2021 began with the announcement of the death of the Reverend Henry Lewis Smith, my friend since 1970.
In the summer of 1972, my wife and I became Associate Reformed Presbyterians when we united with the Covenant Presbyterian Church in Winter Haven, Florida. Henry was the founding pastor of the congregation. More than a pastor, Henry was my friend and mentor. What little I know about the political nature of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, I learned from him.
The Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church owes a theological debt of gratitude to Henry Lewis Smith. Today, of all the Presbyterian denominations in the United States, on paper, the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church is the most theologically orthodox.
In 1969, theological orthodoxy in the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church was on the verge of collapse. In those days, we lived in the menacing shadow of the old "Southern" Presbyterian Church (PCUS). Whatever they did, we thought we had to follow suit. If they chose to chase theological liberalism, Neo-orthodoxy, and novelties in ecclesiastical polity, many of us thought we were obliged to follow. Henry Smith was not of that opinion.
On the front burner at the meeting of General Synod in 1969 was the issue of the ordination of women to the office of elder. The liberal wing of General Synod was embarrassed we didn't ordain women. In the New Testament, however, eldership is always defined as male-leadership. For us the question was this: do we follow what the Bible clearly teaches or do we makeup our practice according to the ideas of the culture and follow suit with the "Southern" Presbyterians?
In 1969, a revision of the Constitution of the denomination was before General Synod for adoption. This constitution allowed for the ordination of women to the office of elder. Along with Jim Coad, Jr., Grady Oates, and others, Henry Smith led a coalition of pastors and elders who upheld our Biblical and historic position on eldership.
This debate was fierce, the vote was close, and we owe a debt of gratitude to Henry Smith. Because of his resolute faithfulness and incisive leadership (and, of course, the faithfulness of many others), the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church did not follow the "Southern" Presbyterian Church into theological heterodoxy and, ultimately, ecclesiastical absorption into the latitudinarianism of the PCUSA. The Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church remains Biblically faithful - a denomination which is historically and theologically Reformed, evangelical, and Presbyterian.
Thank you, Henry Lewis Smith. Well done good and faithful servant.
Let me tell you a story.
A man goes into a restaurant and sits down at a table. A waiter comes up and asks, "What would you like to order?"
The man replies, "I will have a cherry pastry and a cup of coffee WITHOUT cream."
A few minutes later the waiter comes back and says to the man, "Sir, we are out of cream. All we have is milk."
Obviously, the waiter is dumber than a box of spaghetti noodles. I don't know which is dumber: my joke or the fictitious waiter.
Unfortunately, what comes next is not a joking matter. Are we in the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church the waiter? How can we be so articulate theologically and then be dumber than a box of spaghetti noodles when it comes to dealing with business matters? Specifically, our ministers' Retirement Plan!
The Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church is a denomination of small congregations with modest budgets; however, we are not without resources. According to the most recent book of minutes of General Synod (October 22-23, 2020), which was distributed in March, there are 18 congregations which are able to contribute $50,000 or more (and, usually, MUCH MORE) to the "Denominational Ministry Fund" (DMF) and an equal amount to "Synod Benevolences." And the faithfulness of our smaller congregations is not to be minimized (especially with regard to Synod Benevolences). Our total denomination giving was reported at $70,884,935 (and often our giving is under-reported). Our giving to the DMF was $2,525,146, and $2,339,303 was contributed to Synod Benevolences. Total DMF and Benevolence giving was $4,864,452. That is a 6.9% level of giving by our congregations to denominational causes in just two categories. When one realizes the total level of giving by a church member in the US is just 2.5%, we see we are a generous people.
In the past, when recruiting ministers to serve in the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, our trump card was our Retirement Plan. We boasted we could compete with the PCUSA. I remember in the late 1990s when reports to Synods by the Board of Benefits touted our Retirement Plan was oversubscribed. I remember sitting beside Jim Coad, Jr. when the Board of Benefits announced a cost-of-living increase in retirement benefits. Jim said to me, "You can expect this every other year. These people know what they are doing" I retired in 2011. I have never seen a cost-of-living increase.
In the call of a minister to a congregation, we declare and covenant the following to the minister: "That you may devote yourself wholly to the Ministry of the Word, we promise and obligate ourselves to . . . [p]ay into the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Retirement Fund as prescribed by the General Synod." Presently, this is an amount equal to 12% of the minister's salary. The nasty secret is 12% isn't applied to the minister's name - only about 6%.
Something has gone wrong! How is it our Board of Benefits has failed our ministers, denominational employee, and the denomination as a whole?
First of all, we need to note the Board of Benefits is set up in a manner which does not allow for the ministers on the board to be the voting majority. Over the years, we have had a patronizing attitude toward ministers in which we have treated them as clueless regarding financial matters. An attitude which discounts the fact that ministers (and other Synod employees) are the only ones who benefit from or are harmed by the manner in which the Board of Benefits is managed. The recipients of the Retirement Plan were not and are not in charge of their financial retirements. We have trusted the experts, and they have failed us.
