Wespath expands services to Methodist kin

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Key Points:

  • The United Methodist Church’s pension agency is now offering retirement benefits to two other denominations, one founded in 1816 and one just getting started.
  • Wespath is managing a new plan for the African Methodist Episcopal Church in the wake of that denomination’s pension scandal.
  • The agency also is offering a plan for the newly formed Global Methodist Church, which has broken away from The United Methodist Church.  
  • Wespath’s plans for each denomination are completely separate from The United Methodist Church’s pension plan.

The United Methodist Church’s pension and benefits agency now extends its services to two other denominations in the broader Wesleyan family — strengthening ecumenical ties at a time of United Methodist upheaval. 

Since November, Wespath Benefits and Investments has administered retirement benefits for clergy and lay employees of the African Methodist Episcopal Church — stepping up to help as the AME Church grapples with a pension crisis.

Since July, Wespath has been administering a retirement plan as well as death and disability benefits for the newly formed Global Methodist Church. This month, Wespath also started offering health benefits for some participants in the new theologically conservative denomination that broke away from The United Methodist Church last May.

In addition, the agency is administering retirement plans for churches that have disaffiliated from The United Methodist Church and opted to become independent.

“Our mission is to care for those who serve,” said Andy Hendren, Wespath’s top executive. “We really believe that serving the broader community of Methodist organizations will help strengthen that mission and will help strengthen the way we can sustainably support The United Methodist Church.”

With more scale and more experience with other denominations, Hendren expects Wespath will be able to provide improved services to United Methodists as well as new clients.

“Even though we’re serving our sisters and brothers in a wider Methodist circle,” he said, “we remain steadfastly focused on serving our core constituents in The United Methodist Church.”

The United Methodist Church’s retirement benefits for lay employees and its pension plans for clergy remain unchanged.

Frequently Asked Questions

Wespath has put together a video, podcast and other resources to answer frequently asked questions about disaffiliations.

See Wespath resources.

The AME and GMC denominations as well as the independent churches using Wespath each have retirement plans that are entirely separate from what’s available to United Methodists.

These non-United Methodist plans are each defined contribution, meaning they are like the 401(k) plans most U.S. corporate employees now have. Under these plans, participants accrue an account balance to use during retirement.

United Methodist clergy members currently are part of a retirement plan that includes defined-benefit and defined-contribution components. A defined benefit plan provides a monthly pension payment for life. 

This is not the first time Wespath has managed retirement benefits for a denomination outside the United Methodist fold. Since the 1960s, the agency has served the autonomous Methodist Church in Cuba. It has also done the same for the Methodist Church of Puerto Rico, which became its own denomination in the 1990s. The Book of Discipline, The United Methodist Church’s law book, allows Wespath to serve other nonprofits. 

The African Methodist Episcopal Church and the new Global Methodist Church came about for different reasons and began working with Wespath under very different circumstances. But they both share roots in the Christian movement John Wesley founded, and they both result from church splits.

Relationship with the AME Church

The AME Church broke away from what was then the Methodist Episcopal Church — a United Methodist predecessor — namely because of racism. Richard Allen, the AME Church’s founder and first bishop, was actually part of the founding of the Methodist church in the U.S. as one of only two Black preachers at the Christmas Conference in 1784. Nevertheless, he spent much of his ministry contending with racial discrimination. 

After officials at St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia pulled Black worshippers off their knees while praying, Allen helped create the Free African Society in 1787. The mutual aid society assisted free Blacks and helped the enslaved escape bondage. It also allowed Allen and others to take on increasing leadership roles in civic and church life

Allen led the contingent who wanted to remain Methodist but in a new congregation. However, continued second-class treatment in white Methodist circles ultimately led him and the Mother Bethel congregation to break away in 1816 to establish what is the oldest predominantly Black denomination in the U.S. The denomination now has congregations in 39 countries. 

In recent decades, United Methodist and AME leaders have taken steps toward reconciliation. The United Methodist Church in 2012 adopted a full communion agreement with the AME Church and other historically Black Methodist denominations, allowing the denominations to cooperate more in ministry and even share clergy.

