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An Equitable Future

A Conversation with the Board of Benefits Services of the Reformed Church in America


On May 3-4, 2022, six people gathered at the Board of Benefits Services (BOBS) office in New York City to have a conversation about compensation and benefits for non-white clergy in the Reformed Church in America (RCA). The group was composed of RCA Ministers, a seminary student, and BOBS staff members. Present were Daniel Davila, Bizzy Feekes, Kelly Oliveira, Billy Norden, Mornier Rich, and Imos Wu. Sharon Atkins was invited but was not able to attend because of employer restrictions due to a spike in COVID-19. In this report we’ll detail the grant that allowed for this conversation to occur, how the need for this conversation emerged, the structure of the two-day dialogue, and some of the barriers that were identified to financial well-being. The report will conclude with some possibilities and hoped-for outcomes as a result of this conversation. 

Funding Source

In September 2020, Billy Norden was invited by the Leadership Education School of Duke Divinity to participate in a cohort called “Seek the Welfare: Faith, Community, Sustainability and New Vision.” Over a 12-month period, the cohort was to travel to four different sites across the country to learn how different Christian leaders are implementing sustainable Christian communities that seek welfare and equity for diverse groups of people. The cohort members were challenged to think about how their own work could be inspired by what they learned. The first event was virtual because of the pandemic, but there was hope that other events could happen in-person. As the pandemic continued to unfold, the entire experience became online-only. As a result, the Leadership Education School had excess funds that they wanted the cohort to have access to. Each member of the cohort was invited to apply for a $5,000 grant that fit within the focus of the program, while specifically enhancing the ongoing personal work of the participants. Billy wrote a proposal to use the funds to have this conversation in New York City.

A Problem Identified

When a minister becomes ordained in the RCA, they receive an initial email from the Board of Benefits Services, giving them a brief overview of the benefits that their churches are responsible for providing them according to the Book of Church Order (BCO), the services and ministries administered by BOBS, and an invitation to a follow-up conversation to walk through the information and address any questions the minister may have.  

In 2021, the Classis de las Naciones submitted a number of forms to inform the General Synod Council (GSC) staff of new ordinations and newly organized churches. As Billy Norden met with the newly ordained ministers, it became clear that many of these ministers were not aware of the requirements for RCA Ministers of Word and Sacrament and RCA churches to participate in the RCA 403(b) Retirement Program, life insurance, and long-term disability insurance, and for churches to provide health insurance that meets or exceeds the minimum requirement as required in the Book of Church Order. The pastors Billy spoke to articulated that they would love to receive these benefits, but that there was no way their congregations could afford them. Generally speaking, for a full-time minister and his or her family, a benefits package is usually greater than $25,000, and health insurance is usually the largest portion of that cost.  

Two realities were held in tension in those conversations. For many congregations with few financial resources, coming up with this amount in addition to current expenses is unrealistic. But the other reality is that RCA churches cannot opt out of these benefits for full-time ministers. These benefits are required by the Book of Church Order and are a critical resource for the long-term well-being of clergy.  

After this discovery, helpful conversations were held between BOBS staff members, the classis executive, the classis clerk, ministers from Classis de las Naciones, and then–director of Church Multiplication, Randy Weener. Those conversations resulted in increased communication and education about the required benefits, but the barrier to funding benefits still existed. One question from a pastor during those conversations was important: “What should we do in the meantime while General Synod works on this?”  

The unfortunate reality at that time was that no one was working on it.  

Many church members and ministers in the Classis de las Naciones are Hispanic, hailing from many countries spanning Mexico, Central America, the Caribbean, and South America. We at BOBS know that if a stated goal of the RCA is “Living into a multicultural, multiracial future freed from racism, sexism, and ableism” (as stated by the RCA’s Office of Diversity and Belonging) then it is highly problematic if our Hispanic ministers are not getting benefits, while a vast majority of our white ministers are. 

Close to this time, a representative contacted us on behalf of some of our Korean churches, asking if BOBS could present some information about benefits to a gathering of churches in New York. We were excited to connect with our Korean churches in this way because past experience had indicated that there is a barrier to Korean RCA churches participating in RCA benefits programs. 

All of this caused us to wonder, “What else should we be aware of? What other barriers or considerations might exist in other non-white RCA communities?” Considering these two questions, we wanted to get a broader perspective from the experience of people in our African American and Black communities, Asian American and Pacific Islander communities, Hispanic and Latino communities, and Native American, Indigenous, and First Nations communities.  

From these questions, and with grant funds available to us, a conversation with the aspiration of “An Equitable Future” was born.

