Bishops adopt mandatory pension plan for lay workers

July 10, 2009

The House of Bishops at General Convention adopted July 11 the idea of establishing a mandatory pension system for lay employees of the Episcopal Church, with supporters calling the move not just a financial decision but a "matter of justice."

"It's time that we as a church understand that, unless we are treating our lay employees fairly and are providing for their pensions, then we are not being honest about the cost of our doing business as congregations," said Bishop Gene Robinson of New Hampshire. "As a Christian, I would say this is really a matter of justice. I want to be a part of a church where we value the pastoral care of our employees."

Resolution A138 must be adopted also by the House of Deputies before it formally amends parts of Canon 1.8 to provide pension benefits to lay employees who work a minimum of 1,000 hours a year.

Though the resolution passed overwhelmingly, two bishops said the change would cause problems because lay employees would have no choice but participate.

"My problem with the resolution is the word, ‘mandatory,'" said Bishop Peter Beckwith of the Diocese of Springfield. "…There are a number of people who, by their determination, do not need or want a pension program. It may be because of age – they're already retired and receiving pensions, working over 20 hours a week in a congregation – or their spouse has an adequate pension program.

"If this is enacted it's going to cause a lot of heartburn and difficulties in ministry in the Diocese of Springfield."

The requirement would apply to lay employees who work for any domestic ecclesiastical organization or body subject to the authority of the church. The system would be provided by the Church Pension Group (CPG) and begin not later than January 1, 2012.

Bishop William Love of Albany agreed with Beckwith, saying making participation mandatory will result in "short-changing those who might faithfully serve a parish for maybe two or three or four years and then move on to another position. They're going to work all that time, have money put aside, and the only one that's going to benefit is the pension fund. The individuals that it was intended for won't get anything out of it."

Supporters, however, said the change fits with the mission of the church toward fairness for all people, particularly the many who have dedicated their lives to careers within the church.

"There is still even with this plan a huge gap between the pension advantages we have as clergy and what pension advantages lay folk would enjoy under this plan," said Chilton Knudsen, retired bishop of Maine. "This is a matter of justice which is a matter of the health of the soul of our church."