Lurking on a couple of listservs, I've learned a couple of things about pastors and pastors-to-be in the ELCA (my hometown denomination). It seems that of the youngish people going into parish ministry, only about 5% will retire from that vocation. It seems, too, that increasing numbers of seminarians are unwilling to be assigned to small-town and small-state parishes. They prefer to be assigned to the Coasts, where salaries and property values are higher. They, according to commentators, are looking forward to their retirement, which depends on the salaries and investments they are able to pull down during their years of ministry. In what I say that follows, I think that I have the facts straight, but I would welcome correction -- along with citations to where to confirm the facts.
None of this surprises me, understand, but it provokes me to anger and frustration. And there's one issue that, as a born-and-bred small-town North Dakotan, I take special interest in. That is the issue of retirement benefits paid to pastors after their terms of faithful service. (I'm going to leave for now the issue of housing benefits -- tax-free housing benefits, something no other profession or career can allow. That's a thorny one for me, too. So, too, is disparity in salaries paid to pastors: I don't know the range now, but I remember that about 20 years ago, the salary range for pastors ran from about $10,000 a year to $125,000 -- exclusive of benefits. I haven't dared look since then.)
Under the defined contribution plan that the ELCA in its corporation-model-mentality has seen fit to develop, what one earns at retirement from one's "pension plan" (I think that's a misnomer, but I'll use it anyway) depends on what one has contributed during his employment period. (It's somewhat akin to Social Security, but that's another issue, too.) Thus, if one is paid a relatively small salary during one's ministry, one's pension income is relatively small. If one was lucky to pull down $100,000+ a year at some point, retirement income will be better.
It is, I think, simply a fact that salaries and benefits paid to pastors in small one-, two-, and three-point rural parishes are substantially lower than the same paid to pastors of large (usually urban) congregations (which are usually single-point charges). Some of that reflects local economy (as a rule, all salaries and wages are higher in cities than in small towns); some of it reflects differences in memberships in the congregations (more members in a congregation can -- but needn't -- translate into more giving units and more income from which to pay salaries and benefits). But the bottom line for older pastors and their spouses is that their incomes in retirement will be smaller than their peers who served larger parishes.
This is a gross injustice. And it's one I can't fathom the Church can't fix. I do not think that faithful servants should be punished for their willingness to forgo fancier settings, staff relationships, easier healthcare availability, less traveling around, more life amenities (of certain kinds, anyway). And the difficulty is compounded if the pastors who serve in small town ministries live all or most of their careers in parsonages: They reach retirement with no real estate within which to live in their so-called golden years.
Certainly, the current arrangement cannot be justified by a line of argument that these small-town pastors work less hard than their urban and large-congregation brethren and sisters. (It is often the opposite: I know of urban parishes were staff pastors alternate "night duty" by carrying a pager; their residential telephone numbers are unlisted to preserve their privacy and time off. I do not know of any small town pastors in multi-point parishes who have that luxury; all calls come to the parsonage.) Neither can it be argued that their needs in retirement are less than their peers: Indeed, I rather expect that, for example, their healthcare needs could be greater than their peers, given the likelihood that their preventive care was not as good in the "netherlands." And since many of them did actually always live in parsonages, their requirements for housing will be greater.
My question is a simple one: Why cannot the ELCA dedicate itself to care for its pastors? Cannot the retirement pay scale be adjusted to compensate faithful workers for their less-than-adequately compensated work? And if, as I doubt is the case, a retirement plan can't be developed to address the inequities, then why cannot the ELCA supplement contributions to the retirement plans of the lower-compensated clergy to ensure that there is more equity in the situations of pastors who retire? (NOTE: I am concerned here only for pastors who serve parishes. All the non-pastor clergy who work at secular while maintaining some legal fiction of being pastors win no sympathy from me.)
We learn in the Book of Acts that the earliest Christians "held all things in common." I think the reference is to more than the "things of faith." They looked out for one another -- the way our Lord commanded and demonstrated. Aside from the socialist implications that will drive capitalists crazy on merely ideological grounds (but with which I think no Christian should have a problem), there is no valid reason for treating people who have served the Church in this way.
Such a reformation in the structure for supporting pastors won't solve the serious problems I identified at the beginning of this post. If money is the issue determining for pastors where they are willing to serve, then they simply ought not to be pastors. Ministry is service -- and assignment and openness to going where one is sent is part of the game; getting paid properly ought not to be a part of the calculation. (Still, those who submit to the needs and wishes of the Church ought not to be penalized for the submission we expect of them out of misuse or misinterpretation of my thesis. As it is, however, we reward the gluttons and take for granted the sacrifices of the genuine servants.) On the other hand, I doubt that compensation is the major reason that pastors leave pastoral ministry. (The stories I could tell.) I think very few of those who are ordained have a reasonable and confessionally supportable view of what the "role" of ministry is in the world; thus, leaving out of a sense of dissatisfaction or of being unappreciated is not surprising.
And finally, I don't know what to do about the fates of small congregations within the ELCA. I was baptized into a small, rural congregation of the Icelandic Lutheran Synod, in northeastern North Dakota. It was a part of a three-, and eventually five-, point parish. The congregation eventually voted to close and merge into another of the congregations -- facing reality that all the congregations couldn't continue to exist, and being flexible enough not to model the resistance to consolidation that other congregations in the charge displayed. But that area of North Dakota is losing population all the time. Farms are growing because people are aging out of farming and leaving the area. A few congregations are absorbing many of the retirees. But many stubborn congregations insist on remaining open: You've seen the films of congregations with 10 people showing up on Sunday. All of this calls for some sort of conversation about how to deal with church structure and a host of other issues. If nothing else, the ecumenical movement may help us face a dire sociological reality. (Unfortunately, the ELCA seems to be dealing with the sociology without a serious theology of ordained ministry, and that's not going to help with the problem.)
As long as their are congregations that are allowed to remain open and to call pastors, the ELCA has a responsibility to require that the pastors who serve those congregations be treated fairly. It is not doing so currently. How can this change?