President of the PC(USA)’s Board of Pensions talks about recent efforts to break down barriers to flourishing ministry

January 12, 2023 by Mike Ferguson

The Rev. Dr. Frank Clark Spencer

A shared ministry pilot project involving both the Board of Pensions and Pittsburgh Presbytery was among the cutting-edge items of discussion Wednesday when the Rev. Dr. Frank Clark Spencer, President of the Board of Pensions of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), spoke to the Rev. Dr. Lee Hinson-Hasty of the Presbyterian Foundation during the Leading Theologically podcast. Listen to their wide-ranging half-hour conversation here or here.

Before he shared news of pilot projects like the shared ministry partnership, Spencer offered up some alarming statistics, including this one: PC(USA) ministers who have never received benefits from the Board of Pensions are 50% more likely to leave ministry during their first 10 years.

“Think about that,” Spencer said. Someone has answered God’s call and gone to seminary, made it through the presbytery’s inquirer and candidate process, taken and passed their ordination exams, been approved for ordination by their presbytery — “and within 10 years it’s a 50% higher likelihood they hang it all up and disappear from the rolls of active ministry,” Spencer said.

That wasn’t the only disappointing statistic Spencer shared. A Board of Pensions study with the National Black Presbyterian Caucus determined that only 20% of the caucus’ member churches had installed pastoral leadership. For majority congregations, that figure is 50%. “How do we take a deep dive and deconstruct policy that may have been well-intentioned when it was formed,” Spencer wondered, “but has had different impacts by race and by gender and for those who have been excluded who are not in the majority white heterosexual male profile?”

Spencer and the Board of Directors of the Board of Pensions “are convinced” those numbers can be turned around, he told Hinson-Hasty, “and we will be working over the next two years on creating more inclusive, more flexible system of benefits.”

“Our goal unabashedly is to have every minister ordained by the Presbyterian Church have access to benefits. We as a community have not done that,” he said. “There are structural changes I believe the Board can make in the way we conceive our benefits package and in the choices we give people that will bring more and more to those ministers who have been excluded into the fold.”

The experiment in partnership with Pittsburgh Presbytery “is not the only solution, but it is a solution,” Spencer said. It relies on five tenets of flourishing ministry developed by Notre Dame scholar Dr. Matt Bloom, who says pastors who flourish:

  • Engage in fulltime ministry
  • Are sufficiently compensated
  • Are supported by their denomination
  • Have their debts eliminated
  • See their ministry affirmed, especially those who are members of groups that have been excluded in the past.

The shared ministry pilot is not yoked ministry, and it’s not two part-time jobs, Spencer said. “It’s two congregations functioning individually installing the same person as a fulltime minister. Each congregation must trust the other,” he said, “that the minister is moving between the congregations, attending to needs.”

Among other discoveries, “we’ve found that congregations are much more sympathetic knowing someone from the other congregation must be in the hospital and that’s why the pastor isn’t here,” Spencer said, rather than thinking, “Well, the pastor is at their secular job. Wonder when they get off tonight?”

The Board of Pensions provides benefits “on a highly subsidized basis to any pair of congregations [in Pittsburgh Presbytery] who will enter into this shared ministry,” Spencer said. “The ministers are loving it, and the congregations are benefitting from fulltime pastoral leadership.”

The numbers are also concerning for participation among commissioned lay pastors and commissioned ruling elders. Only about 10% are currently enrolled in Board of Pensions benefit programs. “As a church we have got to do better,” Spencer said. “The Board is looking at this: Have we put up barriers that are excluding people? We are in the barrier-destroying business right now.”

“One of the things we say here at the Board is we believe in theology and we believe in economics, because both influence behavior,” Spencer said. “When we talk about that, we say the economics can never define our values. However, the economics must always inform our stewardship.”

“We know congregations are having dwindling pastoral leadership,” Spencer said of the Board of Pensions’ recent findings. “We know communities of color often suffer more than majority congregations for all sorts of reasons.”

Since 2007, presbyteries have ordained just over 4,000 people. About 1,170 of them — almost 30% — “have never gotten any benefits whatsoever from the Board of Pensions. I think that’s a failure on the part of the church,” Spencer said, adding that more than 60% of those 1,170 clergy are women. Male clergy not only make more money than their female counterparts, but they’re more likely to receive benefits from the Board of Pensions, Spencer noted.

The Rev. Dr. Lee Hinson-Hasty

Still, he told Hinson-Hasty, “This role has been so fulfilling being able to serve those who have answered God’s call. That’s why we get up every morning here at the Board thinking about that.”

Spencer prayed to bring the podcast to a close: “Holy One, we thank you for this time together. You hallow all time, you make the sun rise, the sun set, the moon and the stars. You create the time in which we labor. We labor to serve you. We labor to serve our siblings, and we labor to serve Christ’s church. We thank you for those opportunities and would ask that you bless our work so that our work may be a blessing to others.”

The guest for the next edition of Leading Theologically will be Dr. Asa J. Lee, President of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. The broadcast will be available here beginning at 1 p.m. Eastern Time on Jan. 25.