By Todd Chancey, Holston WCA Board Secretary
Churches thinking about departing the United Methodist Church for the Global Methodist Church likely are hearing a lot about so-called pension liabilities, usually described as a potentially expensive stumbling block at the exit door.
We need to explore that issue as thoroughly as we can. We want to be fair in our dealings as we seek our exit, but we also should not allow those we are leaving behind to take advantage of our situation.
I am by no means an expert on pension funding, but I was part of the Holston Conference Board of Pensions and Health Benefits Board for many years, chairing that committee for four years. What follows is solely my personal understanding and not the understanding of an expert. Please take this for what it is—it is my opinion, and do not rely on this solely for truth.
First, a little history so we are all on the same page.
The Holston Conference has had an active pension program for clergy for many, many years, an expression of the group’s desire to care for our pastors and their spouses in retirement. Prior to 1982, at each annual conference, the annual conference would vote to approve a set amount to pay pension benefits to retired pastors.
In 1982, the conference plan changed, and from 1982 to 2006 funds for pastors’ pensions were deposited in personal investment accounts held at what we called the Board of Pensions and Health Benefits of the United Methodist Church. (This eventually became Wespath.) These funds were fully vested, and were managed by Wespath and distributed per agreement to the pastors and spouses in their retirement.
Many pastors then and now have service years prior to 1982. They still receive a pension for those years. Somewhere around the late 1980s or early 1990s the Holston Conference raised money to go toward the unfunded liabilities of those so-called “Pre-’82” pensions.
An unfunded liability arises when there is a promise to pay someone a pension even when funds are not readily available to do so. Investment growth and longevity projections are major factors in calculating any such liability.
Simply said, the longer clergy live on average, the more pension funds we need, and if clergy die on average earlier than expected, less pension funds are needed. I hate to sound morbid, but that is the reality. We talk about unfunded liabilities when the reserves are less than the projected expenses.
Understanding the history and some basics, let’s get into a little analysis of where we are now.
In regard to Pre-’82 pensions in the Holston Conference, there is good news. According to the last audit, in 2021, the Holston Conference Pre-82 pensions are funded at 102 percent. As stated before, this is simply a projection based on the projected longevity of the retired pastors and spouses, and the performance of investments.
From 1982 to 2006, money contributed toward the pastors’ pensions went into individual accounts in the pastors’ names. Those individual accounts are managed by Wespath and will be distributed at retirement to the pastor and spouse under contractual and fiduciary obligations placed on Wespath.
The Conference helped fund those individual accounts, but did not guarantee any returns on those investments. Therefore, in my opinion, the conference has no unfunded liabilities from 1982 to 2006. Again, good news!
In 2006, the relationship with the Conference and Wespath changed and the Clergy Retirement Security Program was created, a new way of handling pension investments. This was a bad development, in my opinion.
CRSP basically pools part of the pastors’ pension funds together and then guarantees a stated amount in return in retirement. An individual pastor’s entire pension no longer is held under that pastor’s name and designated for that pastor alone. We now have a system where a part of every pastor’s pension is merged into one big fund, with payments coming out of that big fund.
Because the big fund has to deal with market investments and also longevity unknowns, it carries with it some future potential for unfunded liabilities. Will the invested funds be enough to cover a guaranteed return? The answer will always be, “Who knows?”
When you guarantee pension payment amounts and you then merge or pool funds, you are always facing the possibility of having some future unfunded liability. You promise a certain amount of payout, and if your investments fall short, you end up being “unfunded.”
However, if you put funds in personal accounts and only guarantee pensions to the individuals based on their individual accounts, then there are no unfunded liabilities. The pastor and spouse simply draw their pension through their own individual account. (This is a very simplified statement.) There is always a possibility that Wespath could go bankrupt and funds would not be available, but the probability of this happening is extremely low.
So since 2006, we have created an environment of potential future unfunded liabilities for the conference. But that doesn’t automatically present a problem in our current circumstances; in fact, I think it’s safe to say there is no problem.
