Not long ago, I read an article by Joe Tkach in a recent issue of The Worldwide News. It was entitled “Member donations fund discretionary assistance ministry.” After reading it, I was deeply saddened.
In the article, Tkach reported that the Worldwide Church of God is helping to support some 240 former employees at a total cost of approximately $350,000/mo. (That comes to an average of only $1458 per month each.) Think about it – after all these years, only 240 employees are receiving retirement monies from the organization they served for most of their adult lives – and what they are receiving is no where near enough to live on. What happened to the thousands of other ex-employees who gave major portions of their lives and incomes to “the Work”?
Tkach reminds us that church employees never paid Social Security taxes; therefore many of them could not qualify for benefits when they turned 62 or 65. One wonders why someone didn’t think decades ago of the implications of this. Tkach of course blamed the problem on those who made the decisions prior to the advent of the Tkachian dynasty.
What About Savings?
Some may wonder, “Well why didn’t employees of the Church simply save for their own retirements?” Are you serious? With the single-to-triple tithing system, how much disposable income did employees have? Most of our money was taken up with paying for the simple necessities of life. I used to read letters from people in Australia who complained that they had to loan money in their third tithe year to keep up with tithes and taxes. Something is fundamentally wrong when people have to borrow money every third and sixth years to pay their tithes and taxes!
Even if we were able to put a little money aside, there was no keeping it. The endless financial crises of the “Work” saw to that. More than once we were asked to “dig deep” and “sacrifice” to bail out “the Work.” Some people sold their homes and farms to support the Work. Anyone who was sitting on a pile of retirement money, no matter how meager, would have had a guilt trip a mile high.
Add to this the apocalyptic mentality that pervaded the Church. Long time members will recall that we expected to be in Petra – the alleged “place of safety” – from 1972 to 1975. At the end of that time – probably on the day of Trumpets 1975, Christ would return to establish the Millennial Kingdom. In that climate, few thought of retirement. After that, we were subjected to the “19-year time cycles” routine.
Then there was the matter of “working until you drop.” If HWA could do it, why couldn’t the rest of us? He was always “in harness” despite the fact that others tried to get him to retire. Many of us thought we’d continue to serve in the ministry, or some other aspect of the work, until we died. Retirement, catastrophic illness, doctors and operations, disfellowshippings, firings and exits on conscience weren’t viewed as likely options.
The fact is, most employees of the old Worldwide Church of God were left in a precarious financial position once they left the employ of the Church, no matter the reason. Being an “ex-minister” or a former church employee are not the most marketable resumes either.
A Word to the Wise
Current employees of the various Churches of God would be well advised to look out for themselves and their families, no matter what Church retirement programs may be in place. In authoritarian organizations you can’t count on anything but the whims of those in authority. Loyalty is the highest value. Those who are most supportive of the hierarchy tend to reap the greatest – if any – rewards. Rank & file employees are often left to swing in the breeze. Furthermore, those who do find themselves supported by their former church employer in retirement, no matter how poorly, may be subject to “gag rules.” By that I mean that they are not allowed to speak “against” the church or its doctrines – or to fellowship with competing groups.
If you can arrange an independent retirement account (IRA), or its equivalent, do it; and feed it to the limit of your ability. If you can’t do that, save money in the form of government bonds, mutual funds, money market instruments – something. (CD’s are not always a good investment by the way. Though safer, they may lag behind inflation and taxes.)
Try to find a way to work for an employer who supports social security. Work for that employer long enough to ensure that you receive full social security benefits at retirement. As Tkach’s article pointed out, many former WCG employees found it necessary upon retiring from the WCG to go out and take other jobs to qualify for SSI. Even then, they could not work long enough to qualify for full benefits. This is not the most inviting prospect when you’re old, tired and sick.
In my opinion, it would be best to treat working for a church like a stint of public service: do it for a time, then return to the mainstream work force to ensure retirement benefits, medical coverage etc. Don’t count on Christ returning in your lifetime – he may or he may not.
The Dynamics of Human Resources
In any business – and make no mistake about it, the Church is a business – the greatest cost of doing business is usually employees (now called “human resources”). In a “normal” company, the employer is shelling out for stock savings plans, unemployment insurance, social security, medical insurance plans, retirement plans, and other employee benefits. The cost to the employer of these benefits can add another 30 to 40 percent to the visible salary of the employee. The employee may think he’s making $50,000/year, but the employer sees $85,000/year as the real cost of that employee. Not only that, but the employer must provide workspace, tools, computers and other items so that the employee can do his or her job.
With churches, income fluctuates wildly for a variety of reasons. It is only by imposing the tithe upon employees and members that a church can guarantee a steady income base. That base becomes the core around which it builds. Church leaders count on breathlessly urgent member or “co-worker” letters to generate income beyond the tithe-produced base.
Whenever employers are looking for ways to cut costs so that they can increase margins, they always cast their eyes upon the workforce. Since it is the highest cost of doing business, it is the first place to make cuts. Cuts are often made on the basis of how closely related to, or distant from, an employee is to the sacred bottom line. Employees who generate income will be the most secure. Employees who save money will be the next most secure. Employees who cost money, without generating or saving money, will be the first to go. I can remember one evangelist on television saying, “I always get invited to speak at conferences because I know how to bring the money in.” He was in demand on the speaking circuit because he generated more money than he cost. That says it all.
Within the culture of the churches of God, we see this principle at work in the selection of festival speakers. Since festivals are a time when major offerings are elicited, the more people who attend a given site, the larger will be the offering. People are more likely to attend a given site if they know a “big name” speaker will be speaking there. So speakers are often selected on the basis of their “drawing power.” The formula seems to be: the bigger the speaker, the bigger the offering. (Does that mean speakers weighing more than 300 pounds would generate larger offerings?)
How other churches do it
Larger, more established, denominations have invested church funds in real estate, mutual funds and other endeavors to ensure operating income. Some smaller ministries have supported themselves by bringing the whole of their membership into multi-level marketing schemes. The point is, working for a church, whether larger or small, is a financially “iffy” business. The more authoritarian an organization is, the less you can count on it to support you. Leadership caprice, not fixed legal obligation, will tend to call the shots. In authoritarian organizations, whether they are nations like Iraq, or church denominations run by a hierarchy, the top dogs will almost always be taken care of at the expense of the rank & file. This is true in major corporations, and it is true in autocratic churches. In authoritarian cults of personality, the highest value is personal loyalty to the GL – Glorious Leader. This leads to nepotism, cronyism, sycophantism and intellectual constipation (you can only know what the leaders knows). Cronies, family members and kissers-up tend to reap the greatest benefits, and all others can take their chances in the real Darwinian world.
So long as gullible true believers can be manipulated into giving sacrificially so that GL’s can take care of their own, there will be injustices and inequities in the treatment of church employees. If those employees don’t find ways to take care of their own retirements, medical costs etc., they will be left in the same kind of situations Joe Tkach described for the few that are still supported by the WCG in retirement.
When I worked for a major US corporation, and I’d complain to the company President (for whom I wrote articles and speeches) about some inequity, invariably his response was, “That’s life in the Big City Brian, get used to it.” I never got used to it. I wanted to fix it. Fixing the inequities that exist in the relationship between churches and their employees is a Herculean task. It isn’t going to happen because I write a column on it. It will only come from a general awareness that something is fundamentally wrong, and enough people need to band together to get it fixed. Church leaders won’t appreciate this. It puts pressure on them, and it may diminish the amount of discretionary money to which they have access. It can’t be helped. Equity costs money. People, including leaders, only change when the pain of remaining the same exceeds the pain of change.