United Church Board for Ministerial Assistance
1. What does “UCBMA” stand for and what does it do?
UCBMA is the United Church Board for Ministerial Assistance. Our mission is to provide direct support to authorized ministers and lay church employees of the United Church of Christ whose circumstances call for compassionate responses and to offer specialized initiatives and insightful witness to promote sustainable ministry within the church. Through the generosity of generations of members and friends, the UCBMA is able to make a tangible difference for those who have served, and are serving, the United Church of Christ.
2. How are UCBMA and the Pension Boards related?
UCBMA was founded in 1908 to provide relief to clergy and their spouses/partners in retirement when there was no federal Social Security and personal annuity/retirement accounts were uncommon. The Pension Boards (PBUCC) was formed in 1914 to help clergy to plan for their own retirement, rather than having to rely on the charity of the UCBMA. Consequently, the UCC Constitution holds together this dual purpose of the Pension Boards: to provide ministerial relief activities and a system of employee benefits programs.
UCBMA is a subsidiary corporation of the Pension Boards with its own Board of Directors, some of whom are Trustees of the Pension Boards. The Pension Boards offers an array of benefits programs for active and retired authorized ministers and lay church workers, and UCBMA serves as its charitable arm, offering compassionate responses to those who need assistance and programs to enhance and empower the vitality of ministry in various settings of the church.
3. What is the history of the UCBMA?
As early as the 17th century, church members recognized that there was little safety net for their clergy – much less for their widows and children if the minister died young. Consequently, relief societies were organized to provide for the basic retirement needs of clergy, and their widows and children. UCBMA, the corporation that combined many of these earlier relief efforts, was established in 1908. Each of the four predecessor bodies that gave birth to the United Church of Christ in 1957 had national or regional entities ensuring this vital safety net. Today, UCBMA is the central resource in the United Church of Christ for those in need of assistance, and also provides new programs to ensure the vitality and well-being of those who serve the Church.
4. What are the current programs offered by UCBMA?
UCBMA provides direct assistance and program support to active or retired authorized ministers and their spouses/partners as well as lay church employees. There are seven grants that offer direct support to those in need: small pension supplementation; health benefits supplementation for retirees; emergency grants; grants for annuity or health insurance for new church start pastors; grants for retired or disabled clergy/lay employees; scholarships to children of disabled or deceased clergy; and the tradition of providing “thank you” checks at Christmastime to lower-income retirees and their spouses/partners. Additionally, UCBMA underwrites and oversees two programs that provide care and sustainability in ministry: the Annuitant Visitors, who connect with more than 6,000 annuitants each year and the Next Generation Leadership Initiative (NGLI), which seeks to equip, energize and empower younger UCC ministers to build up vibrant congregations that change lives and further God’s mission in the world.
5. What financial assistance is available? Am I eligible for any support?
6. Does the UCBMA just support retirees?
While retirees most frequently benefit from its assistance programs, UCBMA is committed to the well-being of all of those who serve in the United Church of Christ. That includes direct assistance to active authorized ministers, lay church employees in certain circumstances, and spouses/partners of all of the above.
7. How does UCBMA work with the Conferences and Associations in distributing financial assistance?
Leaders of Conferences and Associations are often in the best position to be aware of assistance needs, so communication between UCBMA and these leaders is a vital aspect of this ministry. Often, needs are communicated from regional leaders; UCBMA is then able to directly respond to individuals. Some Conferences and Associations have their own funds for ministerial relief and UCBMA works with these entities to ensure adequate support is shared. It is through these covenantal relationships that assistance to those who need it most is achieved.
8. Why is UCBMA investing in younger clergy through the Next Generation Leadership Initiative (NGLI)?
The Directors of UCBMA and the Trustees of PBUCC are acutely aware of the changing nature of ministry in the United Church of Christ and the need for local church pastors who are fully and faithfully equipped to be transformative leaders in this highly demanding calling. Believing that an investment of resources in those just beginning their authorized ministries would not only contribute to vibrant congregations that change lives, but create a generation of resilient, happy, and healthy leaders, UCBMA created NGLI and continues to contribute its resources as a timely and essential offering to the wider church. A video that introduces NGLI can be viewed here.