According to a recent video I watched from a law firm specializing in religious property law, Wespath has enough funds to pay the liability beyond the year 2090. So, unless pastors live to be an average of 130 years old, or unless the stock market crashes and never comes back, Wespath and the annual conference should not have any easily identifiable unfunded liabilities.
We need to be asking a serious question: If the annual conference says we have unfunded liabilities, what proof do they have that such liabilities exist? They will need to give us more than speculation. I would like to see the math and rationale behind their actual projections.
It would be easy to take the projected CRSP funds, turn these into real cash for each pastor and put those funds into a personal investment plan. This could be a very simple mechanism for moving pension funds from the UMC to the GMC, and in my opinion the GMC pastors and their churches would immediately be better off.
Pastors who are already retired are under a contractual agreement with Wespath, and their pensions should not change, nor should any surviving spouse’s pension change. If you are now retired, you do not have to worry about any of this! Enjoy your retirement. Wespath is under a fiduciary responsibility to care for your retirement money.
As we move forward, let’s press our conference officials to work from actual facts and not speculations about what markets might or might not do. And as we move to the GMC, let’s certainly not agree to pay for liabilities that do not exist.
We might as well call such payments what they would really be—exit fees.
“As members of Christ’s universal church, will you be loyal to The United Methodist Church, and do all in your power to strengthen its ministries? I will.”
“Reception into The United Methodist Church," Baptismal Covenant I, The United Methodist Hymnal, page 38
By Rowland S. Buck, Holston WCA Board Chair
I’ve seen this part of the Baptismal Covenant of The United Methodist Church referenced in several correspondences and on social media lately in the context of the current UM schism and the announcement of a new denomination launching May 1. The citation usually comes from pastors who say they will not leave the UMC, as opposed to those who are considering “leaving” the UMC over issues of biblical interpretation, especially where human sexuality is concerned.
The point they are making is that pastors, laity and churches who consider moving to the Global Methodist Church are “breaking” their vows and showing disloyalty to the church where it was pledged. I find it interesting for a number of reasons.
First, I find it rather hypocritical. Some who have accused the Wesleyan Covenant Association and the Global Methodist Church of being schismatic and divisive are the very ones who support a disobedience to The United Methodist General Conference. Since 1972, our top legislative body has kept the same stance on the issues of the practice of homosexuality, the ordination of self-avowed, practicing homosexuals, and same-sex weddings. Somehow that ongoing disobedience is being “loyal.”
Second, I find it interesting how institutional loyalty is prized above loyalty to Jesus Christ and Scripture. In the liturgy of the Baptismal Covenant, notice that loyalty to The United Methodist Church is secondary and subservient to loyalty to Christ and His Church. The persons who wrote the liturgy knew what they were doing, refusing to equate one denomination with the universal Church of Jesus Christ.
What is more telling in these appeals to loyalty (solely aimed at keeping the denomination together) is the implication that loyalty is to be unconditional. No matter what the denomination does, our loyalty is required—even if it changes the doctrine once agreed upon, even if bishops defy the common will of the General Conference, and even if our Doctrinal Standards are reduced to historical markers.
And finally, I find raising the issue of loyalty to be a smokescreen for the real issue. The real issue is that many of us are avoiding tough conversations with each other and in the midst of our churches. Many pastors are keeping their congregations in the dark about the state of The United Methodist Church. They tell their congregations “Everything is fine,” “What you are hearing in the news is just about people trying to cause trouble,” and “None of that is going to change what we do here.” And then they cap it off by saying, “I’m going to be loyal to The United Methodist Church,” and it all sounds rather holy.
But things are not all right, and I don’t think this tack is holy. We are in the throes of death. We have been hemorrhaging members for 50 years. When I was in high school (40 years ago) there were nearly 1,200 churches in the Holston Conference; now there are fewer than 900.
