A 'quite-essential mission' for the church
In my native Kentucky, both during and after seminary, I served as pastor in several tiny, rural places over a four-year period — first, in Smith's Grove, then in Smithland, followed lastly by Smith Mills.
How by chance, I still wonder, did a young preacher get that kind of quirky, coincidental luck? God called me to "smithereens," literally.
In Smithland, my four-point charge included a wood-frame church remotely nestled more than four miles down a dead-end, gravel-turned-dirt road. No one had a key to the building, because the doors were never locked. In the winter, it was heated by a pot-belly stove complete with crude wires holding up rusty ventilation pipes. Incidentally, there was no fire hydrant — much less a fire station — within 20 miles of the premises.
I recently found myself thinking about that old country church, when I heard Cathy Green, on behalf of the UCC Insurance Board, speaking about the difficulties that many churches have when obtaining — and trying to hold onto — adequate property and liability insurance. It was for this very reason that UCCIB was born in the early 1980s, because a group of UCC churches believed it should be a basic, nitty-gritty aspect of denominational life: No church should be left behind.
Without the likes of UCCIB, "red lining" by secular insurance companies still renders many congregations effectively "uninsurable," because their buildings are located in rural areas, inner cities or along a coastline. Even a church's distance away from a fire station or hydrant, Green points out, can cause difficulties.
Moreover, in the aftermath of the clergy sexual abuse scandal, it's become nearly impossible — as well as cost prohibitive — for many churches to obtain adequate liability coverage for pastors, lay leaders and volunteers. Thankfully, UCCIB not only covers on-site liability issues, it provides a blanket policy that extends to off-site church activities as well.
During the past two years, however, UCCIB has found itself financially "pummeled" by natural disasters, explains the Rev. Bennie E. Whiten Jr., the board's new interim director. Hurricane-related losses, due largely to 108 disaster-related claims totaling more than $4 million in 2004 alone, have left UCCIB with less-than-desired cash reserves.
Even worse, claims related to this year's devastating hurricanes, as well as an upward trend for damage-related claims in general, are expected to cause further financial headaches.
That's why, after two years without premium increases, UCCIB is finding it necessary to raise its rates in 2006. During this time of hefty energy costs coupled with a somewhat sluggish economy, UCCIB's hike is likely to be unwelcome budgetary news for local church trustees.
Unfortunately, even if understandably, some better-positioned churches may find it enticing to chase after smaller premiums offered by secular providers, leaving UCCIB's remaining churches with a greater share of the disaster-laden difficulties.
Until I heard Green's presentation at the UCC's Executive Council meeting in October, I had never before considered the notion that rather-boring "insurance" could actually be viewed as quite-essential "mission." I found it encouraging that a congregation's determination to remain fully devoted to the church's insurance program could actually be an additional, loving response to the Gulf Coast hurricanes — and one more way that we can remain committed to each other. Not a very glamorous way, to be sure, but a significant way none the less.
There are at least 100 reasons why churches insist they can go it better alone. In the beginning, at least, each could find a couple of budget lines to cut, a few savings here and there. "I have no need of you," so jests St. Paul in his biblical soliloquy on Christian unity.
But why run the race with perseverance if you're the only one to complete it?
Instead, upon Christ's rock we will build our church. It's the more excellent way, I choose to believe. And, together, not even the gates of the insurance industry shall prevail against it. Not even in Smithland.