It happens every time we have lengthy discussions at Annual Conference about clergy benefits. One or more laypersons will say to me, "You clergy have the greatest union in the world. No other group gets to decide their own benefits -- what a deal for all of you!"

I understand what they mean. We clergy are well-cared for by the church. Elders have "guaranteed appointments" and clergy are half of the voting membership at Annual Conference (especially when retired clergy come out in large numbers to vote on their benefits). Clergy can seem like a "union" with a large amount of control over our own benefits.

(I should note, somewhat defensively, that we bishops do NOT have voting privileges at General Conference where our salaries and benefits are determined. In fact the only time we Bishops have tried to impact our salaries was in 2010 when we voluntarily rolled back our salaries to their 2008 level in order to help the general church budget during the tough economic times of 2009 and 2010. The 2012 General Conference put us back on the formula, but we will never regain those years of lost salary increases. I am not complaining -- we bishops volunteered to reduce our salaries to help the church -- but it was hard for me to hear our retired bishops attacked for benefits they had no part in setting).

Back to the "Clergy Union" issue -- I must confess that I quickly grow weary and impatient when any Annual Conference discussion dwells on clergy benefits. I don't begrudge anyone getting a good salary and benefits, and I am OK with whatever decisions the Annual Conference makes about clergy benefits. I just get frustrated when clergy benefits become a distraction from the larger issues of evangelism, justice, missions, etc. I apologize if my impatience showed too much at our Conference Session or got in the way of the discussion. I know that the Book of Discipline asks me as your bishop to be the "spiritual and temporal leader" of the Conference, but I honestly do better with spiritual issues than temporal ones.

How can we clergy make sure that the Annual Conference Session is more than just a meeting of the so-called Clergy Union? Here are some suggestions to ponder:

  1. Clergy can remember that most of the laity in the room do not receive the kinds of generous benefits that we clergy receive, especially most laity do not receive any kind of subsidy to purchase a Medicare Supplement (the issue we were debating last week).
  2. Clergy can remember that many of the poorest residents of Indiana do not even receive Medicaid, while all active clergy serving full-time participate in a very generous medical insurance plan - so generous that the next Annual Conference will likely include necessary discussions about how to modify that plan to meet the new requirements of the Affordable Healthcare Act (which will mandate penalties for providing a plan as generous as ours).
  3. Clergy can be mindful of the fact that we Americans are in the 95th percentile of wealthy people in the world. I don't know what the Africa University Choir thought of our discussions about clergy benefits, but I know that they come from countries where the materialism of the US is considered at best a dream and at worst an indictment of our greed.
  4. Clergy certainly must go home from Conference and lead their churches to pay their full share of the conference tithe. Otherwise, voting for increases for ourselves and NOT paying our own share is simply unfair. (I remember that many years ago one clergy would always offer a motion that the only persons in the Conference Session eligible to vote on financial matters were those from local churches which paid 100% of their apportionments. The bishop would always rule that motion out of order, but I think the point was valid. I am distressed when clergy or laity from churches NOT paying their full tithe are making speeches or motions for the rest of us to pay more).
  5. Clergy can vote carefully on their own benefits at Conference in a spirit of deep humility and gratitude.

I really believe that the Annual Conference Session is more than just a meeting of the Clergy Union. I have worked to make our Sessions more focused upon worship, learning times, outreach opportunities, and voting on the strategic direction of our United Methodist Church in Indiana. I know that we are at our best when our vision is lifted beyond ourselves and we see the call for us to "make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world." But I also know that we are all human and we get passionate about our own salaries and benefits. That's OK, we all have to earn a living, care for our families, give generously to the needs of others, and ensure that our conference is financially viable.

Let's be more than a meeting of the so-called Clergy Union. We can be better than that.