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Agency Q&A: Pension and Health Benefits

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General Conference 2012

Editor’s Note: As the 2012 General Conference approaches, United Methodist News Service is looking at details of legislation and offering information to help readers better understand how the church works. A number of proposals are aimed at restructuring the denomination and its general ministries, so UMNS asked the top executives of each agency to answer five questions about their agency's role in the church. This is the response from the United Methodist Board of Pension and Health Benefits.



Logo for the Board of Global Ministries.

1. One issue to be debated at General Conference is restructuring. What would the church miss if your agency no longer existed?

If the United Methodist Board of Pension and Health Benefits no longer existed, the financial futures of 91,000 U.S. plan participants, as well as the investments managed for United Methodist-affiliated organizations with investable assets, would be affected significantly. Clergy in the central conferences might have no financial support in retirement.

Participants would lose cost-effective funds-management services, investments aligned with United Methodist Social Principles and the clergy housing allowance exclusion available through plans administered by the board. Our investment-management fees are lower than most, resulting in better returns for participant accounts. As a nonprofit organization, our fees are half or less of what an outside provider would require to care for the benefits.

2. What is your agency’s primary mission? How do you accomplish this in the most effective manner?

Our mission is “to care for those who serve by providing investment and benefit services according to the principles of The United Methodist Church.”

We are fiduciaries and stewards of the pension and benefit assets entrusted to us. Pension and Health Benefits is supported by the investment earnings on the funds we manage. This is important to understand because the benefit funds are independent of any general church assets, ensuring they only are used as legally allowed — to support clergy and lay workers.

We provide retirement plans designed to reflect the values of The United Methodist Church — what the church desires and determines is most important — providing a financial safety net.

Pension and Health Benefits administers the pension plans that help secure the retirement futures of 91,000 clergy and lay workers, providing a lifetime benefit for clergy and financial support in retirement for all plan participants.

Under the Center for Health, we provide health and welfare benefits to 28,000 participants through 31 HealthFlex plans sponsored on their behalf.

The board’s Wespath Investment Management division is the fiduciary and steward of assets that support current and future pension benefits, managing $17 billion, investing in a socially responsible manner aligned with United Methodist Social Principles. We are actively involved in shareholder advocacy, proxy voting, portfolio screening and community investing.

Our Central Conference Pension Initiative provides pension payments for clergy and surviving spouses in the central conferences, supported by the investment earnings on a challenge goal of $25 million donated and pledged by individuals and conferences across the denomination.



Barbara Boigegrain. Photo courtesy of the Board of Pension and Health Benefits.
Barbara Boigegrain
Photo courtesy of the Board of Pension and Health Benefits.
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3. Name at least one exciting thing in which your agency has been involved during the current quadrennium. How does it relate to the Four Areas of Focus?

Here are two exciting things.

Positive Social Purpose Lending Ministry with the Poor Focus Area

Pension and Health Benefits recently celebrated the 20th anniversary of the Positive Social Purpose Lending Program. PSP promotes affordable housing, community development and expanded loan opportunities for poor communities in the United States and around the world — all while earning a market rate of return commensurate with risk.

PSP’s mission is in direct alignment with the Ministry with the Poor focus area. Begun in 1990 with a $25 million commitment to affordable housing, the program now has more than $750 million invested for the creation and preservation of affordable housing and other community-development facilities. PSP has invested in affordable-housing projects in all 50 states; helped create or renovate more than 30,000 affordable housing units; provided loans for community health centers, homeless and transitional housing centers, and charter schools throughout the United States; and provided microfinance loans to help seed minority-owned businesses in countries around the world.

In the 20 years since its inception, the affordable housing/community development lending program has earned an annualized rate of return of approximately 7.5 percent, giving retirement plan participants an added benefit from this program’s success.

Central Conference Pension Initiative — Ministry with the Poor and Global Health focus areas

We have nearly achieved our challenge goal of raising $25 million in this quadrennium to seed the funding of pension programs in the central conferences. We currently provide payments in retirement for 1,137 clergy and their surviving spouses in Liberia, Mozambique, Angola, Côte d’Ivoire, Sierra Leone, Zimbabwe, Nigeria and Russia.

By providing pension payments to ministers who have little or nothing for retirement, CCPI has supported more than one of the four focus areas. Ministers now have additional monies for personal health care and housing. By having additional support, these ministers and their surviving spouses remain vital, active members of their congregations.

The Rev. Pilar Page of Liberia was ordained in 1983 and retired in 2004. She recently purchased a mattress with her CCPI-supported pension payments. It is the first mattress she has ever owned. “Until now, I have slept on the ground my entire life,” she said. “Now I sleep so much better. It is the best thing I ever did for my health.”

Ordained in 1980, another Liberian — the Rev. James V. Piah — served the church as a senior pastor and assistant to the director of connectional ministries until his retirement in 1996. At times, he was responsible for three churches at once. In retirement, Piah had problems with his eyesight. His CCPI-supported pension payments allowed him to afford operations on both eyes. He also was able to repair his home. Now, he is enjoying his retirement and says it is “very, very good.”

4. How does the average United Methodist pastor or member benefit from your agency’s work? Social advocacy? Curriculum? Scholarships? Please give a concrete example, ideally quoting a testimonial from someone outside of your agency.

Pension and Health Benefits helps to provide a financial safety net so ministers can focus on ministry, assuring that:

  • Pastors in the United States and around the world will have dependable financial support when their careers in ministry end
  •  Local church members will have healthy, vital congregational leaders to continue the United Methodist mission with the guidance and support of the Center for Health
  •  Local communities will benefit from the community investments we make through our Wespath Investments Management division that helps revitalize and sustain them.

For example, the Wespath Investment Management division’s Positive Social Purpose Lending Program promotes affordable housing, community development and expanded loan opportunities for poor communities worldwide, all while earning a market rate of return commensurate with risk. The program began in 1990 with a $25 million commitment to affordable housing. Today the program has more than $750 million invested to create and preserve affordable housing and other community-development facilities.

“The need for affordable housing in the United States continues to grow to tremendous proportions and represents a great challenge for people in all walks of life and communities of all kinds,” said Debra Schwartz, who directs program-related investments for the MacArthur Foundation in Chicago. “The program that Pension and Health Benefits operates, as one of the biggest affordable housing investors and lenders in the country, is vitally important to the overall effort.”

5. How much money and how many employees does it take to maintain the work your agency is currently doing?

Pension and Health Benefits has been an independent agency of The United Methodist Church (and its predecessors) for more than 100 years. We receive no general church funds to support our mission of caring for those who serve by providing investment and benefit services according to the principles of The United Methodist Church.

We are fiduciaries of pension funds and stewards of pension and benefit assets. All of our agency support comes from the investment earnings on the funds we manage. This is important to understand because the benefit funds are independent of any general church assets to ensure they are only used as legally required to support clergy and lay worker benefits. Our annual report discloses our operating budget (reviewed by external auditors), which runs approximately three-tenths of 1 percent of the assets we manage.

The approximately 250-strong Pension and Health Benefits staff represents a diversity of backgrounds and professional skills in providing retirement and benefit plans and programs that reflect the values of The United Methodist Church.

Learn more: Website of the United Methodist Board of Pension and Health Benefits

For more information, visit the 2012 General Conference website.

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