9. Who are Annuitant Visitors and what do they do?
Annuitant Visitors are retired authorized ministers who call on retirees to provide an intentional and direct connection with PBUCC and its programs, answer questions about benefits and options, and maintain a consistent and helpful relationship with those who have served the church. Annuitant Visitors are ambassadors of the wider church family, affirming that the service of retirees continues to be valued and appreciated. There are about 180 Annuitant Visitors across the country, calling annually on some 6,000 annuitants and their spouses/partners.
10. What is the Christmas Fund?
The Christmas Fund for Veterans of the Cross and the Emergency Fund is one of the four annual Special Mission Offerings of the United Church of Christ. Gifts to the Christmas Fund support four of the direct assistance ministries of UCBMA (small pension supplementation, health benefits supplementation for annuitants, emergency grants, and Christmas Thank You checks). For more than a century, congregations across the United Church of Christ have received the offering during the Advent or Christmas season, responding in love to the needs of those who have served. Gifts to the Christmas Fund are welcomed throughout the year. CLICK HERE for more information.
11. Where does the money come from to fund UCBMA ministries?
Each year, UCBMA is funded by gifts to the Christmas Fund, direct contributions by individuals to specific UCBMA programs, the interest on legacy gifts given to the organization over the years, and by a portion of the UCC’s national offering, Our Church’s Wider Mission. In 2015, about $3 million was disbursed as direct support and about $650,000 was utilized in programs that support those who serve the church.
12. How do I make a gift to support the assistance or leadership initiatives of the UCBMA?
Health and Wellness
1. What kind of coverage does the UCC Medical and Dental Benefits Plan offer?
The UCC Plan, administered by the Pension Boards, offers the following health and health-related plans through our respective vendor/partners:
- Non-Medicare and Medicare Supplement Plans that provide health insurance for active and retired UCC clergy and lay employees, and their eligible dependents, administered by Highmark Blue Cross Blue Shield
- a Pharmacy Benefit Plan, included with the Non-Medicare and Medicare Supplement Plans, administered by Express Scripts
- a stand-alone Dental Benefit Plan administered by United Concordia, for active and retired clergy and lay employees, and their eligible dependents
- a stand-alone Vision Benefit Plan administered by VSP, for active and retired clergy and lay employees, and their eligible dependents
2. If I move to a new ministry setting, will my coverage continue?
All Pension Boards Plans offer nationwide coverage that is portable and consistent across Conferences and Associations.
3. Do the Plans require that I see a network provider, or can I see the doctor or provider of my choice?
All Plans provide coverage regardless of whether your provider is in- or out-of-network. In-network providers typically have lower costs than providers outside the network. To save on health care expenses, the use of in-network providers is recommended.
4. What Is the Healthy Stewards Wellness Program?
Healthy Stewards is the UCC Health Plan’s wellness philosophy, rooted in the biblical understanding that we are called to be stewards of all our resources, including our health.
The Healthy Stewards Wellness Program is a key component of the health plan, and assists in disease prevention and promoting healthy lifestyles. The program consists of three parts:
- An online health questionnaire
- A biometric screening
- Assistance for goal-setting with a health coach
Non-Medicare participants and their covered spouses/partners can each earn up to $300 a year for completing these wellness activities. This benefit is administered by Highmark Blue Cross Blue Shield. Visit the Highmark website and click on “Rewards Program” to get started!
5. Does the Plan require that I use the mail-order pharmacy for my prescriptions?
When your physician prescribes a medication, you may purchase a 30-day supply, and up to two refills, at a local pharmacy. After that, you will pay the entire cost of the maintenance drug unless you purchase future refills through the Mail Order Pharmacy. Additional information may be found in the Plan Highlights Booklets.
