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Ministering to the ministers

UUA, Retired Ministers and Partners Association aid retired ministers in financial distress.
By Michelle Bates Deakin
Fall 2012 8.15.12

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Joyce Stewart

“We have a pastoral relationship with retirees and spouses,” said Joyce Stewart, director of the UUA Retirement and Group Insurance Plans. (Nancy Pierce)

When the Unitarian Universalist Retired Ministers and Partners Association (UURMaPA) started in 1985, it was primarily a social club, an alumni network that helped older UU ministers stay in touch with one another.

As retirement has grown more complex for many older Americans, the group has taken on an added role: looking out for retired ministers and their spouses who are struggling financially.

Retired ministers can easily fall through the cracks. Frequently, they do not stay connected to the parishes they served. Many worked before the Unitarian Universalist Association’s retirement plan was established. And like other retired professionals, many seasoned ministers and their spouses have outlived their retirement plans.

UURMaPA members have formed a “Caring Network” to look out for retired ministers wrestling with financial need and health problems. They help ensure those ministers are within the safety net provided by the UUA’s Office of Church Staff Finances.

“We help retired ministers who find that they don’t have sufficient resources,” said Joyce Stewart, director of the UUA’s Retirement and Group Insurance Plans, part of the Office of Church Staff Finances. She works closely with UURMaPA volunteers to identify and help retired ministers in financial trouble. In addition to administering the UUA’s retirement plan, her office also makes grants, loans, and referrals to ministers in tough financial straits.

“We have a pastoral relationship with retirees and spouses,” said Stewart. “We’re one place within the broader UUA where retirees can feel they are connected. We listen to their stories.”

The UUA Organizations Retirement Plan serves about 2,850 people, including UUA staff, ministers, and employees of congregations that have elected to be part of the plan. About 600 congregations have opted to participate in it, providing coverage to active and former ministers, employees, and affiliated community ministers. In addition, there are about 320 retirees or their survivors in the plan.

The extent of the retirees’ retirement benefits varies widely, depending on how much they and their congregational employers have contributed over their careers. The average account balance for people over age 65 is between $40,000 and $50,000. A small number—about 50 people—have more than $300,000 invested in the plan.

Stewart and the Rev. Richard Nugent, director of Church Staff Finances, get calls from members of UURMaPA’s Caring Network, from parish ministers, and from retirees themselves about people who are unable to get by on their retirement funds. They evaluate the requests and each individual’s circumstances, and when appropriate, arrange for financial assistance to retirees.

In 2011, the office gave out about $500,000 in financial assistance. One quarter of that went to debt reduction for new ministers with student loans, generally in grants of $2,000 to $3,000. A small portion was given as stipends to children of UU ministers to defray college costs. Most went to retirees in need.

That need is often caused by extraordinary medical expenses, said Stewart. But the UUA can also provide financial assistance to pay for unexpected repairs, such as a broken water heater, or medical necessities, such as hearing aids or prescription drugs. Stewart and Nugent have seen an increasing number of requests for help with dental work. And they have also helped ministers facing foreclosure.

They are not seeing more requests, but the requests are for larger amounts of money. “Things cost more,” Stewart said. “Life has gotten more complicated and government support is declining.”

“We mostly work with retirees to assist them with a standard of living above the barebones,” said Nugent.

Stewart and Nugent see UURMaPA as a critical link in addressing the needs of retired ministers and their partners. “Some of them served congregations for 50 years or more, and find themselves retired. It’s easy for folks to go into retirement and feel disconnected from the faith they have lived and sacrificed for,” said Nugent. “UURMaPA provides collegial support and keeps them connected to the larger movement. If UURMaPA didn’t exist, we would have to invent it.”

The Rev. Dr. Richard S. Gilbert is president of UURMaPA, which currently has more than 900 members in about 600 households. He retired from ministry in 2005, but he maintains a full schedule, teaching classes at Starr King School for the Ministry, Meadville Lombard Theological School, and Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School. He preaches where he’s invited, and travels frequently to regional UURMaPA meetings. “I’m not retired from life. I’m retired from full-time parish ministry,” he said.

He encourages members to report on what they’re doing—whether it’s teaching, traveling, or doing social justice work—through the group’s regional meetings and its Elderberries newsletter.

Gilbert—along with the UUA’s Office of Church Staff Finances—tries to encourage ministers at every stage of their careers to be thinking about retirement. “It’s easy to forget about retirement when you’re in the flush of your career,” said Gilbert.

Stewart and Nugent conduct regular workshops for new ministers and for congregational staff about retirement planning, but few want to pay attention to that phase of their lives. “The vast majority of congregation staff—ministers and non-ministers—don’t pay attention to retirement, as is true for the general population,” Nugent says.

More ministers are delaying their retirements, Nugent and Stewart said, which they attribute to a number of factors: the general recession, an interest in beefing up retirement funds prior to retirement, and a sense that people may outlive their retirement funds if they retire too soon.

Each year at the UUA General Assembly, the Service of the Living Tradition—which welcomes new ministers, acknowledges retired ministers, and honors deceased ministers—holds a collection for the Living Tradition Fund. Many ordinations or services of installation also include a collection for the Living Tradition Fund. These collections help replenish funds that will be distributed to ministers in need during all phases of their careers—from seminary loans to retirement. “The funds are not strictly for retired ministers,” said Gilbert, “but our emphasis is on retired ministers because most are not able to earn more.”

He hopes the service is a reminder to people in all phases of their careers to be planning for their retirements. “They should be thinking of their retirement from the very beginning,” Gilbert said.


Department Close-up

Office of Church Staff Finances
UUA.org/careers/compensation

Mission: To help congregations and other UU institutions live the UU Principles as they relate to ministerial and staff compensation and help religious professionals and other staff to greater financial competence.

Oversees UUA Organizations Retirement Plan and UUA Health Plan; sets fair compensation guidelines for congregations.

Members of UUA Retirement Plan: 2,800

Money invested in Retirement Plan: $300 million

Administrator: TIAA-CREF

Joyce Stewart
Director, UUA Retirement and Group Insurance Plan, Office of Church Staff Finances

Stewart, a UUA employee for the past 12 years, works with beneficiaries of the UUA Organi­zations Retirement Plan who do not work for the UUA, including congregational staff and retirees and their partners. She administers grants to retirees in financial crisis.

“We have a pastoral relationship with retirees and spouses,” she said. “We listen to their stories.”


An abridged version of this article appeared in the Fall 2012 issue of UU World (“Inside the UUA: Ministering to the ministers,” page 47). See sidebar for links to related resources.

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