In terms of doctrine—what we hold to be true so that it determines what we do—we are a mess. On paper, we look put together, but in practice, we are like the story in Judges: Everyone does what is right in their own eyes. There are vast theological differences between clergy and the people in the pews, differences masked by platitudes and diversionary tactics.
We have bishops who have been judged by our Judicial Council to be invalidly elected, yet there is no one willing to uphold church law. We have Annual Conferences ordaining clergy in direct defiance of the Book of Discipline. Some even are determined to no longer ask questions to discern whether candidates meet the Discipline’s requirements. And somehow all of this is supported by those who are “loyal to The United Methodist Church.”
Sometimes loyalty means being willing to confront each other and ask hard questions. Loyalty requires us to have tough conversations. Loyalty means being willing to recognize we have lost our way and begin to seek the Lord to help us find it again. Sometimes, to be loyal, we have to repent. Other times, the most loyal thing we can do is to realize we are a hindrance to others in following their conscience, and let them go.
What I do know is that none of us has shown perfect loyalty to Christ, to His Church, or to The United Methodist Church. I know I haven’t. I am relatively sure you haven’t. While two wrongs don’t make a right, neither does forcing each other to go on together for the sake of an institution that will ask one of us to compromise our conscience. The best we can do is to find a way forward, to recognize our differences, to show grace and kindness, to refuse to retaliate for any injustices done, real or perceived, to bless each other and not curse each other. This is loyalty of the highest degree to each other when we can no longer agree with each other on principle. I wonder if we can be that loyal.
I have been asked to provide the manuscript for the sermon I preached Saturday, March 19, during the worship time preceding our Holston WCA annual meeting. Here it is.
Let’s think a little more about the Scriptures we heard earlier in our service.
Psalm 63:1-8: This describes our desire for God, felt especially when we find ourselves parched and dry.
Isaiah 5:1-7: Here, we are told of God’s desire for justice and righteousness, and the difficulty in finding it in this often unfruitful world.
Luke 6:43-45: Jesus observes that good people put goodness into the world and bad people put evil into the world. Certainly, we are all a mixture to one degree or another, but we tend to draw from what is most abundantly stored in us.
All together, these are very appropriate for the season of Lent. In fact, as we planned this service, we simply chose to use the Scripture from the daily lectionary readings for today—Saturday, March 19, 2022.
The season of Lent puts us into a time of discernment. Events the last few weeks in the United Methodist Church have just about ended a very long time of discernment, a time that for some of us has turned into a Long Lent of ten years or more. We still have decisions to make, but as far as I am concerned, the options have narrowed dramatically.
As I try to bring all of this together during our preaching time today, I think I’m going to follow the more difficult path. Preaching-wise, the smoothest path would be to review the slights, the offenses and the betrayals we have experienced the past several years, a diatribe that probably would get us worked up. When you’re in a room of largely like-minded people, that’s the easier way to go.
I don’t want to do that, though. Most of us already have a bitter taste in our mouths, more than enough bitterness to satisfy a good Jew observing the Passover. Instead, I want to challenge this group a little.
First, I want us to think about how we behave in these next few months. Here’s a simple phrase: “Be nice.” It’s a phrase we have heard from the time we were small, advice probably given to us first by our parents or grandparents. “Be nice.”
“But ma, they were mean to me first!” That doesn’t matter. We still need to be nice. Be nice when face to face with those who would oppose us. Be nice on social media. Be nice.
It is a mind-numbingly simple concept, and it is very Christian. Back to our Scriptures for today: If we desire a relationship with a gracious God, and if we seek justice and righteousness to please God, and if we want to be filled with goodness so that goodness flows out of us, a concerted effort to be nice is a good starting point.
Jesus took the idea and really ran with it, didn’t he? “Turn the other cheek.” “Love your enemies.” “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
As difficult as the first two are to live, that last one is astonishing to behold. Jesus was nailed to the cross, lifted in the air above all those who wanted him dead, bearing their scorn and reproach. He also bore our sins—we helped put him there. And yet, he poured out grace as his blood was shed. “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
Paul took up the post-Resurrection baton on behalf of the church, continuing on this topic of how Christians should behave. He acknowledged we would become angry at times, but he said this in Ephesians 4:26-27: “In your anger do not sin. Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold.”
