This Week in
Texas Methodist History June 2
Pension benefits for retired preachers always constitute an important part of the business sessions of Methodist annual conferences. Pensions are complicated and of obvious vital interest to both active and retired preachers. Most annual conferences now have a pension system in place that allows retired ministers to enjoy their retirement in dignity, but it was not always so.
When the Texas Conference was just starting in the 1840s the Journals printed Question 8, “Who are the superannuated and worn out preachers?” Texas was such a new conference that it had no “worn out” preachers to report, but the Mississippi Conference from which the Texas Conference was created, had worn out preachers who had toiled in Texas.
Superannuates were grouped with other claimants to divide the funds that had been collected through the year at the quarterly conferences. Here’s how it worked.
As presiding elders traveled their districts holding quarterly conferences, they collected funds. The preacher’s salary and the presiding elder’s salary were taken from those collections. Each preacher received the same pay with some allowances being made for preachers with families to support.
In a good year the collections would result in a surplus that the presiding elder would bring to annual conference. Once the surpluses from the various districts were pooled, a final total for the amount to be distributed was calculated. It would then be distributed by vote of the annual conference among the following classes of claimants:
Preachers whose collections had not come up to the stated salary
Widows and children of deceased preachers.
To use the Mississippi Conference of 1842 as an example we find that Bishops Soule, Roberts, and Hedding all received $9.88; Bishop Andrew, $9.05; Bishop Waugh, $11.34, and Bishop Morris, $7.04.
Preachers whose collections on their circuit did not reach the minimum received amounts from $2.25 to almost $100.
William Stevenson, who preached the first Methodist sermon in
was a superannuate of the Mississippi Conference. He received $82.50. Two widows received $61.50 each.
To summarize: PE’s would collect money as they made their rounds. After their salaries and the circuit preachers were paid, the rest would be divided among the classes of claimants according to a formula decided at annual conference. The use of the term “conference claimants” is thus sort of a lexical artifact from the early years of Methodism.
As more Methodist preachers lived long enough to reach retirement age, the ranks of superannuated preachers grew, and the growing number of retirees meant that the conference claimant funds had to be stretched thinner and thinner. Each new retiree and widow increased the demand on the available funds and few of them had accumulated savings
The main form of wealth accumulation in 19th century
was the price appreciation of real estate—either a farm which became more
valuable as improvements were made or a city house that became more valuable as
the city’s population grew and created increased demand for housing. The inflation of real estate value in late 19th
was such a common discussion topic that the economist Henry George (1839-1897)
proposed a system in which all other taxes could be eliminated if cities would
just tax the “unearned increment” of inflated real estate.
A circuit riding ministry meant that few preachers in full connection could accumulate wealth through the appreciation of real estate. Living in a parsonage meant one reached retirement age a non-homeowner.
Retirement often meant living with one’s adult children or in some cases with active preachers who happened to live in large parsonages.
One response to the destitute condition of retirees was the practice of churches owning houses which they allowed retirees to live in rent free. Many retirees thus depended upon the generosity of a particular congregation.
A regular system of pensions based on years of service provided the ultimate answer to the persistent question of how to care for retirees.
At the Texas Annual Conference of 1958 retirees got a raise. The formula was simple. For each year of service, the retiree received $58. A preacher who retired after 40 years of service would thus receive a monthly pension of almost $200 per month.