The United Methodist Church of Indiana has had a long and storied history of caring for its pastors well. That genuine and compassionate care has been a blessing to generations of clergy who have given their lives to serving the church and who have not overlooked that goodwill.

In fact, it has been an unwritten covenant over the years that we would adequately care for our pastors in their retirement years in addition to their active service years. Generations of relatively low wages and no means of building equity through homeownership were two of the driving factors in the church graciously accepting this responsibility, aside from the fact that it was the right, logical, and loving thing to do for those who had invested their lives in shepherding us.

Neither that unwritten covenant nor the factors underlying it have changed, save that today’s salaries are much more in line with the level of education, experience, and time invested by our clergy. So, too, is the pension plan much more adequate today than it was for clergy who served prior to 1982, even with the moderation of that plan that takes effect in 2014. The covenant to care for our clergy in retirement has not changed; the means by which that care is provided has.

Other covenants

There are other covenants, both real and perceived, which are also part of our conversation in the 21st century. We have a covenant with the General Church to supply our fair share of the denomination’s expenses. This covenant was established anew by Annual Conference as the Indiana Conference was formed. While both preceding conferences annually lingered near the bottom of all conferences in the percentage of fair share paid, the new conference set a goal of increasing that General Church support to 100%. This will put us among the leaders, as we are in so many other areas. But more significantly, once again, it is the right thing to do, both for the denomination and in light of our emphasis on tithing at the individual and church levels.

We also have a covenant with those who will follow us. Decisions we make today do not affect us alone; our brothers and sisters in Christ who come after us will also bear the responsibility to carry on, adjust, grow, discontinue, etc., the ministries we hand down to them. They will also bear the financial obligations of those ministries along with us. Some of those ministries will continue to bear costs long after they are discontinued, not unlike our current obligation to fund the liability incurred by the conference for pre-1982 service years when pensions were not vested. Another dimension of this covenant is the fact that our demographics have continued to require fewer and fewer Hoosier United Methodists to underwrite the ministries in which we are engaged. While this trend has slowed considerably in recent years, our ever-advancing average age suggests that it is unlikely to reverse without an extensive, comprehensive, and paradigm-shifting effort.

Real covenants

These are real covenants, whether written or not, spoken or unspoken. They exist and will continue to exist whether or not we agree with them and no matter what form those covenants take. We will always have an obligation to our retired pastors, to the General Church, and to those who follow in our steps. How we address them and hold them in balance with one another does, indeed, change over time.

Along with these genuine covenants, we also deal with perceived covenants, misunderstandings, perceptions, differences of opinion, feelings, and best intentions, to name just a few of the many nuances and caveats that often complicate open and clear communication. To name them here in no way discounts them; rather, recognizing that they are real components of our conversation is essential. In order for us to sort through our priorities with respect to clergy benefits, it is critical to recognize that not only is the subject matter difficult and complicated, but so, too, is the discussion itself, not to mention the balancing of often competing considerations.

Body of Christ

What is not debatable, however, is that we are the Body of Christ, and we can have even difficult discussions with humility and grace. It also is a given that Indiana United Methodists have so much for which to be thankful. Finally, it is significant to recognize that while we do have growing pains, Indiana is truly a leading conference within United Methodism. For these reasons and more, let us covenant together that in all things and at all times we will keep our unwavering focus upon our job description of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

While we do have growing pains, Indiana is truly a leading conference within United Methodism.