Participants and Structure of the Conversation

As we entered into this conversation we were well aware that six people couldn’t possibly represent the diversity of every community within the RCA. However, we did believe that beginning the conversation, even if it couldn’t possibly reflect every aspect of our diversity, was better than no conversation at all. Around the table, six voices were able to represent some aspects of our diverse racial and ethnic communities, and our voices included those of men, women, ministers, seminary students, and the Board of Benefits Services. 

After allowing ample time for introductions and getting to know one another, the heart of our time together was painting a picture of reality within the contexts we were connected to. This was an opportunity for deep listening as we began to understand the realities, challenges, and differences within the RCA. The second day began with an overview of the services BOBS offers and the values and theology behind these services. Believing that positive change occurs when we discover shared values, we began to identify the values regarding financial well-being that might be embraced across diverse communities. Finally, we began to dream and discern what action steps might lead to a more equitable future in the RCA. 

Barriers and Problems Identified

As we expected, the more we spoke with each other, the more layers and challenges were unveiled. 

Complexities Multiply

The first and most obvious issue is that it is insufficient to categorize groups into the categories of the three RCA racial and ethnic councils (African American Black Council, Council for Pacific and Asian American Ministries, and Hispanic Ministries Council) and Native American Indigenous Ministries. There are significant variations among Taiwanese, Chinese, and Korean churches just as there are among Puerto Rican, Mexican, and Venezuelan churches, just to name a few examples. Just as there is no one cultural description that fits all Asian people and churches, the same is true for every grouping in the RCA. There is wide variation from church to church.  This makes identifying strategies for change and impact much more difficult.

As if this didn’t make things complex enough, within each specific cultural context, there are generational variations that add to differences within each community. For example younger members of Korean churches may be more open to talking about finances than older generations. Likewise, in our Hispanic churches, second generation children of immigrants might have significantly more financial resources than first generation immigrants do. Churches composed of primarily second- or third-generation congregants have very different needs and financial strategies than churches that are composed of primarily first-generation immigrants. 

We also learned together that there is not a shared vocabulary across cultural lines, and in some cases, helpful vocabulary for one group could be harmful vocabulary for another. For example we discovered that for many Hispanic churches, having a missionary ideology and mentality was motivating and helpful; however, for our Native American communities, the missionary terminology brings with it centuries of harm and damage, and that language is unacceptable in that context. As we will discuss more in depth, language—like full time or part time, vocation and call, health and well-being—is vastly different depending on the context in which one ministers. The more we spoke, the more complex our dream about an equitable future became.

Vocation and Call

One vocabulary word that became a focus was the term “covocational.” Covocational replaces the previous term bivocational to describe someone who has two or more careers at the same time. The underlying reality is that many pastors of all races and ethnicities view having an additional funding source outside of congregational ministry a necessity. Especially in communities of color, funding sources outside of congregational ministry is a very common practice. For our African American and Black churches, renting building space to other churches is a common practice to bring in extra revenue. For our Hispanic churches, it is common for ministers to have their primary income come from other work, while more moderate income comes from the church budget.  

The adoption of the term “covocational” and the discarding of the term “bivocational” has to do with the concept of call. In most communities, regardless of race or ethnicity, call to ministry is viewed as a whole-life commitment. And so it follows that for a person to consider oneself a part-time minister is a rejection of God’s whole-life call to ministry. The term covocational is a way to embrace the fullness and wholeness of ministry, while also acknowledging another aspect of life that involves work and compensation.  

While this makes sense from a theological perspective, it becomes problematic from a BOBS perspective. In the RCA, if one is a full-time minister, one must participate in the benefits required of a full-time minister. Benefits are also required for part-time ministers. A benefits waiver can be filed for part-time ministers; the waiver must be approved by classis.  This is of course discouraged, but it is an option. Based on requirements from our vendors, BOBS must have a clear reporting of how many hours per week a minister is employed, and BOBS must make sure that the benefits given and received are appropriate according to that reporting.  

We also heard in our conversation that many pastors in our Hispanic communities report having full-time non-church jobs, while also working full time for the church. It caused us to wonder, specifically when it comes to administering benefits, how the ministry hours are being counted and calculated in these circumstances. While it might be possible for someone to work 80+ hours a week, it seems to us that those situations would be rare and would be unsustainable in the long term.  

Finally, in regard to covocation, we learned that while many Asian churches can only afford to pay for part-time work, the minister is strongly discouraged from finding work with additional income outside of that specific ministry. In this case, there is an embrace of a whole-life call to ministry but an inability to compensate a minister for that level of service. 

