In January of 2019, almost one year ago, I was ordained as a Minister of the Word and Sacrament in the PC(USA). Being ordained meant a lot of changes. It meant I could now serve in my first call in a small church in central Arkansas. It meant I was given the title Reverend. It meant I could preside over communion, perform baptisms, and officiate weddings. It also meant that I became a member of the Board of Pensions (BOP).
In the past year, as part of my terms of call, my church has paid around $13,000 to the BOP. This money covers my insurance, as well as my pension plan. But the money paid to the BOP for my pension does not simply sit in a bank account. It is invested. When we debate whether or not our denomination should hold investments in certain companies, I think many people in the pews don’t fully understand where the money from investments comes from, and what it is used for. That is money that our members give in tithes and offerings each week. It is from the part of the budget used to support their pastors so that we may be free to do the work we are called to do. The earnings from those investments will be what their pastors live off of once we retire.
We should care what those investments are being used for by the companies that we entrust our money to. We should care where our investment earnings are coming from.
Three years before I became a member of the BOP, I was drawn, somewhat unwillingly, into the debate over fossil fuel divestment. In 2016, I was assigned to the committee for Immigration and Environmental Issues as a seminary advisory delegate to General Assembly. I arrived in Portland completely overwhelmed by the complicated debate and with no idea how I was going to vote. What ultimately swayed me in favor of divestment was the testimonies of human rights abuses committed by the fossil fuel industry around the world. Companies that we invest in are using our money, the money our members give each week to further the work of the church, to harm people and creation. I was already outraged, but when I became a member of the BOP a year ago it became even more personal. How can I in good conscious let my church send that money to the BOP knowing where it was going? How can I someday use that money when I am retired knowing where it came from?
Shortly after beginning my call, I received information concerning enrollment in the Retirement Savings Plan (RSP) offered through Fidelity Investments. This is an optional savings plan that PC(USA) clergy can choose to invest in, in order to supplement their pension income after retirement. Of the thirteen different investment options offered by the RSP, I was surprised to discover that only two follow the PC(USA) guidelines for divestment. Those guidelines lay out which companies we do not invest in for ethical reasons related to either business practices or what they produce. But for those, like me, who want to avoid investment in the fossil fuel industry, there is another option. I was able to use the guide written by Fossil Free PC(USA) to successfully enroll my retirement savings in the Pax Global Environmental Markets Fund, ensuring a fossil fuel free portfolio.[i]
But this raised the question: if Fidelity Investments can offer a fossil fuel free investment option, shouldn’t the BOP have the same option? Recently I contacted the BOP to find out if it was in fact possible to divest my own pension from fossil fuels. First, I submitted a request for a list of companies which the BOP invests in, as well as which companies my own pension funds are invested in. I was told the information was in the mail. A week later I received a packet containing the Annual Review,[ii] which is available on the BOP website and contained none of the information I requested. I contacted them again, this time by phone, only to be told that such requests needed to go through the same email I had already contacted before. So, I sent another email, this time specifying that what I had received was not what I requested and reiterating my reasons for requesting that information. They would not send information concerning which companies the BOP invests in and informed me that there is only one investment portfolio and therefore individuals cannot divest their pensions.
The time that I spent trying to contact the BOP and being passed from person to person seems to have been in vain, but it also raises several important questions. First, why is the BOP opposed to letting members know which companies our money is invested in? As members, don’t we have a right to that information? And second, why is the BOP unable to create a fossil free portfolio? Fidelity Investments offers a fossil free option for the RSP, and the Presbyterian Foundation now has an option for churches and mid-councils through the New Covenant Trust Company.[iii] While the BOP continues to fight against divestment at GA alongside MRTI, the least they could do is offer a fossil free option to their members who want to ensure their money is not being used to do harm.
Rev. Ainsley Herrick is Pastor of Morrilton First Presbyterian Church in Morrilton Arkansas.
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