Material History of American Religion Project

Pensions for Preachers

Pensions are a relatively recent invention. Up through the beginning of the twentieth century, retired or incapacitated workers usually lived on charity or with their families. This was particularly the case in the ministry; churches organized special offerings or built retirement homes for ministers, rarely able to live on the savings from their meager salaries. The years after the First World War saw the creation of pension plans for professionals, including college teachers and ministers. In place of charity, several denominations began to put the support of retired clergy on a more "scientific" basis. The Christian Century reported on a 1924 Presbyterian proposal.

Not much of a constructive nature has come out of the Presbyterian general assembly. The time of the commissioners was too much give to considerations of heresy to make it possible to deal at length with matters that had no such sporting interest. But out of the fracas there came at least one action that merits the careful study of other communions. By it a Board of Ministerial Relief and Sustenation was changed into a Board of Pensions and a plan instituted that should provide a fair income for all veteran workers. Not only ministers and their widows, but minor children and lay workers who have been employed by local churches or benevolent boards will benefit by this proposal. The worker who reaches the age of 65 and has spent thirty years in service is, by this plan, given annually an amount equal to one-half the average salary he or she has received during the previous period, whether or not this worker then takes a retired relation. The cost of this annuity is to be provided by annual payments to the pension fund on the part of the workers of two and one-half per cent of the worker's salary and by the church or employing agency of seven and one-half per cent. If three of the ten thousand churches within the denomination accept the plan, insurance experts have shown that it can safely be put into effect. Most of the Protestant denominations have given evidence during recent years of an awakening conscience on this matter of the treatment of church workers in old age. Mr. Will H. Hays, who provides such expensive but respectable window-dressing for the movie magnates, at Grand Rapids compared the treatment of old preachers by Presbyterians with the treatment of old fire horses by Tammany, much to the credit of Tammany. That sort of talk has grown common. But efforts to meet the situation by endowment funds or special collections have not proved satisfactory. The Presbyterians, requiring participation by the worker and caring for the full-time lay worker as well as the ordained man and his family, have followed a more excellent way. It is the same way, with only minor differences, previously adopted so successfully by the Episcopalians. It is not greatly different from the way suggested in syndicated newspaper columns by Will Rogers, the cowboy philosopher, a year ago. It is the way that all Protestant denominations should seriously consider.

The Christian Century, 5 June 1924, 718.

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