The relationship with Wespath came about as the AME Church is dealing with financial irregularities in its own pension fund, which has seen more than $90 million in losses. The denomination’s pension fund is now the subject of multiple lawsuits and a federal investigation

The denomination’s New Life Personal Investment Plan under Wespath is completely separate from its prior retirement plan and current legal woes. Already, AME leaders are praising the new Wespath plan for helping the denomination begin a new era in its retirement benefits. The new plan started with about 2,800 participants, and the AME Church expects it will eventually reach 5,000.

“Our aim is to make sure that people can claim that we did right by them,” said Bishop A.J. Richardson Jr., the denomination’s senior bishop. Richardson, who was part of the AME retirement plan for some 50 years, stressed that he and his fellow bishops are all reeling from the same losses as other church workers.

“The new plan with Wespath takes us in a different direction. I think it will help to restore confidence and trust. It is important to us to have such a program. It would be just unconscionable to have our people work for their lifetime.”

Hendren is excited that the two denominations can form closer ties and that Wespath can help provide AME Church workers with a solid financial future. 

“We think it’s something that we do well, and we can bring to them,” Hendren said. “We think the partnership really reflects Wespath’s values of inclusiveness, and The United Methodist Church’s values of inclusiveness and racial justice. And really, what we hope is we’ll be able to learn from them.”

The Global Methodist Church, which launched last May, now has a retirement plan with Wespath Benefits and Investments, The United Methodist Church’s pension and benefits agency. The Global Methodist Church plan is completely separate from the retirement program offered to United Methodists. Image courtesy of the Global Methodist Church.
The Global Methodist Church, which launched last May, now has a retirement plan with Wespath Benefits and Investments, The United Methodist Church’s pension and benefits agency. The Global Methodist Church plan is completely separate from the retirement program offered to United Methodists. Image courtesy of the Global Methodist Church.

Relationship with the Global Methodist Church

While the AME-United Methodist relationship is one of growing cooperation and affection, the relationship with the new Global Methodist Church is far more fractious.

After decades of intensifying debate about LGBTQ inclusion, United Methodist leaders negotiated a separation agreement that would see theological conservatives (those who support bans on noncelibate gay clergy and same-sex weddings) break away to form a new denomination. That agreement was set for a vote at the coming General Conference, the denomination’s top lawmaking assembly, then scheduled in 2020. 

But after COVID’s complications led to a third delay of General Conference to 2024, the new denomination’s organizers went ahead and launched the Global Methodist Church last spring without waiting for the negotiated agreement to win the necessary approval

Since then, backers of the Global Methodist Church have been recruiting churches to leave The United Methodist Church and join them instead. 

The United Methodist Church has a church law that allows congregations to disaffiliate with property if they meet certain conditions. So far, more than 2,000 United Methodist churches have withdrawn under that church law. However, both United Methodist disaffiliation policies as well as Global Methodist recruitment tactics continue to spark controversy

One source of contention is the requirement under United Methodist church law that any exiting congregation must pay a fair share of its annual conference’s unfunded pension liability.

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Wespath had long contemplated providing services to any new denomination formed under the negotiated separation agreement, so staff expected to manage retirement investments for the new Global Methodist Church once it launched. However, the agency’s staff also expect disaffiliating churches to fulfill their pension withdrawal obligations to their conference under church law. 

“When churches leave … they are leaving part of their commitment to support the connectional defined-benefit pension to support pastors who have retired years ago or survivors who are relying on these pension programs,” Hendren said. 

While issues around disaffiliation remain tense, the Rev. Rick Van Giesen, Global Methodist Church’s benefits officer, said no such tensions exists between the new denomination and Wespath staff. Van Giesen was formerly treasurer and benefits officer for the Illinois Great Rivers Conference in The United Methodist Church. 

He said the Global Methodist Church is “very pleased” that Wespath senior staff has worked with the new denomination to design a simple defined-contribution plan. While not a defined-benefit plan like what The United Methodist Church has, Van Giesen said the new plan “holds enormous promise for our participants, yet will never create an unfunded liability.”

Hendren noted that the people called Methodist have a history of growing apart and then coming back together. Just as The United Methodist Church has experienced strengthened bonds with its AME Church kin, Hendren envisions a time of renewed friendship with the Global Methodist Church — despite the current hurt of division.

“I just feel that even though these churches are different than ours, there is some kind of shared affinity and DNA that is stronger than the differences,” he said.

Hahn is assistant news editor for UM News. Contact her at (615) 742-5470 or [email protected]To read more United Methodist news, subscribe to the free Daily or Friday Digests.

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