The Intersection of Faith and Finance
1. What is the Pension Boards’ mission?
Covenantally and constitutionally, the Pension Boards is charged with administering pension, health, and other benefits plans for ministers and lay workers of the United Church of Christ. This is reflected in our new mission statement, adopted in 2015:
“Operating at the intersection of faith and finance, we are caring professionals partnering with those engaged in the life of the Church to provide valued services leading to greater financial security and wellness.”
2. What is “faith and finance”?
"Faith and finance” is a key concept and core principle of PBUCC’s identity and mission. Operating at the intersection of faith and finance is what differentiates the products and services that PBUCC provides from retirement and benefits plans available in the commercial financial services marketplace.
3. How does faith and finance differentiate PBUCC from other financial services providers?
We are not differentiated by faith or finance, nor will we be. We are differentiated by what we do with faith and finance. The word for “doing” in theological terms is “witness.” Therefore, we will be differentiated by our witness of faith. We have defined that witness as “sustainable investment.” That investment is two-fold: financial investment in securities that reflect our values and concerns, and investment in people – specifically authorized ministers, lay church workers, and congregations.
4. What does faith and finance mean for the way our pensions are invested?
We propose that the witness of PBUCC at the intersection of faith and finance is sustainable investment, defined as “the double bottom line” objective of “doing good” for creation and humankind as measured by ESG criteria, and “doing well” with financial performance, measured by accepted benchmarks, for our members, stakeholders, and faith communities.
5. What is ESG?
ESG is an acronym for “environmental, social, and governance” factors. The factors assess the quality of an investment by how it impacts the environment, human rights, and good governance of publicly-traded companies.
6. What steps has PBUCC taken to implement its faith and finance initiative?
In 2014, PBUCC adopted a new investment policy that includes Socially Responsible Investment Guidelines that state, in part, “We (PBUCC) advocate an incorporation of ESG factors into our investment policy and proxy voting guidelines based upon the sole purpose of the financial best interest of plan participants.” The new faith and finance initiative relates these guidelines to our theological, biblical, and moral responsibility in the light of our witness at the intersection of faith and finance.
Programmatically, this has resulted in renewed efforts to incorporate ESG into our corporate engagement, proxy voting, and investment analysis. Examples include new investments in renewable energy, and the elimination of oil sands and thermal coal companies from our portfolio of separately-managed (non-commingled) investments. And, we have begun offering to members in the accumulation phase of the annuity plan a new investment option in the Global Sustainability Index Fund (GSIF), which bases investments on best in class performance in ESG factors.
7. How will my investment returns be affected by the application of ESG / faith and finance factors?
The Investment Policy states, “a company that considers ESG an integral part of its operations and strategy is more likely to perform well over the long term, because it reduces risk and cost while increasing efficiency and competitiveness.” In keeping with PBUCC’s duty of loyalty to Annuity Plan members, an existing investment cannot be eliminated in favor of a new investment with better ESG impact unless there is the same or better prospect for financial performance.
8. Who is helping the Pension Boards in its faith and finance efforts?
The overall strategic planning process which set in motion the faith and finance initiative included stakeholders from across the Church, including Conference Ministers, leaders from the other UCC financial institutions, members of our plans, PBUCC Trustees and staff, and ecumenical partners. Implementation will include these stakeholders, as well as new collaborations with the UCC Center for Analytics, Research and Data (CARD); Sustainalytics, an ESG data provider; and our investment consultant and investment managers.
9. What is your timeline for implementing faith and finance guidelines and filters?
Implementation will be ongoing. There are specific dates for the completion of specific objectives, but the first year is crucial for testing many of the ideas and processes of the policy. A number of events will be held throughout the Church to highlight our efforts in the months leading up to General Synod in 2017.
