Pastor Blair Lundborg
Healthcare… even the mention of it raises our blood pressure. If there’s one thing upon which we can agree in the healthcare debate it is this: there are strong opinions on both sides of the issue. It’s not a new conversation. We have been kicking this subject around on the national scene for decades. Is healthcare a right? Is it a privilege? Is it the responsibility of our employer? The government? The individual?
There are no easy answers to these challenging questions. Like you, I have opinions, some stronger than others. Rather than use this one-way communication to give you my opinion, I would rather invite you into a conversation. It’s a conversation happening in our congregations and around church council tables. Councils wrestle with these questions as they prepare compensation packages for their pastors and deacons. Pastors and deacons struggle with the discussion as they negotiate a compensation package that includes health benefits. Sometimes it gets uncomfortable; other times it gets personal.
Let’s begin by laying out some of the starting points for the conversation – synod’s compensation guidelines. In the Gulf Coast Synod, we have attempted to contextualize base pay scales by using the local school district as a benchmark, with adjustments for a graduate degree and an annualized work year. In addition, we recommend that congregations cover the healthcare costs of the rostered minister under the Gold+ Portico plan. If the pastor or deacon is married or has children, we recommend that the congregation also cover the healthcare coverage for the spouse and dependent children. This is the consistent practice in synods across the ELCA. We believe healthy leaders are more effective leaders. We are also committed to taking care of our leaders’ families.
Here’s where the conversation gets uncomfortable. We hear from pastors and deacons that they cannot afford to cover the dependent healthcare coverage. From church councils, we are hearing that the congregation cannot afford to cover the costs of healthcare coverage for the entire family.
Then it gets personal. Members of the church council point out that their employer doesn’t pay for their spouse or dependent coverage. If they want spouse or dependent coverage, it is deducted from their paycheck. Pastors and deacons are often compensated at a lower rate than other professionals with equivalent education. On top of that, pastors and deacons are coming out of seminary with significant student debt (e.g. average academic debt for seminarians is $74,000).
These are just the facts. It gets uncomfortable and personal when we engage in this conversation in the same way it is discussed on the national stage. The tendency is to take sides and dig in. We have all seen video of angry town halls where politicians field angry questions on both sides of the debate. And we get what we get…more anger, more division, fewer solutions.
My hope is that we can do a better job of this conversation in our congregations. I think the place to begin is for all of us to recognize the validity of the arguments on both sides of the debate. What does that look like? Well, I hope that pastors and deacons will be able to acknowledge that most of the members of their congregations do not have the blessing of healthcare coverage for spouse and dependents, unless they pay for it out of pocket. I also hope that church councils can recognize that their pastors and deacons are not “in it for the money.” They are faithful servants who have made sacrifices to follow their call to ministry. They know, and have accepted, that their compensation will be lower than some of their peers.
From there the conversation can begin to look for workable solutions. It would be helpful for both councils and rostered ministers to explore the various options Portico provides. The best way to do this is to gather the facts. Portico realizes that there is no such thing as a “one size fits all” plan for all rostered ministers. You can explore the various options by using the helpful benefit cost calculators on the Portico website. Run various scenarios that make sense for the pastor/deacon and for the congregation.
The gospels are filled with examples of Jesus’ healing ministry. Jesus did not distinguish between the rich and poor, married or single, employed or jobless. Tending to the health of the sick and suffering was not a matter of accounting in Jesus’ kingdom economy. In Luke 4:40, it is reported that “…all those who had any who were sick with various kinds of diseases brought them to him; and Jesus laid his hands on each of them and cured them.” We don’t even know how many were healed that day. Nobody was counting. Jesus healed the sick. It is what he did. It was the right thing to do. It still is.
We have an opportunity and the responsibility as the church to model compassion, grace, and love. One way we do that is by taking care of the health and well-being of our pastors and deacons. That is why our synod compensation guidelines continue to recommend that congregations cover the healthcare costs of their leaders and their families. That may not be the “industry standard” but then, the church has always been a counter-cultural movement.
We all want the same thing – healthy leaders, healthy congregations, and vibrant ministries. Let’s work together toward that end.