Rich in spirit, poor in funds for retirement
If he ever retires from preaching, Park Linscomb figures his dailyroutine will include bagging fries at McDonald’s or greeting customersat Wal-Mart.
Like the Manchester, N.H., minister, many Church of Christpreachers across the nation envision anything but comfortable, carefreelives after the pulpit — at least this side of heaven.
“If I may be blunt, ministers in our fellowship have been sopoorly compensated that the prospect of retirement will be challengingfor most of them,” said James Knapp, a church member, sociologist andauthor of a new research study on ministers and retirement.
Only one out of four Church of Christ ministers surveyed byKnapp — 25 percent — plan to fully retire.Twenty-nine percent said they do not intend to retire, while 46 percentplan to partially retire. The study involved 214 ministers at Texascongregations with Sunday attendance of at least 100.
“While a range of explanations was provided, a common theme was an inadequate financial base for retirement years,” reported Knapp, a sociology professor at Southeastern Oklahoma State University.
Many ministers have been unable to save for retirement, “so there is an extraordinarily heavy dependence on Social Security,” Knapp said.
Eight out of 10 ministers will rely on Social Security for retirement income, while some won’t even have that, according to the study.
Many of those who do not plan to retire work with smaller churches and live in church-owned houses, meaning the minister has no place to live or equity to take with him if he retires, Knapp said.
“Though most individuals do not enter the ministry for money, one must wonder if the economic realities might turn some young people away from full-time ministry or force some experienced ministers into other professions,” said Knapp, a member of the Western Heights church in Sherman, Texas.
TO RETIRE OR NOT?
When Linscomb and his wife, Linda, moved to the New England mission field in 1974, they scraped by on $600 a month and lived in a church parsonage. Paying 15 percent of their limited income to Social Security became next-to-impossible, so they chose opting out over leaving New Hampshire, he said.
“At this point, we do live in our own home and have managed to put away a little money over the years,” said Linscomb, 55, whose congregation contributes to his Primerica retirement fund. “Even so, I have no plans to retire until I absolutely have to because of health or lack of a ‘market’ for an aging minister.
“I’m not complaining,” he added, “because the Lord has always provided for us. It is just to say that retirement from the field of ministry will not likely be in the same class — in this world — as others with comparable education and skills.”
A year and a half ago, Russ Lawson left full-time ministry after 35 years with congregations in Ohio, Indiana, Michigan and the East African nation of Kenya.
“Even though my heart is in ministry and I would love to be doing it full time … I am trying to work in the secular area to build a little retirement,” said Lawson, 59, a member of the Mid-County church in Troy, Ohio. Still, he devotes much of his free time to World Christian Literature Outreach.
In west Texas, Greg Fleming served 12 years with a 90-member church. He loved the congregation and the nice parsonage where his family of five lived. But at age 40, he found himself with no retirement savings and no equity from owning a home.
“It was a great place for our kids to grow up,” Fleming said of the quaint town of 1,000 souls. “We would have stayed there if we could have. But financially, we were just at a point where we couldn’t.”
Fleming decided he had no choice but to move to a larger congregation.
He has preached for 12 years at the 200-member North A church in Midland, Texas, which puts an amount equal to 5 percent of his gross salary into a retirement account. Plus, he owns his own home.
“I still think I may be a bit behind many non-ministers who are 50-plus years in age,” Fleming said, “but I also know that many ministers tell me that they do not have anything like the … benefits that I enjoy.”
Fleming’s wife, Cindy, works for the state and has her own retirement plan. Like 44 percent of ministers in Knapp’s study, Fleming counts on his wife’s job to help build a financial package for retirement.
Demands on a minister’s wife — at church and in the workplace — can be excessive as she works to balance her job, children, financial trouble and any number of shut-ins, new converts, showers and weddings, said Becky Wooley, whose husband, Bruce, preaches at the Brainerd church in Chattanooga, Tenn.
“Her entire life is under scrutiny and can seem to be hanging on the slender goodwill of an unpredictable congregation and a gathering of elderly men,” said Wooley, who stressed that she was speaking in general terms and loves her own congregation.
RAYS OF HOPE
Given the autonomous nature of the nation’s 13,000 a cappella Churches of Christ, fellowship-wide pension plans or investment vehicles do not exist, Knapp noted. But at least two major efforts may offer rays of hope to ministers and congregations struggling with retirement issues.
The Institute for Church and Family at Harding University in Searcy, Ark., launched a ministers’ retirement program in 2005. It lets ministers or churches invest funds in TIAA-CREF retirement accounts through Harding.
So far, more than 125 ministers and staff members at 75 congregations have signed up. The plan is open to any congregation.
Andrew Baker, executive director of the Harding institute, grew up as a preacher’s kid. His parents, Benny and Donna Baker, had no retirement savings after 35 years of full-time ministry.
Their experience motivated the development of the Harding program, as did an 80-year-old minister who told Baker, with tears in his eyes, “I’ll never be able to retire and enjoy my grandchildren like my friends.”
Another group, the Christian Leaders Benefits Alliance, hopes to provide health insurance, retirement benefits and electricity savings to churches and nonprofits. The alliance detailed its efforts at the recent Abilene Christian University Lectureship, said Ron Holifield, a member of the Southlake Boulevard church in Texas.
“It would just absolutely rip your heart out the number of e-mails that I have gotten from … ministers who ought to be retired who simply could not afford to retire,” said Holifield, an alliance leader, along with Jon Mullican, executive minister at the Highland Oaks church in Dallas, and Charles Siburt, an ACU vice president.
But Roger Pritchett, missions minister at the Pleasant Valley church in Little Rock, Ark., cautioned against ministers worrying too much about money.
“There are thousands of evangelists outside of North America for whom the subject of retirement is a dream,” said Pritchett, a former missionary to Kenya. “They receive low or no pay … and have not had any help in housing, either. … I wonder if we really believe that God will take care of us if we do his work.”
Still, he said God expects prudence and good stewardship from his followers: “If we can make some simple changes, like selling the parsonage and increasing the minister’s salary so he can afford to buy a house and build equity, we probably ought to do it.”