Johnny Ross has seen too many unnecessary tragedies to take lightly his role in helping church leaders understand the need to care for and protect their staff.
For a retirement contribution of as little as a dollar a month, any ministerial staff member who receives W2 income from a church qualifies for two vital protections provided for them by the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina, through GuideStone Financial Services: life and disability protection benefits. That includes full-time, part-time or bivocational staff or non-ministerial staff who work at least 20 hours per week.
In addition to these safety net protection benefits, the BSCNC also provides matching contributions to those who contribute more than $52.50 per month to their retirement. There is a one dollar match for every three dollars contributed between $52.50 and $105 at which point the match ceases. Therefore, the maximum free dollar match is $17.50 per month for a total of $210 dollars per year.
To receive these benefits the employing Southern Baptist church must contribute $420 per participant per year to Cooperative Program Plans A, B, and/or D. If the church contributes to Plan C, the yearly requirement is $460 per participant per year. Because of the escalating costs of these benefits that annual giving requirement will increase in 2010 to an amount still under discussion by the BSCNC budget committee.
Still, 40 percent of North Carolina Baptist churches do not take advantage of those benefits. As the GuideStone representative on the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina staff, that drives Ross nuts.
He said the average North Carolina pastor retires with a retirement portfolio of $100,000. “Is that not tragic?” he said.
Even combined with Social Security, earnings from that size portfolio will not be enough for a person to live on and many pastors need to find other income, often even beyond the age when they can physically handle the work. He told of one 82-year-old “retired” pastor working at Hardees to make ends meet.
He said of the 4,200 churches shown on the BSCNC membership rolls 1,700 of them have no one on the retirement plan, which would also provide them life and disability protection.
“I don’t care how small they are, if they can’t put in a dollar a month to help their pastor in case something happens to him, they ought to close their doors,” Ross said.
Ross, who will complete 30 years of service with the BSCNC in September, has been 10 years in his role of helping churches understand the most tax efficient compensation for staff, and helping staff navigate the tricky rapids of advocating for adequate pay without appearing greedy.
Minister tax status is not easy to understand. In most cases ordained persons have a dual tax status. They are employees for federal and state tax treatment, but self-employed for Social Security purposes.And the amount of their pay designated for housing allowance is tax exempt.only for federal and state taxes. They must pay self-employment taxes on the housing allowance or on the fair rental value including utilities if they live in a parsonage.
“It is the height of irresponsibility for a church not even to know the insurance and retirement benefits of its staff,” Ross said. He is willing to drive anywhere to talk with a single church about its responsibility and about the benefits the BSCNCoffers.
One of his pet peeves is a “salary and benefits package” from which the pastor is expected to divide the money between salary, housing, insurance, retirement, book and car allowances. Too often insurance and retirement are left out because the “package” simply isn’t large enough to cover the family’s immediate needs with money “left over” for protection and for the future.
“If you’re paying for it, it’s not a benefit,” Ross said. “That system denies the meaning of the word.”
“It’s a no brainer,” Ross said.
“Don’t give your pastor a choice about retirement. Put him in there.”
When church leaders argue that they cannot dictate how the church staff allocates the funds, Ross says, “Excuse me. Aren’t you the employer?”
“Don’t give them a choice,” Ross said. “You’re saving them from their own ignorance … especially the younger ones … they’re going to take the money every time.”
Pastors too often make the mistake of “spiritualizing” their compensation, saying “God called me, He’ll take care of me,” Ross said. “I believe if God calls you He’ll take care of you, but He gives you a brain and sends me along to remind you to use it.”
Ross reminds pastors their second responsibility is to their family. When children grow up in churches their daddy serves, and hear him verbally abused and see the church nearly starve them to death, when they’re grown, they’re gone.
Ross is a firm believer in the disability protection provided by the Convention. North Carolina actually has the largest number receiving disability benefits, a statistic Ross “hopes means that our people are informed and when something happens they know there is help.”
