The relationship between providing RCA insurance and retirement benefits for pastors and caring for each other as members of the body of Christ is a topic every delegate to General Synod 2010 will have a chance to discuss in an all-synod advisory group. These groups make it possible for all delegates to deeply discuss significant matters before the church.
The 2009 synod tabled a recommendation mandating a special assessment on classes with consistories that are out of compliance with Book of Church Order Formulary 5. Formulary 5 is the Call to a Minister of Word and Sacrament, and it mandates that RCA insurance and retirement benefits be provided for ordained RCA ministers serving in the U.S. full-time under call or contract.
This year, after meeting in all-synod advisory groups, delegates may approve or amend the tabled 2009 recommendation or propose new recommendations that could impact the way the RCA provides insurance coverage.
For some time, insurance has been a hot topic for many RCA congregations across the U.S. (Canadian ministers are covered by a separate program.) The conversation took on new urgency in 2001 and 2002 when it became apparent to the RCA Board of Benefits Services (BOBS), which oversees the U.S. insurance and retirement programs, that because the insurance program was in effect voluntary, it was close to insolvency.
Pastors were free to get insured more cheaply by carriers outside the RCA plan when they were young and likely to file fewer claims, and then opt back into the RCA plan when they were older and more likely to have health issues. As a result, collectively the pastors enrolled in RCA insurance were disproportionately older and sicker. Insurance experts assured BOBS that with a shrinking number of aging participants, it was just a matter of time before a few large claims sent the plan into a death spiral.
Over the years the board had referred to its service as an expression of a "covenant of care" that involved the mutual obligation, as members of the body of Christ, of the denomination and those who earn their living by serving the church. The board turned to theologian James Cook to write a study paper that would clarify the covenantal nature of this relationship and ground it in Scripture.
In 2002 General Synod affirmed Cook's paper, "Covenant of Grace/Covenant of Care," as a foundational statement for the life and work of the church. Synod commended the paper as a "compelling biblical and theological rationale for a comprehensive and covenantal provision of benefits for ministers, their families, and lay employees of the church."
In 2003 synod recommended a revision of the Book of Church Order (BCO) call form for ministers to provide for full participation of RCA congregations in the RCA insurance program. In 2004 these changes were adopted by the classes and incorporated into the BCO.
In 2007 BOBS revised the definition of "full participation" and introduced a Covenant of Care policy. This was done in response to situations in which ministers were eligible for medical insurance through a spouse's employer and when they lived in regions in which the RCA plan provider was finding it difficult to negotiate satisfactory contracts with service providers. As of January 1, 2006, an RCA church with a full-time minister of Word and sacrament under call or contract can meet the full participation requirement by paying a contribution of one-half the single annual medical premium. This contribution protects the "group" nature of the plan, helps maintain the viability of the RCA medical insurance program, and allows ministers to participate in the wellness programs.
In 2009, recognizing that financial hardship has made it difficult for some congregations to comply with BCO Formulary 5, BOBS approved offering a "forgiveness policy" to consistories whose ministers are not enrolled in RCA insurance. This policy exempts non-complying churches from Covenant of Care arrears through December 31, 2009, when they submit payments for life and disability insurance benefits due since 2007 and agree to remain current with Covenant of Care payments.
As of April 1, 24 consistories had taken advantage of the forgiveness policy. Their classes will be exempt from the special assessment should this year's synod approve the 2009 tabled recommendation. Thirty-eight consistories representing 18 classes remain out of compliance. Most are located in six classes: California, Chicago, Mid-Hudson, Orange, Southwest, and Zeeland.
This spring, BOBS discussed an alternative to the 2009 tabled recommendation that would include continuing to honor requests for premium forgiveness until December 31, 2010, for churches that are current in their 2010 premium payments but continue to owe payments for the period ending December 31, 2009.
The board also is prepared to offer consistories, other RCA employers, and retired ministers in classes with 100 percent participation in RCA retirement and insurance programs a credit or "premium holiday" in 2011. The amount of the credit would be determined at the board's October meeting after it receives a report on its financial condition.