Relationship Between Congregation and Pastor

The relationship between the congregation and the pastor makes a significant difference when it comes to giving benefits. This is true no matter what racial or ethnic context we examine, but the following are some specific revelations we heard. 

  • In some Asian churches, ministers’ salaries are intentionally kept low to qualify them for government or local aid programs. Part of the salary is provided in the form of rent or a leased car. Other times the pastor will receive cash as payment. This can create an unhealthy dependency of the minister on the church and does not provide any financial stability for the minister’s future.
  • In some Asian cultural contexts, there is the overt belief that a pastor should suffer. This belief can be held by the minister, the congregation, or both. There can be an outspoken aversion to a minister living comfortably or being able to afford nice or new things. 
  • In some Asian churches, ministers who are first generation immigrants are not comfortable receiving benefits because many of their members don’t have benefits due to the type of work they can find. For this same reason, many ministers who are second-generation Asian Americans leave those types of churches. 
  • In some Hispanic cultural contexts, there is hesitancy to apply for healthcare through the Affordable Care Act, based on one’s citizenship status. While healthcare is available for undocumented residents, many are suspicious of the U.S. government and refuse to enroll. It can create a challenge for clergy to receive healthcare benefits if many in the congregation aren’t receiving similar benefits. 
  • Likewise, in Native American contexts, there is a strong distrust of U.S. government programs. Additionally, many Native American communities find themselves in financial hardship, so organizing a church and funding a salary package for a minister is far outside of current reality. Finally, we heard that there is an expectation of helping others in need, even if you have very little to give. 
  • In some African American Black churches, there is likely to be more of an openness to a covocational minister, but the expectations for the time and presence of that minister remains very high. Ministers are expected to be at most events, exhibit a high level of member care, and care for the many programmatic, facility, and administrative needs of the congregation. 

Financial Literacy

Mornier Rich highlighted the reality that financial literacy and financial education is lacking in some of the African American Black churches that she is connected to. She shared that a debt reduction and financial literacy class offered by New Brunswick Theological Seminary was a significant catalyst for positive change in her life, as well as the lives of her children. She perceives that there is a significant need for resources like that.  

Similarly, Daniel Davila Sr. noted that many who immigrate to the United States, in his context, quickly (and surprisingly) adopt the consumerist mindset that is the norm in the U.S. 

In various communities, financial programs are available but not utilized. One of the causes is skepticism of government resources, as noted above. Other reasons are inaccessibility and language barriers.  

Underfunctioning of Classes

When examining the structure and polity of the RCA, it is clear that while BOBS exists to provide and administer the benefits program, it is the responsibility of the classis to educate its members about benefits, oversee the proper participation in benefits, and hold churches accountable should they fall out of compliance with BCO requirements.  

While some classes are carrying out those duties accordingly, BOBS staff reported that there are a significant number of classes thatare not. Examples include:

  • In some classes with a significant number of Hispanic churches, churches have been organized that aren’t financially sustainable enough to pay both denominational assessments and clergy salary with benefits. 
  • In some classes with a significant number of African American Black churches, new ministers from other denominations aren’t properly vetted, causing a break between RCA order and the practices of the congregations. 
  • In some classes with a significant number of Asian and Asian American churches, congregations have been brought in from other denominations without proper onboarding and orientation, creating a disconnect between RCA standards and the practices of the congregations. 
  • The feedback we heard about our Native American communities is that there is a lack of unified leadership and connectedness. We can’t say conclusively whether this is an issue at the classis level, or if this is more of a concern and responsibility for the General Synod. 

We find that some classis clerks are not appropriately knowledgeable about benefits requirements, some classis committees do not have practices in place to oversee church compliance to benefit requirements, some churches do not administer benefits correctly, and there is not a consistent system for catching these mistakes in a timely manner. This observation is not limited to classes with higher racial or ethnic populations, but the concern is prevalent throughout the RCA.  

The Wrong Leverage Point

BOBS has two main touch points: ministers and classes.  

Put yourself into the shoes of this minister. You pastor a small congregation. Many of your members work in the service industry and are struggling to make ends meet. You are aware that expenses for the congregation are a point of high anxiety, and your compensation is by far the biggest item in the budget. Even if you knew that you needed appropriate benefits for the well-being of yourself and your family, would you advocate for yourself and push the congregation to increase giving and budgeted expenses to meet your needs? Many feel like they cannot, and that there is no one to advocate on their behalf. 

A reality that emerged in this discussion is that any real change will need to happen at the level of local church leadership. This is where education, good communication, and accessible resources might be most impactful. Ironically, it is also the area of the RCA structure where BOBS has the least access, influence, and connection.  

