Wespath talks pensions at Germany meeting

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Key points:

  • Wespath administers pension and health benefits for clergy and others in The United Methodist Church.
  • The denomination is global, but Wespath’s work is less well known in European countries where health services and pension payments are largely covered by the state.
  • A recent meeting in Germany featured Wespath officials discussing the sustainability of benefits at a challenging time for The United Methodist Church. 

The tranquil town of Königswinter, Germany, about six miles south of Bonn on the Rhine River’s right bank, was the setting for a small international gathering of large importance to many United Methodists.

Representatives from the central conferences — United Methodist areas in Europe, Africa and the Philippines — came together in early May for an event planned by Wespath Benefits and Investments, the pension and health benefits agency of The United Methodist Church.

Wespath administers the retirement and pension plans for more than 100,000 individuals worldwide but is less well known in Germany, Austria and Switzerland than in the U.S. That’s because in those countries, health services and pension payments are covered by the state as well as by general health insurance funds, and in part by individual local churches.

Yet, Wespath is an agency that merits understanding by all United Methodists, given its key role in providing financial support in retirement to clergy and others worldwide. And Wespath officials have shown their eagerness to learn more about the local situations faced by United Methodist clergy, churches and conferences.

Thus the meeting in Königswinter.

Most of those who attended are associated with the pension administration of the central conferences through the Central Conference Pensions (CCP) program. They came to Königswinter from Lithuania, Latvia, the Philippines, Switzerland and Germany.

Participants from Russia connected virtually.

The focus of the working group’s discussions was the long-term sustainability of the retirement payments for working and retired pastors, as well as their surviving spouses. Current challenges within The United Methodist Church, which have led to some churches and a provisional annual conference disaffiliating, also were discussed.

“We are here to continue to build and strengthen our relationships with the central conferences,” said Dale Jones, who is Wespath’s managing director of church relations and responsible for outreach to the central conferences.

Jones added, “Of 79 UMC annual conferences outside the United States, 69 use Wespath’s services. Today, some 3,300 retired clergy or their surviving spouses benefit from the retirement security provided by Wespath through CCP.”

In Europe, this affects the conference for Latvia and Lithuania, almost all conferences in Central and Southern Europe Central Conference — except Austria and Switzerland — and all conferences belonging to the Eurasian Episcopal Area within Northern Europe and Eurasia Central Conference.

Jones continued, “We identified a clear need in quite a few conferences to organize retirement security. Wespath’s role is to provide expertise that leads, develops and administers these funds. To accomplish this, it is imperative that we understand the retirement situation in each individual country. Only then can the services be tailored to fit the needs of the clergy and churches in that region.”

Wespath plans to host a forum for the central conference representatives from Africa in South Africa later this year.

Launched in 2004, the Central Conference Pensions program has secured $26.5 million through grants, donations and fundraising. Income and earnings from all sources since inception reached $41 million by early 2021, of which about $12.5 million had been paid out by that date for pension payments, guidance and support.

The significance of this program is highlighted in a statement made by the late Bishop John K. Yambasu of Sierra Leone.

Yambasu, who died in 2020, spoke of seeing “retired pastors die in abject poverty and without dignity.”

“I have seen many young people shy away from full-time itinerant ministry because it was like intentionally signing on for a life of permanent poverty,” he told Wespath. “Through the Central Conference Pensions, you and your colleagues restored dignity to ordained ministry.”

Ross Lundstrom is church relations manager for Wespath, and with Jones, he is responsible for working with annual conferences supported by CCP.

“We see our role at Wespath as being a good steward of the money contributed by conferences and donated to CCP by great people in our church,” Lundstrom said.

In total, Wespath manages about $27 billion in assets as of March 31, 2022. In the United States, that puts Wespath close to the top 100 pension funds as measured by total assets.

“We seek steadfastly to support those who serve across our global denomination, even through the current changes in the church,” said Andrew Hendren, Wespath’s top executive.

Hendren took the helm of Wespath in January 2022 after previously serving as the agency’s general counsel/chief legal and governance officer, as well as corporate secretary. He has been with Wespath since 2004 — the same year the CCP initiative began.

Hendren introduced himself to the working group in Königswinter via a video call and was available to answer questions. He explained the challenging task of “making church money work in two ways,” while also maintaining a Christian spirit.

It is a matter of growing the money to help fulfill the missionary task of the church. That means investing profitably, but it also means investing in ways that effect positive change.

At Wespath, the guiding standards of investment are seeking market returns while aligning with The United Methodist Church’s Social Principles (including investment exclusions) as well as incorporating sustainable investment factors that respect the environment and human rights.

In April 2020, Wespath joined the United Nations-convened Net-Zero Asset Owner Alliance, committing to pursue strategies that will achieve net-zero carbon emissions in its portfolios by 2050.

“It’s not simple,” Hendren admitted. “However, it is the Wesleyan way to do all the good you can in all the ways you can. Wespath invests in ways that we believe foster a more sustainable, resilient and equitable future.”

Ruof is public relations officer and spokesperson for The United Methodist Church in Germany. Contact him at [email protected] or [email protected] To read more United Methodist news, subscribe to the free Daily or Weekly Digests.

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