Financing Wespath Fees

I was privileged to witness the grassroots effort to secure the Minister’s Bill of Rights and The Ministerial Retirement Program. Let us save the Bill of Rights for another time. My present concern is for the allocation of Ministerial Retirement funds for the support of Wespath fees.

There are a few still alive who were part of the early years when these funds were designated in the budget and went through different administrative changes. More recently, active pastors were allocated a share of the annual sum according to a formula of tenure. Although I entered the pension system between 1979-1981, I do not remember ever receiving more than a hundred dollars or so in any given year. (If you ever got more, please confirm on your statement and let me know when.)

A driving theme among some of the departed advocates (Dr. OU Ifill, Dr. John G. Ragin, & Dr. AD Tyson, Jr) was that the connectional church made a “pension” allocation for bishops. Other salaried clergy were deserving of the same consideration. Keep in mind, this is before bishops and general officers were put into an annuity arrangement. Bishops and general officers elected prior to 2000 receive half salary (about $30,000) per year. The last person grandfathered will retire in 2024. Essentially, there will be 8 bishops and less than 10 general officers eligible for half salary pensions after 2024.

Until our connectional church is positioned to make significant contributions toward clergy retirement, the use of these funds for the Wespath administration fee would be an equitable reallocation in the spirit consistent with the founding of the fund. The current Wespath fee is about $114/year/person. That, times 4,000, would come under the amount currently budgeted (>$500k). Paying the Wespath fee for the AME participants would be a fair way to benefit all clergy equally. The $114/year of value represents more than most have/will receive. The savings to the participants will add to their annuity account. We will truly see a benefit!

I heard gossip that one of our Commissions wanted to do exactly what is outlined above. While I agree such a move should not be accomplished by the fiat of a Commission, the intent would be consistent with the original goal: the connectional church providing retirement benefits for clergy as it provides for bishops and general officers. We no longer have a continuing pension program for bishops and general officers. The program comes closer to extinction with each transition. It is time to realign our thinking on the Ministerial Retirement Program. This is an equitable alternative.

Also, it would be interesting to know how much Wespath life insurance would run.

Protect Assets of Legacy Fund Prior to Distribution

As a result of the Annuity Crisis, about $37m was available through Symetra to support about $129m of “statement supported value” as of June 2021. The “value” of individual accounts was reduced to about 30% by the end of 2021/beginning of 2022. Still, no current statements!

Last year, an effort was made to issue a “promissory note” from the AME Church to the Department. This was an accounting ploy that would have enabled the Department to use the hard cash to make payments while those of us who are not retired would trust the church to repay the funds as needed. Shame on those who supported such legitimate, legal trickery! The General Board squashed that plan by a narrow margin. In the meantime, there has been no indication that the Department is moving toward a rollover of the Legacy assets into the New Life Plan, even though that carrot was part of the discussions last year.

In fact, it looks like we need to brace for another attempt to hold on to the Legacy pot of money as part of the restitution program. No negotiated settlement for our annuity crisis should include use of the existing Legacy Funds for any purpose other than the immediate rollover to participant accounts in Wespath or another designated fund.

The incentives to hold on to the Legacy Fund pot of money are great and misguided. The Legacy/Symetra relationship generates substantial income for the Department of Retirement Services. It is not clear the Commission on Retirement Services has a grasp on the amount and allocation of these funds. Certain leaders still operate with the old “pension” mentality where they think the “pot” belongs to The Church. Will we have to go to a civil court on a separate matter: To explain that when the church transitioned to an individual annuity structure, the funds are (should be) a holding of the vested participants? Are the players even listening to the lawyers “they” hired?

Consider the Unanswered questions. Why to we still not have statements? If Symetra is at fault, as suggested by the church filing suit against Symetra, why are our funds still invested with them? How much interest does Symetra actually pay? How much interest has been applied to participant accounts? Is the Legacy Plan IRS qualified? Why don’t we have a copy of the “rules” of the Wespath relationship? Did the full Commission even have access to the Wespath contract, forensic audit or the latest actuarial report?

If creating a capitalized fund is essential to curing the Annuity Crisis, how about treating the Participants like human beings. Look us in the eye and reason with us. Tell us how much you need, and why. Offer us something more than 1.5% per year to “use OUR money.” Tell us how the funds will be invested. Show us that you will fully, truthfully, regularly communicate to ALL who have an interest. If the Church is so sure of its commitment and ability to pay/re-pay every penny finally agreed upon, Show Us! Formally put the Washington, DC and the Nashville, TN properties up as collateral. Make the Department, or a newly created entity, the sole beneficiary of the AME Future Fund and the AMEC Reserve Funds until all claims are paid. You want us to trust You, but do You trust Yourself? Put the assets where your mouth is!

A majority of the bishops, Retirement Services Commission, and General Board continue to relegated to an archaic position as “children.” They are not invited to the room when the grown folk (privileged few) talk (and decide) on critical strategic decisions.

We need independent assessments of :

  1. The process used to assign value to individual annuity accounts.
  2. Are there free funds (funds not allocated to a particular individual) in the Symetra balance? If so, how much?
  3. What are individuals earning in interest from the Symetra investment?
  4. If the participants are not credited with all of the earned interest, how are the other funds used? Where in the accounting?
  5. What are the perks to the life insurance arrangement which make changing the plan so difficult?

The list could go on. The deafening silence of the Department & Church Leadership is frustrating and causing much anxiety within our ranks, especially among those close to retirement age. A first priority for the church should be to move the Legacy Funds into the control of participants, NOW. We can no longer allow the control of our collective investments to be handled the AME Way! The Only “Safe” Place is Out of the Direct Control of AME entities!