10. How will you communicate your progress to us?
Progress will be diligently tracked internally at PBUCC, and communicated to our members and to the wider Church in many dynamic ways – through the UCC News, News & Views quarterly newsletters, on our website and through videos, in personal visits and contacts, and through our new Speakers Bureau. Please invite us to come speak with you and your group about our progress.
11. How does the recent Department of Labor (DOL) decision affect PBUCC’s faith and finance efforts?
A recent Department of Labor guidance, Interpretive Bulletin 2015-01, provides clarity on the fiduciary concerns that may have prevented pension plans governed by ERISA from considering investments that meet certain ESG standards. While the Annuity Plan is not subject to ERISA, the new DOL guidance is nevertheless helpful and instructive.
When selecting investments, in part because of ESG considerations, fiduciaries need to observe a prudence standard to ensure that any selected investment is reasonably expected to perform as well as other available alternatives within an industry or category with similar risk. As long as this and other guidance in the Bulletin is observed, fiduciaries may consider ESG factors in investment choices in a way that preserves fiduciary integrity.
How the Annuity Plan Works
1. Is the plan offered by the Pension Boards a “fixed annuity plan”?
No. A fixed annuity plan makes fixed dollar payments for the term of the annuity. The Pension Boards sponsors an Internal Revenue Code § 403(b)(9) church retirement income plan. The annuity that is paid is a variable annuity, not a fixed annuity. Payments may be adjusted up or down depending on the overall investment experience of the underlying assets. Since the inception of the Basic and Participating Annuities in 2006, there have been no decreases.
2. What is a defined benefit plan?
A defined benefit plan is a type of retirement plan that computes an annuity at retirement based on a formula that typically takes into account salary and years of service. The benefit is usually expressed (or “defined,” hence the term) in terms of an annual annuity payable at age 65. There may be other payout options and starting dates, which would require adjustment to the annual amount. The advantage of a defined benefit plan is that the annuities are “pooled” so that benefits can be paid for an individual’s lifetime without the risk of outliving one’s retirement savings.
3. What is a defined contribution plan?
A defined contribution plan does not “define” the benefit but rather “defines” the contribution. Money is contributed to an account that grows with investment earnings during an individual’s working years. At retirement, a typical defined contribution plan (such as a 401(k)) allows for the complete or partial distribution of the account balance. Assets are not pooled and the individual is expected to “draw down” his/her own balance during retirement years. The obvious challenge is to achieve meaningful returns while taking monthly withdrawals and, all the while, not running out of money.
4. What distinguishes the Annuity Plan for the United Church of Christ, administered by the Pension Boards, from either of these types of plans?
The Annuity Plan can best be described as the perfect combination of “defined contribution” and “defined benefit.” There is flexibility and choice during the accumulation phase (the defined contribution part), and the protection of lifetime income during the retirement phase (the defined benefit part). The retirement industry is grappling with ways to provide exactly what the Annuity Plan does. Unfortunately, defined contribution plans governed by ERISA are not permitted to “self-annuitize” the way the Annuity Plan and other denominational church plans do.
5. Can I make a withdrawal at the time of annuitization?
Yes, and this is an important distinguishing feature of the Annuity Plan. Twenty percent (20%) of employer contributions (along with 100% of personal or employee contributions) may be withdrawn in the form of a lump sum at that time. At annuitization, members must convert at least 80% of employer contributions to an annuity.
6. Why is my withdrawal limited to 20% at the time of retirement?
Withdrawal is limited to 20% of employer contributions, not employee contributions. (See #5, above.) The ultimate goal of the Pension Boards retirement program is to provide meaningful lifetime benefits to a member and his/her joint annuitant (if any) or beneficiary(ies), which requires annuitization of a meaningful account balance. The restriction to only allow 20% of employer contributions to be withdrawn is done in an effort to achieve this goal.