Second, the Board of Benefits failed our ministers and Synod employees in the financial crash in 2008/9. I don't remember an alarm bell being sounded until 2013. What were they doing for five years?
The first time I was aware of the retirement crisis was at the meeting of General Synod in 2013. I was assigned to the Moderator's committee on benefits. In a contentious meeting, we were informed of massive changes to the Retirement Plan. When asked what happened, the representatives from the Board of Benefits hemmed and hawed and were not forthcoming. They put on a show of CYA. When I asked, "How often do you check the market?" we were informed something like the following, "We are obliged to review market activity twice a year, but, since the recent crisis, we have been watching more often." The members of the Moderator's committee were horrified by both their negligence and by the condescending attitude of the representatives from the Board of Benefits. But with great certainty, they assured us, if we adopted their measures, the Retirement Plan would be stabilized for the foreseeable future. Dutifully, the Synod adopted their recommendations.
The promise of stabilization to the Retirement Plan was not long lived. Again, in 2019, at the meeting of General Synod at Geneva College, in Pennsylvania, the Board of Benefits came with another plan to stabilize the Retirement Plan. Our experts had failed, AGAIN! Their solution was such it left Synod in turmoil. At that point, a motion was made and passed for a "Blue Ribbon" Committee to be formed to prepare a plan to recapitalize the Retirement Plan.
Third, the Board of Benefits has failed us in that we have unwisely put our trust in "the experts" to watch over the retirement of our minsters and Synod employee. That was as dumb as a box of spaghetti noodles! Then, we required our ministers and Synod employees to participate in the Retirement Plan and our congregations to support the participation of their ministers in the plan, saying, "we promise and obligate ourselves."
Financial gurus earn their livings by giving financial advice. Financial gurus who serve on our Board of Benefits (and other places) are not paid for their services. Why are we surprised when we discover the welfare of our Retirement Plan is not their primary priority? Here's a question which illustrates what I mean: when was the last time the chairman of the Board of Benefits attended a meeting of General Synod?
Not surprising, the solution presented by the Board of Benefits is a business solution which does not recapitalize the Retirement Plan but dissolves the Retirement Plan. Their plan is the best of three awful plans. The plan is similar to plans used by secular corporations to get out of the retirement business. Is a secular, corporate solution the magic elixir for the church? Such was the argument used to establish our old plan. As I was informed in 1975, our plan was like the social security plan but solvent. What has happened to "solvent"?
At this point, I don't know what or who to believe. I am told we need to get out of our present Retirement Plan because it is too expense to maintain; but, being a bit of a cynic, I ask, Is this proposal to get out of the minister's retirement program driven by the weariness of the experts on the Board of Benefits who are working gratis? I can understand how they would be weary of such a tedious and time-consuming and profitless and thankless task.
I am told we need to get out of our defined benefit plan because our ministers and employees have no say in the running of their individual plans. I am told we need to go to a defined contribution plan in which the ministers and employees have control; however, the plan obliges the ministers and Synod employee to participate in a denominationally controlled plan. And, yes, this is convoluted and makes my head hurt. It says one thing and does another.
At the beginning, I was told we needed $8,000,000 and then its was $13,300,000 in order to buy out those not yet retired and to stabilize payments to those already retired. Now, after a big pow-wow of the experts, I am told we need $8,500,000. At this point, I don't know what to believe.
Well, what do I think?
One, I think we are a small denomination. However, we are not poor. As a denomination, our annual receipts are over 70 million dollars. That's a lot of money. With a giving level of 6.9% to the DMF and Denominational Benevolences, we are generous. The question is this: are we generous enough to fix a problem which negatively impacts many our ministers and Synod employees?
Two, I think if we make a promise, we are obliged to keep it. I don't know how a Psalm-singing group of people can get away from Psalm 15.4, which reads that the person of biblical faith is one "who swears to his own hurt and does not change." And in light of Psalm 15.4, I also think the weakest part of the Board of Benefit's proposal is in the section on questions and answers, question #5 which asks, "Does the Church have a responsibility to what it has promised?" The answer given is masterful obfuscation. Their answer is NO. However, the answer should be a simple Yes! The answer is we pay what we promise. If it can't be done, then we ask the one owed to forgive the debt owed. The debt stands if the one owed is not willing to forgive the debt. Is this how you read Psalm 15?
Three, I think the option we will choose is to raise the 8.5 million dollars recommended by the Board of Benefits and hope the smart people have done their ciphering correctly this time. If past experience is a measure of future results, then, in about ten years, we can expect to hear we have a five million dollar deficit which should have been addressed in 2021. You see, we are good at losing heart and doing just enough to get by. I think we may have perfected the art of kicking the can down the road. If I am still alive in ten years, we will see if I am a prophet. If I am alive, you will hear a loud I TOLD YOU SO!
Four, I think a goodly number of pastors in our smaller congregations will be hurt badly by this terrible settlement. Above, I said we are a generous people. I hope we are also a merciful people. I pray we will have the grace and forethought to set up a fund to help those who are harmed by this settlement. If we don't, we are not a good people!!!
These are my thoughts,
Charles W. Wilson