Written by Mark Graham
From his column Editor’s Choice
The photo could use cropping. It’s a bit off-center with more open space on the right, but the catawampus effect is okay. To me it’s perfect, because it’s a wonderful image of my mother and father, older brothers, and twin brother. Oh, yeah, one of the babies is trying to escape from his highchair. That, of course, is me.
I love this photo and keep a copy on the wall of my cubicle. When I’m stressed about workload, family situations, or health, I gaze at it for a few moments. Miraculously, the anxiety of what I’m facing fades. I’m not sure why, but I think it has to do with that sweet smile of my mother, and my dad’s look of determination. They were hard-working people of faith who believed God would care for them no matter what. And He did. Frozen for all time in that simple pose, they reach out over six decades to remind me God cares for His sheep—even ornery ones like me.
It’s good to remember where we came from. That doesn’t mean memories are all good—they never are. But it helps to recall our heritage. We gain much needed perspective of our place in the scheme of things when we consider how dependent our journey has been on others and the hopes that were embraced for us.
I have another photo—a yellowed image with magnificent detail, showing men and women spread out on the lawn in front of a building. It’s from a 1919 gathering of Nazarenes for the General Assembly in Kansas City. Stan Ingersol could probably tell you who some of them are, but there is one fellow, in particular, with whom I am familiar. He is seated, about three rows back, just left of center, tousled hair, gazing to his left. His name is E. J. Fleming. Fleming, who was known for his intelligence, compassion, and attention to detail, was associated with one of the Mutual Benefit societies in Michigan around the beginning of the 20th century. These groups, which sprang up in several places, provided occasional financial assistance to surviving spouses and children of ministers. Early church leadership recognized the gifts of Fleming and asked him to come to Kansas City. There, he would subsequently become the general secretary of the Church of the Nazarene and, among other things, responsible for consolidating the work of the Mutual Benefit societies into what was called the Board of Ministerial Relief.
October 4, 2019, marks the 100th anniversary of the creation of this board, of which Pensions and Benefits USA is a progeny. The day before this date, a few of us will celebrate with some of our friends from the Association of Retired Ministers and Missionaries (ARMM) at their annual gathering in Branson, Mo. There won’t be much hoopla, just cupcakes and coffee. Perhaps, a few of the retirees will share kind words of what the work of Pensions and Benefits has meant in their lives. That would be nice.
For our office, however, it’s a time to reflect on where we’ve come from and where we’re going as an agency that touches the lives of some 17,000 active and retired ministers, church-employed laypersons, spouses, and widows. The church of the 21st century is very different from that of the last one, and continues to morph in many ways. But there is something that hasn’t changed, and that is the willingness of men and women who continue to say “Yes” to God’s call to full-time Christian service.
Another thing that hasn’t changed is the willingness of a loving God to provide for His children. In 2018, U.S. districts and churches contributed almost $14 million to the Pensions and Benefits Fund. In return, we paid almost $15 million in Basic Pension benefits to about 5,000 retired ministers and widowed spouses. At the same time, we placed $9.5 million in the Basic Pension Trust to cover future obligations for these servants. $1.8 million was paid in Annual Pension Supplements to the Fidelity 403(b) retirement accounts of eligible ministers and other church employees. Almost $1 million was used to underwrite basic life insurance for nearly 8,000 active and retired ministers, along with disability coverage for an additional 4,000 individuals. Another $120,000 was provided in benevolence assistance for those who faced medical hardships.
In 1919 and for many decades to follow, church leaders dreamed of being able to do more for pastors who were serving in working class churches. Improvements to benefits were long and slow in coming, but faithful Nazarenes have, through their sacrificial giving over the years, helped to fulfill God’s promise to care for His servants. It’s a rich legacy that started with faith and continues by faith. Thank God for E. J. Fleming and others like him, and for districts and churches like yours that carry on the tradition of giving to support benefits for God’s servants.
Mark Graham is communication resources manager and editor for Pensions and Benefits USA.