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Older adults face growing threat of poverty, committee warns

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A UMNS photo by Kathy Gilbert

Gabriel Unda Yemba, of the Democratic Republic of Congo, and translator Rejane Soucy confer with Mel Bowman, with United Methodist Men, at the meeting.
March 15, 2006

By Kathy L. Gilbert*

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (UMNS) — Many working men and women will retire after a lifetime of service and come face to face with the shocking reality that the pension they thought would support them for the rest of their lives isn’t worth the paper it is printed on.

The United Methodist Committee on Older Adults recognizes that reality and is waving “a cautionary flag” before the church, asking that attention be paid to actions that will increase poverty among older Americans and their families.

A resolution approved by the committee during its March 11-16 meeting in Nashville urges “widespread notice and study of the threat to pension benefits throughout the church.”

“Pensions seem to be one of the ways corporations are trying to increase their profit margin by decreasing what they are doing for persons who are already off their staff and out of the work force,” said the Rev. Scott Youngblood, representative of the South Central Jurisdiction. “They have an obligation to those folks, and now they are trying to back off on that by putting more money in their stockholders’ pockets and their management.”

The resolution points out 20 major companies, including Delta, General Motors, Ford, Lucent, U.S. Steel, have pension obligations that exceed the company’s market value. Many federal, state and local government employees are enrolled in benefit plans that are currently under funded.

"Companies do not try to increase their defined benefit pension funding since it would require them to report higher levels of debt and lower profits," the resolution notes.

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A UMNS photo by Kathy Gilbert

Herb Bowman (left), representative of the Western Jurisdiction, Bishop Violet Fisher, and Niels French of the Board of Global Ministries discuss older-adult concerns.

Susanne Paul, with Global Action on Aging and a consultant to the committee, said in response to the deepening crisis of old-age poverty, about 17 developing countries have adopted social pensions. These pensions are cash grants supported by national taxes.

"Old-age hunger is a tremendous problem,” she said. These small grants are often what older adults use to buy food. She pointed out that even small, poor countries such as Mozambique have started social pensions. “Almost every country can afford $2 a month for every person over 60.”

The United Methodist Committee on Older Adult Ministries wanted “to take a stand” on the issue, said the Rev. Richard H. Gentzler, director of the Center on Aging and Older Adult Ministries, United Methodist Board of Discipleship.

“This is an attempt on the part of the Committee on Older Adult Ministries to take a stand, to put out across the church that this is something that is affecting every working woman and man — the uncertainty of the pension.”

Elderly people, people at midlife, and working men and women are fearful, Gentzler said. People are wondering how they are going to maintain a quality of life that is drastically changing — not because of anything they are doing, but because of external forces.

“We felt as a committee we needed to at least address this, put out some sort of resolution that would suggest to the church we are seeing what is beginning to happen and we want to put up a cautionary note,” he said.

Older Adult Recognition Day

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A UMNS photo by Kathy Gilbert

The Rev. Scott Youngblood tells how corporations are increasing their profit margins by decreasing pension benefits for retirees.

The committee also approved a resolution calling for the church to observe an Older Adult Recognition Day, preferably during May, “to recognize and celebrate the gifts, talents and contributions older adults make within and beyond the local church.”

The U.S. and world populations are increasingly older, overall, and the average United Methodist is 60 or older.

The Committee on Older Adult Ministries will have the responsibility for the supervision and promotion of the day, which is intended to provide congregations the opportunity to learn more about the issues and concerns related to aging and older adulthood.

“I think the United Methodist Church needs to become much more aware on the national level and global level of the increasing number of older adults in society and in our church,” said the Rev. Hazel C. Bennett, Southeastern Jurisdiction representative and chairwoman of the committee. “I think we have to be aware that most people are in need of ministry and also have much to offer.”

Other resolutions passed by the committee include calling for General Conference, the denomination’s top lawmaking body, to authorize a feasibility study on issues related to mandatory retirement of clergy and lay employees.

The resolution notes that people are living longer productive lives, that the age at which they become eligible to receive certain retirement benefits in full is increasing in various nations of the world, and that there are shortages of people educated and trained in certain critical professions and vocations needed for ministry.

The committee asked the 2004 General Conference to eliminate mandatory retirement age rules, but the measure was rejected. In the new resolution, the committee asked General Conference to approve $200,000 for the study for 2009-2012.

The committee also requested a research project be conducted to document the state of older racial/ethnic women and men with respect to income support and access to health care in comparison to the U.S. national average. Findings from the research would then be published and provided to the denomination. Agencies asked to participate in the joint research project include the United Methodist Commission on Religion and Race, the Commission on the Status and Role of Women, the Commission on United Methodist Men, the Board of Global Ministries’ Women’s Division and the nondenominational Global Action on Aging.

In other action the committee:

  • Approved 29 grants for older adult ministries. That was all the committee had funds for, though it received 91 applications, said the Rev. Elbert C. Cole, a consultant on the committee and chairman of the grant subcommittee. Announcement of those receiving the grants will come in April.
  • Started planning a 2007 symposium for older adults to be held Aug. 16-18 in Nashville, Tenn.
  • Called for General Conference to continue a Comprehensive Plan for Older Adult Ministries for $1.18 million for the 2009-2012 quadrennium. Part of the funding will be used for two full-time older adult ministries staff persons and one part-time support staff beyond the level of support provided for 2005-2008.

*Gilbert is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in Nashville, Tenn.

News media contact: Kathy L. Gilbert, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or

Audio Clips
Rev. Scott Youngblood: “They have an obligation to those folks.”
Rev. Hazel Bennett: “Most people are in need of ministry.”
Rev. Richard Gentzler: “This is an attempt to take a stand.”
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