Opinion: And (healthcare) justice for all

Opinion: And (healthcare) justice for all

March 14, 2010
Written by Gregg Brekke

The mission statement of the United Church of Christ on Health and Human Service includes this clause: "The allocation of our nation's resources has an impact on the effective provision of health and human service.

The church must be a strong advocate for those priorities which serve life and human fulfillment." The statement goes on to suggest that among these priorities are "[a] just standard of health care that is accessible to all."

This is all well and good. If only the UCC as a whole supported this goal, beginning with a just standard for its clergy and employees. The current standard allows the Pension Board to offer those who serve the UCC in both ordained and non-ordained capacities only a 90-day window of opportunity to sign on for healthcare benefits without "proving insurability."

The same standard applies to spouses/partners and dependents. Although such periods of open enrollment are standard practice among all employers who offer group health insurance benefits, this brief period begins to elapse for those employed by the UCC and its congregations, associations and conferences on the first week that the clergyperson or employee works 20 or more hours.

Unfortunately this excessively narrow standard catches many UCC clergy and employees off guard. For instance, I have heard stories of those, who serving as three-quarters time licensed ministers during their seminary education, have been unable to join the Pension Boards health insurance plan without proving their insurability following their first call and ordination.

Seminary placement offices and judicatory officials - in some places, at least – have been woefully remiss in explaining these things to new clergy. The end result is that many clergy are left without insurance or forced to use their partners' health insurance benefits. Some might simply interpret this as another example of UCC autonomy grinding against UCC covenant. But when this grinding destroys the healthcare security of the very people whose service the church as a whole depends upon, we must begin to ask ourselves where the justice can be found in all of this.

One of the pastoral epistles, quoting Jesus and the Hebrew Scriptures remind us to:

Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching; for the scripture says, 'You shall not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain', and, 'The laborer deserves to be paid' (1 Tim. 5:17-18).

In our day and age, health insurance certainly must be considered among the pay and "honor" that need to be accorded those who serve the church. Indeed, the United Church of Christ as a whole would seem to support such an approach. However, the reality often falls short of the ideal.

Whether comprehensive healthcare reform passes through Congressional action or not in the coming weeks or months, the sad fact remains that the United Church of Christ in many of its settings from the national level down to local congregations, has failed to live up to its call for healthcare justice for all. No where is this failure more fully felt than by clergy and church employees who are caught between the rock of UCC autonomy and the hard place of UCC covenant.

Personally I call upon judicatory officials, national officers of the church and local congregational leaders to demand that the Pension Board live out our church's shared vision of healthcare justice for all. Demand that this important arm of the church live under the same promises that the rest of our communal body claims to support. Write, call or e-mail the Pension Board asking them to live up to the very promises to which we in the United Church of Christ are insisting that all Americans are entitled. Here is the contact information:

The Pension Boards - United Church of Christ
475 Riverside Drive, Room 1020 New York, NY 10115
Phone: 800.642.6543
Fax: 212.729.2701

While you are at it, remember Jesus words to those who spoke highly of justice in his day, while denying it to many in their own religious community:

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others (Matt. 23:23). 

The Rev. Jeff Johnston and his family live in Morton, Ill., where he is pastor of Community United Church of Christ.

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