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Elizabeth Kaeton recently blogged on the Diocese of Newark’s special convention under the title “Shift” Did Not Happen.  A lively discussion ensued on her Facebook page, which includes a Wall Street Journal article on the topic. The special convention debated whether to require clergy to pay a share of their health insurance costs.  The pertinent resolution failed by one vote in the clergy order.

Given the discussion began on a Sunday morning (aren’t we supposed to be in church?), I chimed in with a quick bemused comment about a parallel debate in Massachusetts.  Here is a more considered response.

I am all for solving this problem the way every other major industrialized country does, with a national health care system.  However, that seems highly unlikely in the current political environment.

I am unconvinced by arguments that requiring clergy to pay a share of their health care is a “justice” issue.  I fear that “justice” is being used pejoratively in this debate, implying that those opposed to cost sharing are somehow unjust.

Nor am I convinced that GC A177, which requires clergy and lay employees to receive the same benefits created this problem.  That is certainly not the case in Massachusetts, where our version of health care reform already required employers to provide access to health insurance to lay employees with over 1,000 hours of work a year.

No matter how you frame the issue, from a clergy person’s perspective, cost sharing means a reduction in our compensation and benefits package.  Must we, like many other members of the middle class, accept stagnant or declining compensation?  Maybe, but please don’t expect us to be happy about it.

For me, the real driver behind clergy health care cost sharing is financial, stemming from the church’s need to cut costs as our income shrinks.  If it is primarily driven by the church’s weakening financial condition, shouldn’t we put all options on the table for stabilizing the church’s finances?  What other expenses can reasonably be cut?  More importantly, how can we invest our limited resources, both financial and people, to increase our income?  In other words, do we have a mission strategy to encourage more people to join and support the church?

One of the church’s cost cutting strategies has been to reduce maintenance on our church buildings.  We have justified this strategy by claiming the church should primarily focus on people, not buildings.  The predictable result is that we have a bunch of decaying buildings.

Are we now proposing to reduce the cost of maintaining clergy?  After health care cost sharing fails to stabilize church finances, do we reduce pension benefits?  Continuing education funding has already been cut on the parish level.  Many clergy are also working longer hours, with less staff and volunteer support.  At what point do clergy start to break down or leave the profession?

The cost of health care is one piece of a much larger mission challenge facing the church.  If I am asked to give a little on health care, I want to know what the larger coherent plan to stabilize the church and enhance Christ’s mission through us looks like.

In the meanwhile, from the Discernment Doctor’s perspective, we need to recognize that uneven health care costs may impact the calling process.  In Massachusetts, if I were a candidate for a call needing a family plan, the insurance cost to a parish would run around $25,000.  If were single, I’d only cost around $7,500.  If my spouse obtained insurance through her employer, the cost could be $0.  These disparities are bound to color search committee or vestry decisions.

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