Now understand, being nice doesn’t mean being a punching bag, a pushover, or a good-hearted fool who keeps doling out money to support dangerous worldly ideas. Jesus told his disciples, “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.” (Matthew 10:16.)
Be nice, but use your heads!
And let’s always remember, being nice is not a weakness. It actually is a strength. Hear what Paul has to say in Romans 12:17-21:
Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. On the contrary:
“If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”
Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
So, be nice. At the same time, be smart. Can we all agree to this?
This next part will help. It is easier for us to be nice when we know for certain where we are headed. We are headed home.
In my previous career, I used to travel a lot. People would say, “I wish I had a job where I could travel.” Let me tell you, it’s charming for the first three months. After that, the best part was always heading home.
Home to my beautiful wife. Home to my children, who were all quite small at the time. The house was just a simple starter home, and sometimes I would find peanut butter or Cheerios stuck to my chair in the dining room. But it was home, and it was wonderful.
To journey home, I required a mode of transportation. I have done the planes, trains and automobiles thing, and trust me, I never confused the mode of transportation with home.
I did get to fly Singapore Air once—business class over and first class back. My boss was on the return flight and he upgraded us. First class was about as fancy as air travel gets, but I didn’t hesitate for a second about getting off the plane and heading home.
Folks, the United Methodist Church has never been the destination. It has been a mode of transportation taking us home. Sometimes it has been a really nice way of traveling, but it is not home.
What is home, by the way? The constant, unending holy presence of our Lord and Savior, something that can be enjoyed now and for all eternity. As United Methodists, we have certainly gotten glimpses of home in our lives: I think I see it! Roll the windows down, it sounds like home, it smells like home!
And we will be fully home one day. Again, let’s hear from Paul, this time in the fifth chapter of 2 Corinthians:
For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands. Meanwhile we groan, longing to be clothed instead with our heavenly dwelling, because when we are clothed, we will not be found naked. For while we are in this tent, we groan and are burdened, because we do not wish to be unclothed but to be clothed instead with our heavenly dwelling, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. Now the one who has fashioned us for this very purpose is God, who has given us the Spirit as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come.
Therefore we are always confident and know that as long as we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord. For we live by faith, not by sight. We are confident, I say, and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord. So we make it our goal to please him, whether we are at home in the body or away from it. For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each of us may receive what is due us for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad.
We have a problem right now, though. We gather here today as people who have become quite certain that the means of transportation we’ve been using no longer is going where we hoped it would go. On paper, we have the same map, but no one capable of steering seems to be reading it anymore. The road looks strange and dark.
So we’ve started making a simple request. We would like to get out of the vehicle. It also would be really nice if we could have our luggage: our buildings and our fair share of what we have helped the group accumulate over the years.
It all sounds reasonable to me. I don’t really care which Book of Discipline paragraph we use, so long as the process proves to be reasonable and fair.
Here’s some good news:
We also are now confident another vehicle going the right direction will pick us up. By getting on it, we know we at least will be getting closer to home, rather than farther away. I guess we could walk that direction alone, but Christians have always found the journey to be easier when we travel it together.
I so long for home. I need to feel like I am headed that way. I need to smell the air and look at the terrain and say out loud, “Hey, this looks like where I want to be.” And I want us to pick up as many as we can along the way while we journey home together.
Dear Lord, give us the strength, the excitement and the energy to do what must be done so we are heading your way once again. It is in the name of Jesus Christ that we pray.
And all the people said, “Amen.”
The Holston Chapter of the Wesleyan Covenant Association met Saturday, March 19, for a time of worship and to conduct annual business.