Clueless on benefits
Still he feels 95 percent of key leaders and decision makers in churches, and 60 percent of pastors “don’t have a clue” about the benefits.
One man had been on Social Security disability for two years before learning as a GuideStone retirement participant he qualified for an additional $500 monthly.
Another stewardship committee chair called Ross recently asking about a retirement plan for staff besides the pastor. Learning about what is available “blew him out of the water,” Ross said. The man told him, “We can’t afford not to have every one of our employees in this plan.”
The man volunteered to take the information to every church in his association.
GuideStone sponsors a program to help the most desperate annuitants called Mission Dignity (formerly called Adopt an Annuitant).
More than 200 in North Carolina receive a monthly stipend unrelated to any retirement planning they did or did not do. “You have to be in abject poverty to even qualify for that,” Ross said. A married couple would get a maximum $260 a month in this emergency aid.
This fall GuideStone will begin giving some financial guidance to people trying to plan for retirement. The first question always is “How much should I put in” to which Ross said the answer is, “More than you think you can afford.”
Until now, the second question, “How do I invest?” had to be left unanswered. Now the “guided planning service” will allow GuideStone staff to talk with clients about potential plans.
Ross, 65, and working toward his own retirement plan, said if a church budget is under $75,000 and will make a commitment to put money into retirement for the pastor GuideStone will add $600 annually to that person’s retirement account for five years. This is made possible by a gift from Wyndolyn Royster Hollifield, who was a prominent donor to North Carolina Baptist causes.
Church planters in
Church planters who receive financial assitance from the BSCNC are required to be in the retirement plan.
Two church planters working with consultant Pam Mungo died closely together in 2006 and didn’t have enough money for burial expenses.
One was 39, the other 52. She said she has begged for money to bury Baptist preachers for the last time.
Today, if you’re a North Carolina Baptist church planter you are in the retirement plan.
Ross spent 20 years as an adult Sunday School consultant, equipping lay leaders “to teach people scriptural truths that are life changing,” he said. He was a school teacher four years, working on a Ph.D. in education when he was called into vocational ministry. He earned a master of divinity degree from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in 1975.
When he took a busload of his first church members to a Sunday School conference, he was “absolutely embarrassed” he said because the conference leader read to him.
He promised his church members never to take them to another conference unless he verified the qualifications of its leaders beforehand.
Before long he was the one leading those conferences as Sunday School director Robert Stewart asked him to join the BSC staff in 1979.
Ross and Rhea, his wife of 43 years, are members of Salem Baptist Church in Apex and fans of all things University of North Carolina.
He has taught leadership recruitment and training at Southeastern adjunctively for 13 years and currently co-teaches a class at Campbell Divinity School on designing church programs and ministries.
(EDITOR’S NOTE — Just 10 minutes after Ross gave the interview with the Biblical Recorder, he received a call from the friend of a 42-year-old pastor who had to resign his church because of illness from cancer. The caller had encouraged his friend several years ago to enroll in the retirement plan, especially for the protection benefits. He did not, and now he and his family face a very uncertain financial future.)
For information on how your church can be a model employer and best provide for and protect your staff, contact Johnny Ross at (919) 459-5594 or [email protected].
Related to this story
Special series — Body parts
Did you know you have a large church staff? Your gifts through the Cooperative Program support a staff resource at the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina that exists to serve your church.
The Biblical Recorder continues a series — Body Parts — featuring one of your Convention staff members, and churches which has grown through that staff member’s ministry. Body Parts is inspired by 1 Cor. 12:12 — “The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts; and though all its parts are many, they form one body. So it is with Christ” (NIV). The parts of the Baptist State Convention exist to serve you.
This week: Johnny Ross, consultant with GuideStone Financial Resources.
Coming next: Eddie Thompson, family ministry.
Visit Body Parts, a Biblical Recorder special series.