Imbalanced Resources

An older model of ministry expansion had white ministers with Dutch heritage going to minister to people with non-white racial and ethnic backgrounds. That model has shifted (and we would argue that the shift was much needed) to a model where leaders indigenous to a certain community are empowered, equipped, and sent to do ministry in their local communities.  

Consider this situation: A young Native American person feels a call to ministry in her local community. She doesn’t come from wealth, just as many in her community don’t come from wealth. She goes through an undergraduate program and then through seminary, accumulating student debt along the way. She then returns to her community, to which she feels called to bring God’s love and care. She is well educated by credible institutions and equipped to serve. However, she now has a significant amount of debt and will be serving a community that has no means to pay her at a level that will cover her most basic living expenses, let alone her benefits needs. This is a cycle that will continue to repeat itself.  

In many of our racial and ethnic communities, there is an appropriate hope that over time, with the right resources and care, they can become financially sustainable and even financially vibrant.   If we hope to see these communities thrive, they will, for the time being, need financial support that comes from an outside source with a clear plan of shifting that responsibility over time to the local community. 

Possibility and Hope

Going into this conversation we knew that we would likely uncover more challenges than solutions. However, there were a number of insights from this conversation that are cause for hope and new possibilities. 

Relationships as Key to Positive Change

Face-to-face conversations, where all people present commit to deep listening, are key to transformative change. Through conversations like these, the subject of finances and benefits guidelines can move from an adversarial experience to a collaborative experience. Relationship building results in identifying shared values and a desire for the well-being of the other. For positive change to take place in the RCA, in-person conversations will be a key in moving toward shared values and outcomes.

Creative Contribution Systems

An emerging reality may be that ministers receive their primary compensation from an employer outside of the church. If that employer doesn’t offer a tax sheltered retirement plan, we wondered if there are ways a minister could contribute to the RCA 403(b) Retirement Program. One suggestion was that a minister could give money to the church, with the understanding that the church would then contribute those funds into the 403(b) account as an employer or employee contribution. This idea was suggested because individuals can only contribute to the 403(b) program through payroll deduction. This idea raises a number of questions, though: Is this legal? Would there still be a tax benefit to saving in this manner? Would this honor the laws surrounding the clergy housing allowance benefit in retirement? How would the church record the donation from the minister?

Based on information from our legal counsel at Conner & Winters, there is a provision in Internal Revenue Code for self-employed ministers to contribute directly to 403(b) plans, but all money contributed must be earned doing work that the IRS considers ministry work.  

While this concept leaves much to be answered, the question is important. Is there a mechanism to allow ministers to save for retirement in the RCA 403(b) Retirement Program if most of their income is from another source?

Contextual Financial Literacy Resources and Tools

Dave Ramsey’s “Financial Peace University” is likely the most popular and readily available Christian personal finance resource in the United States. While the foundational principles in these resources are widely applicable, we have found that this resource is geared toward a white, evangelical, middle-class audience.  

How much more impactful could it be if each of the communities represented in this conversation had financial literacy resources that were written in the language of the people, were contextually sensitive and familiar, were free from assumptions, and were written by someone who understands the particular gifts and challenges of that community? We wondered if it might be worth an investment from the General Synod to commission and produce some of these resources. Could it be worth it to create resources about personal finance, stewardship, and generosity that were contextually relevant? Additionally, there is a need to train and equip leaders from each community to teach this material. This idea hangs on the belief that personal financial health precedes the financial health of the religious institution. 

Shifting from a One-Size-Fits-All Approach

Going into this conversation, we had a main focus of “how do we get all of our churches and ministers in compliance with our retirement guidelines?” so that our non-white ministers could have enough to retire in dignity, without experiencing poverty in their later years.  

We sensed a shift in thinking as the conversation progressed. As we uncover the multiple contextual differences and challenges, it becomes clear that a one-size-fits-all approach won’t work in the future church. Especially as we identified that a congregation’s funding might shift outside of member donations, and as ministers enter a covocational reality, it will become less realistic for a traditional retirement plan from one employer.  

A new question began to emerge: How do we provide a structure and accessible resources so that clergy have the option to save for retirement and receive other critical benefits, but in a way that fits their context and needs? Perhaps equity won’t look like the same dollar amount or savings account for every person but will look more like a structure with equal access for all.  

An unsettling question emerges from this reality: Will a multi-employer plan like the RCA 403(b) Retirement Program be sustainable in a future that looks like this? The strength of the RCA 403(b) Retirement Plan works when all of our churches participate at the required level. If this is not the primary requirement going forward, how would BOBS function, be funded, and execute its responsibilities? 

