive premium is possible especially if the staff is younger and relatively healthy. But as younger and healthier staff members are taken out of CHP, the per-capita costs to the plan increase, which causes an increase in premium to those still in the plan. This process of taking away healthier members is known as “cherry picking,” and it leaves the plan whose lower-cost members are lured away in additional distress.
Each congregation that “shops” should ask itself whether we are all in this together, or is it every congregation for itself? Do we have a health plan to be run as in the competitive market place, or are there other values?
To shop for one’s own health plan may be consistent with the individualism of the culture and may echo the nature of congregational autonomy, but what ethic do we want among us when it comes to the health care of our workers? I would hope we would want to give all of them the very best health plan possible. (The ELCA requires participation in the health plan if a congregation is in the retirement plan. We in the LCMS do not do this, but perhaps we should consider it!)
Difficult times challenge us all. The goal in the midst of the challenge is, led by God’s Holy Spirit, to work respectfully and honestly together, avoiding reactions that would put a temporary Band-Aid on a deeper wound by short-changing the support of the workers of the church.
Dr. Bruce M. Hartung is executive director of the Commission on Ministerial Growth and Support and associate professor of practical theology at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Posted Oct. 4, 2004