7. If I wish to have access to my retirement savings later, what can the Pension Boards offer me?
Whenever you choose to begin receiving your annuity, you have the option of taking a lump sum distribution of up to 20% of employer contributions (as well as a lump sum distribution of up to 100% of personal contributions) and either keeping the distributable amount invested in a Retirement Savings Account (RSA) with the Pension Boards or rolling the distribution over to an IRA or other qualifying plans. In either case, tax deferral is preserved and money can be withdrawn when needed.
8. Why is the interest rate (i.e., return) on my annuity set at 4%? Doesn’t the market offer greater returns?
When an account balance is converted to an annuity, there are two required assumptions: a mortality table (or longevity assumption) and an interest rate. The mortality table is based on the overall experience of the persons in the plan. The interest rate has been chosen so that the Pension Boards can reasonably expect to earn 4% over time using a bond portfolio in the Basic Annuity and a diversified portfolio in the Participating Annuity. When an account is annuitized, each annuity payment is comprised of two pieces: earnings based on 4% and a return of a portion of principal (think of a reverse mortgage). Recall that the annuities provided are, in fact, variable annuities. So, to the extent that returns exceed 4% over time, annuity increases can be granted.
9. My spouse/partner and I have children. Shouldn’t my children get some benefit from my retirement savings if both my spouse/partner and I die at an early age?
Remember that the Pension Boards program is a retirement income plan. Its goal is to provide income during retirement years to both the member and his/her joint annuitant. It is not designed to be a savings vehicle for college education, a “rainy day” fund for unexpected expenses, or other purposes. It should be noted that there are over 870 members over the age of 90 and 36 over the age of 100 currently in the Annuity Plan. So, while it is human nature to believe that one will not live an especially long life, the reality is that approximately 50% of members live less than the expected and the other 50% live longer. Statistics on life expectancy indicate that, for a married couple age 65, there is a 50% probability that at least one spouse will be alive 25 years later and a 25% probability that at least one will be alive 30 years later.
10. What if I have a major illness or a family member is in need of money? What can I do once my retirement funds have been annuitized?
As discussed above, the purpose of the Annuity Plan is to provide retirement income. Once annuitized, the money is no longer available for other purposes. This is the only way that pooled assets can provide lifetime income. The plan does provide access to a lump sum distribution of up to 20% of employer contributions and up to 100% of employee contributions.
11. Can’t my church set up its own 403(b) plan with whatever features I would like in the plan?
The church can set up its own 403(b) plan, but not without consequences. Federal law requires the church to be legally responsible for the plan, which includes the preparation and maintenance of a plan document, being a fiduciary with respect to the plan, and ensuring proper administration of the plan (which includes recognizing plan limits for contributions and ensuring that plan distributions are consistent with IRS requirements). The Pension Boards does these things for the Annuity Plan so that participating churches and employers do not have to.
12. What is the minister’s housing allowance and how will it benefit me?
Internal Revenue Code § 107 provides that gross income for a minister does not include:
- the rental value of a home furnished to a minister as part of his or her compensation, or
- the rental allowance paid to a minister as part of his or her compensation, to the extent used by him or her to rent or provide a home, and to the extent such allowance does not exceed the fair rental value of the home, including furnishings and appurtenances such as a garage, plus the cost of utilities.
The amount of a minister’s housing allowance cannot exceed the least of:
- the amount actually used to provide a home,
- the amount officially designated as a housing allowance, or
- the fair rental value of the home, including furnishings, utilities, garage, etc.
13. Is the minister’s housing allowance more than a tax break?
The minister’s housing allowance is much more than a “tax break” as that term is currently understood. The minister’s housing allowance is a complete exclusion of income for federal income tax purposes for those costs that legitimately come within its purview.
14. Has the Pension Boards reduced Annuity Plan payouts?
The Pension Boards, in its 100-year history, has never missed a pension payment calculated in accordance with the annuity selected. In the past, the Pension Boards offered annuities that adjusted every six months based on market values. Some of those annuities still exist because they were grandfathered when the holders of the annuities chose to not migrate to new annuities that were introduced in 2006. While such annuities do go down when the market goes down, they also go up when the market goes up.