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Retirement presents challenge for Estonian pastors

The Rev. Peeter Piirisild, 80, is a retired pastor still serving a United Methodist congregation in Narva, Estonia. A UMNS photo by Kathy Noble.

By the Rev. Kathy Noble*

April 10, 2008 | TALLINN, Estonia (UMNS)

The Rev. Olav Parnamets and his wife, Urve, discuss the difficulties faced by retired pastors and widows in Estonia. A UMNS photo by Kathy Noble.

At 80, the Rev. Peeter Piirisild continues to preach.

As he has for 34 years, each Sunday morning Piirisild enters the pulpit of the United Methodist church in Narva, a city near the top of the Estonia-Russia border, and offers the morning sermon.

"I'm retired, but I'm not totally free yet," he says. "We have a little Estonia group there, and I continue to take care of that group. And then we have the Russian service, but I participate there as well." Even so, the attendance is lighter than it was on Sundays during the more than 30 years when he led three separate services in Estonian, Russian and Finnish.

Piirisild's story parallels that of other retired United Methodist clergy and surviving spouses in Estonia.

They are the stories the retirees and widows told when a delegation of United Methodists from the United States and Norway visited Estonia in 2006 in preparation for launching a campaign to raise funds for the denomination's Central Conference Pension Initiative. The initiative is an effort to provide models for pension systems for United Methodist clergy and lay workers in the church's central conference regions – Africa, Asia and Europe.

Only when prompted would the pensioners and the surviving spouses talk about their lives today.

While the situation for retirees and widows in Estonia is less dire than in some of the other central conference countries, most still live below the poverty line of a little more than EEK$2000 (Estonia krooni), about US$200 each month.

"Inflation and prices go up, so, considering the size of their pension, they even can't pay for a two-room apartment," says the Rev. Olav Parnamets, 71, Estonia church superintendent for 26 years. Although he left the superintendency in 2005, he still serves as a pastor at the Tallinn United Methodist Church, which is part of the Baltic Mission Center. His wife, Urve, 68, works in the church office.

"Sometimes it's not very clearly understandable how these people with this income can survive, can cope," Parnamets says. "Usually they try to save on the expense of food and to buy the cheapest and simplest food and not to afford to themselves what they want sometimes."

The church-provided pension of EEK$861 (about US$86) per month in most instances supplements a pension from the state. "We had only a few pastors during the Soviet times who could earn a salary as a pastor," the Rev. Taavi Hollman, superintendent since 2005, says. Most also had secular jobs as did their spouses.

'Underground' seminaries

The elderly United Methodists tell of being raised in Christian families, including Methodist, Orthodox, Moravian and Lutheran. Many cite a conversion experience when they were teenagers or young adults. The retired pastors – all men – recount serving in the Russian Army where, for some, their faith was first challenged.

The Rev. Ilmar Looris, 79, carried a New Testament when he entered the Russian Army in 1950. "They took it away," he recalls. "I was called to go to the army court for testing. They tried to convince me that there is no God. We talked there for quite some time with all the higher officials. They probably got tired of me, and they said, 'OK, we'll continue another time, and do it longer.' But another time never came."

The Rev. Ilmar Looris, 79, describes how his New Testament was taken from him when he entered the Russian Army in 1950. A UMNS photo by the Rev. Larry Hollon.

Theological education was in "underground seminaries" with in-depth Bible studies, discussions and exams. A superintendent, elected from the Estonian elders, ordained them. Bishops from other countries could not enter Estonia during the years of Soviet occupation.

Their active pastorates began in the 1960s and 1970s. Until the mid-80s – when perestroika and the dissolution of the Soviet Union began – they could preach openly in their churches but were watched. Somewhat ironically, church choirs could sing almost anywhere. The performances were called cultural experiences. Soviet law forbade, but did not stop, ministry with children and young people.

"We did it by underground way," says Urve Parnamets. "We moved the places 200 times. We used other reasons to have Sunday school lessons. For example, we celebrated birthday parties and some other things."

"We had agents who constantly watched what was going on in the Christian churches," says her husband. "Sometimes they noticed and punished us." Although none of the retirees spoke of being imprisoned after the war for working as pastors, many were fined.

$20 million campaign goal

Estonia became independent in 1991. It is part of The United Methodist Church's Estonia Annual Conference, which also includes Latvia and Lithuania.

The Central Conference Pension Initiative was developed at the direction of the 2000 and 2004 General Conferences. It is led by a Central Conference Pension Committee, comprising representatives from the United Methodist Board of Pension and Health Benefits, the General Council on Finance and Administration, the Board of Global Ministries, the United Methodist Publishing House and United Methodist Communications.

A campaign to raise $20 million is under way to fund pensions fully for retired central conference clergy and surviving spouses. The first pilot model was launched in Liberia in late 2007 and the second will begin in Mozambique in early 2009.

Dan O'Neill, managing director of the initiative for the pension agency, does not know when a program will be launched in Estonia. "There is not yet sufficient funding to solve the problem" in additional countries, he says. The initiative committee revises the pension model priority list annually, as funding for more pilots becomes available and the needs of pensioners in the different annual conferences are reassessed.

Pension funding improving

In 2008, pensions are being provided to six retired elders and one deacon of The United Methodist Church living in Estonia. Two more retirees from the Estonia Conference live in Latvia. Funds for the church pensions come from an annual grant made from the office in Norway of Bishop Øystein Olsen of the Nordic-Baltic Area.

Kuressaare United Methodist Church, the 101-year-old "mother church" of Methodism in Estonia, sits on Saaremaa, an island just east of the mainland.
A UMNS photo by Harry Leake.

Estonian church leaders want to provide an adequate pension for current retirees, and they also are concerned about future pensions and health care for active pastors, some of whom will not have had secular employment. Estonia now has 26 ordained elders and chaplains, two ordained deacons, 10 local pastors and two unordained chaplains.

"One great achievement is that since January 2007, we started to pay all the salaries and pensions officially," Hollman says. "All who get paid will have the insurance covered."

The church in Estonia pays a percentage of the salary into the state social and health fund for pensions and health insurance. Local churches employ the pastors. Their salaries are paid from a central treasury to which each congregation contributes.

Estonia is also home to four widows of pastors who do not receive pensions or other support from the church.

"The wives of our pastors, the wives who for years and years and years have faithfully stood with their husbands, they also deserve support and help," says Erna Kunstimees, who has been widowed for seven and a half years.

Olav Parnamets agrees. "I believe the widows of the pastors who have passed away, they need our help and they need our attention. Usually they have been very faithful partners in the Lord's work as well along with their husbands.

"As a nonprofit agency, the church is prevented from distributing money to members," Parnamets says. Surviving spouses in Estonia do not receive a portion of their spouses' pension as they do in the United States, he explains. The widows would also have to pay taxes on pensions from the church.

"It would be risky to start paying pensions to spouses," he adds.

Retirees need more

The combination of the secular and church pensions provided Piirisild with an average of US$270 a month in 2006.

"At the moment, the money I get is enough to live on normally," he says. He is generally healthy, single and shares paying the rent on a two-room apartment with a friend.

Do pensioners have sufficient income?

"Not all of them, not most of them," Parnamets replies. He finds that many couples who receive two pensions use one for taxes and one for food and other daily living expenses, he says.

"You can't get even a tankful of gasoline for the average car from the pension which people get from the church per month, so half a tank maybe."

More information about the Central Conference Pension Initiative is available at www.ccpi-umc.org.

*Noble is editor of Interpreter Magazine, a publication of United Methodist Communications, Nashville, Tenn.

News media contact: Kathy Noble, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5441 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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