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Council Considers Palestine, Lay Pensions and More

By Kirk Petersen

The Executive Council of the Episcopal Church delayed action this week on a controversial proposal to create a “no-buy list” that would prevent church investment in companies seen as supporting Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.

At a four-day meeting in Linthicum Heights, Maryland, the council also discussed how to provide interpretation and translation services more widely; made a “first step” toward achieving parity between lay and clergy retirement programs; and heard updates on Episcopal Migration Ministries and the challenges of the movement toward full communion with the United Methodist Church.

General Convention passed Resolution B016 last July in Austin, calling for the Episcopal Church to “join with the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America’s action” and create a human rights investment screen to prevent church investment in specific companies. The resolution instructed Executive Council’s Committee on Corporate Social Responsibility (CCSR) to develop criteria for such a screen.

CCSR recommended adopting the same criteria as ELCA, which would mean Caterpillar Inc., Motorola Solutions and Israel Discount Bank would become the inaugural members of TEC’s no-buy list, and the Church would sell its existing investments in those companies.

After lengthy deliberation, the Executive Council’s Finance Committee voted unanimously to send the matter back to CCSR for further discussion. Committee members felt the proposed criteria were too vague, and that TEC should make its own decisions on investment, rather than “outsourcing” the decisions to the Lutherans.

Russ Randle, a council member from Virginia who is an attorney, articulated the criteria that will be sent to CCSR with a request to study the matter further. He noted that in 2012 and 2015, General Convention defeated resolutions similar to B016.  Because the Church officially rejected a plan for an investment screen in 2015, Randle said any decision to put a company on a no-buy list should be based on specific objectionable activities the companies have undertaken since 2015.

Finance Committee members discussed substituting “liquidate” for “divest” in the proposed resolution, because divest implies an association with the Boycott, Divest, Sanction movement. BDS, which has been criticized as anti-Semitic by Israel and its supporters, advocates boycotts against all Israeli products. B016 is a far more targeted effort.

Lay Pensions. In a decision that only will affect about 100 lay employees of the Church Center, Council approved raising by 3 percentage points the employer contribution to lay retirement plans. The Rev. Mally Lloyd, the finance chair and a council member from Massachusetts, told council it was “the first step toward achieving some kind of parity” between lay and clergy employees.

Significant gaps remain. Currently the Church Center pays 18% of clergy salary for clergy retirement benefits. Of that, only 12.4% goes into the pension itself. The remainder goes to pay for disability and life insurance and retiree medical coverage.

Under the plan approved this week, the Church will raise its contribution to lay employee plans from 5% to 8% of salary. Employees are eligible for an employer match of up to 4% if they contribute that amount themselves, for a total of up to 12% paid by the church. Although that closed the gap with the 12.4% portion of the clergy benefit, committee members acknowledged they were not achieving parity.

There are no plans to require dioceses and parishes to duplicate the lay retirement provisions, although multiple council members expressed the hope that the change at the Church Center would inspire other entities to improve lay benefits.

However, “if we’re talking about parity, the way to achieve it is to lower clergy benefits,” said the Rev. Anne Kitch, council member from the Diocese of Newark. That seems unlikely to happen anytime soon.

Episcopal Migration Ministries. The Rev. Canon Chuck Robertson, canon to the presiding bishop for ministry beyond the Episcopal Church, said Episcopal Migration Ministries will learn within two weeks whether they will be invited to participate in the refugee resettlement program for the coming year.  Since the Trump administration began sharply reducing refugee resettlement, EMM has had to close locations and lay off people.

Robertson said that regardless of whether EMM continues to participate as one of the nine resettlement agencies for the U.S. government, the agency will continue to work with refugees. EMM has been a resettlement agency for the past 40 years, but “four decades before becoming a resettlement agency, we were doing the ministry.”

The agency that became EMM grew out of World War II efforts by Episcopal parishes to assist Europeans who were fleeing the Nazis.

Methodists. The United Methodists “had a rather excruciating General Conference,” said the Rev. Margaret Rose, deputy for ecumenical and interfaith collaboration. “Their Book of Discipline was made more punitive than it was in the past, especially around issues of sexuality.”

At a February meeting, the UMC reaffirmed its stance barring “self-avowed practicing homosexuals” from ordained ministry and toughened sanctions for clergy who officiate at same-sex weddings. Concerns have been raised that the move could undermine a decade-long movement toward full communion between the Methodists and Episcopalians.

Many groups among the Methodists “are in much pain, and attempting to find a way forward,” she said. “We’re going to keep talking.”

Finance Committee Hymn. To prove they are not just number-crunchers, the Finance Committee typically closes each Executive Council meeting with a knockoff of a hymn, written during the four-day meeting. The 2022-24 budget process will begin in the coming months, believe it or not, and the committee was looking ahead in prayer to the 2021 General Convention in Baltimore.

To the tune of There is a Balm in Gilead, the crooners sang:

Is there a pledge, in Baltimore… to meet our mission goal?
Is there a pledge, in Baltimore… to make creation whole?

There were three complete verses, but you get the gist.


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