There are two other significant things to note. First, we’ve recently received feedback from Everence financial planners who have worked with RCA clergy. They reported: “Prior to working with RCA ministers, as we designed financial plans for clergy in other traditions, it was rare that they would be ‘okay’ as we forecasted expenses versus income in retirement. With RCA clergy, it is rare for any of them that they won’t be ‘okay’.” Other denominations have given similar feedback—that they wish they had the retirement account requirements that the RCA does. 

Second, the “suffering servant” mentality might sabotage a minister if retirement savings requirements become decentralized and contextual. As noted previously, many ministers have a belief that they should suffer, so they may not take appropriate measures to save for retirement. Will this be permissible? How might this impact the BOBS Assistance Fund? The reason many RCA clergy don’t suffer in retirement is in large part due to the requirements and administration of the RCA Retirement Plans as mandated by the BCO

Significant Point of Leverage: Young People

A theme that emerged across cultures in the conversation was that change might be most possible with young people, regardless of racial or cultural identity. Two main reasons emerged for this possibility. Conversation participants reported that many young people are more open to conversations about money than members of older generations. It might be easier to form relationships, talk openly about money, and discover workable solutions together. Second, when it comes to retirement, time is the greatest asset when it comes to building wealth. Financial advisor Shawn Persing recently likened saving for retirement in your 20s as “having a cheat code for a video game.” By targeting young clergy or church members with good resources and benefits structures, we might be able to have the greatest impact in the long term.

The significant downside of this is that for many young people, retirement can seem so far off that it does not get priority in their life and finances and can be put off for too long. Young clergy who are motivated and passionate about the church might be willing to sacrifice retirement savings because it doesn’t feel relevant to them yet.  

Classis Engagement

As mentioned above, the classis is the assembly in RCA polity that has the most influence in this discussion. It is at the classis level that education, oversight, and accountability are most likely to occur. It is worth considering what incentives or penalties for classes might be established so that benefits standards are properly administered by each church. Are there resources from the General Synod or BOBS that might incentivize greater attention to this? Are there penalties, such as not seating a classical delegation to General Synod, that might hold classes to greater accountability?  

Where We Go From Here

Earlier, this paper mentioned an important question that came up during the events that led up to this conversation, and we’ll write it again here: “What should we do in the meantime while General Synod is working on this?” The reality, of course, is that beyond this conversation, there is no active work being done. It is the sincere hope of the participants in this conversation that the work will continue on in RCA classes and the GSC’s racial and ethnic councils. 

The Board of Benefits Services is bound to the plan documents, the Book of Church Order, and the Internal Revenue Service. BOBS will continue to honor these commitments by administering the benefits programs with excellence, guided by the Covenant of Care.  

Wherever the work continues, if change is to occur, it must eventually be initiated at the General Synod level. Without action from the General Synod to amend the provisions related to benefits in the Book of Church Order, BOBS must continue to administer benefits in a manner consistent with current BCO provisions, even if that manner doesn’t fit the different contextual realities within the RCA. 

While we’ve identified that a one-size-fits-all solution is likely not what is needed in the future, that challenging reality also comes with a great deal of promise. There are so many possibilities before us, including available resources, savings tools, the Affordable Care Act, and thoughtful institutional partners like Fidelity, Everence, LSS Financial, and the Lilly Endowment. There is a wealth of resources around us, should we choose to collectively and creatively work on this.  

The Board of Benefits Services maintains a commitment to keeping this conversation alive and to working with willing partners to create a more equitable future for all of the RCA’s pastors. BOBS will make this document available to leadership throughout the RCA. Representatives from BOBS will present these findings to the Joint Racial and Ethnic Councils meeting in August 2022.  Likewise, BOBS will connect with the president, chairperson, or other designated representative of each racial and ethnic council to learn how we might work together for positive change in the RCA.  

Lastly, there is something important to name before introducing a few final questions. As  Mornier Rich articulated, there is a historical pattern in the U.S. and the RCA of white communities pointing out problems like this, and then handing it off to communities of color and saying, “the ball is in your court.” This practice is damaging and contributes to systemic racism.  Any solutions that lead to an equitable future for everyone in the RCA will take a commitment and partnership between white communities and communities of color together. 

We’ll end with these questions: Which councils, agencies, commissions, staff members, and classes should partner together for an equitable future? Where and who in the polity and structure of the RCA has the most leverage for change? How might the continuation of this discussion unbind systemic racism, rather than contribute to it?