During the day, those in attendance heard the basic goals of the Holston WCA:
First, to encourage and support a vote during a meeting of the Holston Annual Conference regarding whether the conference as a group should move to the Global Methodist Church; and if that proves to not be possible,
Second, to advocate for the development of a transfer process for churches that is simple, allows property to transfer cleanly, accounts fairly for any pension liabilities that may exist, and has nothing in it looking like an exit fee.
The Holston WCA also is seeking to organize groups of traditional Methodists in churches unlikely to move to the GMC so they can plan for their futures as Methodists, too.
During the business meeting, the WCA also distributed a “Statement of Intent” for churches and other groups of Methodists to use once they have determined they want to join the Global Methodist Church. That statement is part of a document titled “Looking Ahead.”
During the Question and Answer session, some in the gathering asked for a comparison between the UMC Discipline and what is currently the Transitional Book of Doctrines and Discipline of the GMC. That comparison can be viewed here.
During the business session, individual WCA members and representatives of WCA member churches elected the following to the WCA Board, effective Saturday, March 19:
Chair: Rowland Buck (clergy)
Vice-Chair: Charles McEntyre (laity)
Treasurer: Gregg Benefiel (laity)
Secretary: Todd Chancey (clergy)*
David Bowden (laity)
Ronnie Collins (clergy)
David Duggan (laity)
Maria Grimm (clergy)
Jake Herron (clergy)
Doug Jennings (clergy)
Fielden Sanders (laity)
Becky Wilder (laity)
Russ Young (clergy)
Serving at the Discretion of the Board:
President: Chuck Griffin (clergy)
General Counsel: Joe Manuel (laity)
The body also elected delegates to the Wesleyan Covenant Association’s Global Legislative Assembly, set for Friday, May 6, in Indianapolis, Ind. This is the day before the WCA’s More Than Conquerors event, a time of worship and learning.
Lay Delegates are: Gregg Benefiel, David Bowden and Charles McEntyre.
Clergy Delegates are: Rowland Buck and Chuck Griffin, with Todd Chancey serving as first alternate.
*The Rev. Chancey was elected board secretary via an email vote by the board after the meeting.
By Chuck Griffin
Over the last several days, we at the Holston Wesleyan Covenant Association have highlighted two preferred paths for churches moving to the Global Methodist Church, set to launch May 1. First is the possibility we could move as an annual conference. Absent that, there is a clear way for traditional churches to transfer in a relatively simple and inexpensive manner, assuming all involved have their hearts in the right place.
For one group of traditional Methodists, however, the situation is more complicated, and we have to do all we can to help them. These are committed traditional Methodists who are members of churches less likely to move to the GMC.
Having heard from some of you in this situation, we know just how concerned you are. Here are some early steps to consider.
First, identify who else in your church is aligned with your theological views. If your church leaders are not explaining these recent developments and the options on the horizon, you may need to form a small group of traditionalists to explore on your own what is happening. As you organize, remember that some of the church members who will stand with you may out of frustration not be attending on Sundays, but would welcome your outreach.
Be sure to let us know about such groups as they form, and we will maintain a private list so we can help you communicate with other nearby groups or traditional churches.
Second, be sure you are assessing your situation correctly, particularly if you are in a large church. It has been our experience that liberal Methodists in some locations are more loud than numerous.
When churches decide which denomination to head toward, their members ultimately will make that decision—not the pastors, not the staff, and not a select group sitting in an isolated room. If anyone tries to tell you otherwise, know there are steps church members can take on their own to seek a church conference, a gathering where every member has a vote. It takes just 10 percent of a church’s professing membership to launch such an effort.
Third, if you’re adventurous, you may be positioned to move into the Global Methodist Church faster than many of your fellow traditional Methodists. The GMC will be looking to start new churches, and traditionalists feeling there is no future with their current churches could join together to help with these efforts. I personally think this may be one of the most exciting opportunities for people who have the necessary commitment and energy.
Know this, too. You are not alone, and you are very much on our minds and in our prayers at the Holston WCA as we try to better understand how all of these transitions will come about. Stay in touch with us, and if you can make it, join us for our annual meeting this Saturday.