"What is this?" Finance staff answers barrage of questions about direct invoicing, apportionments

"What is this?" Finance staff answers barrage of questions about direct invoicing, apportionments

The e-mails and voicemails are finally tapering off.

Almost two months after receiving their first invoices under the new plan, the 899 congregations of Holston Conference are falling into a routine of directly paying for their own pastors' health insurance and pensions.

Conference Treasurer John Tate has answered hundreds of questions from pastors and finance committees about procedures and percentages (on one day, he opened his email to find 111 inquiries). Staff members Ken Luton and Valarie Gallant have answered hundreds more.

"It's getting better," says Tate, but he knows the reprieve is brief. That's because Feb. 10 just passed -- the deadline for the first tithe-based apportionment payments, which is also a new and unfamiliar procedure for Holston churches.

Dramatic changes in the way Holston handles finances were approved by the Annual Conference in June 2009 (direct invoicing) and June 2010 (apportionments). But enactment didn't occur until mid-December 2010, when the finance office in Alcoa sent out the first health-insurance invoices to local churches. That's also when the questions started pouring in, Tate said.

Ken Luton, who follows Kathy Parker as Holston's new pensions and health plan administrator, started his first day on Dec. 29 by returning several of the messages left for Tate.

"Most people are just calling for clarification," said Luton. "A lot called because they were surprised by the pension invoice. They didn't budget for that."

Previously, churches received an invoice from the General Board of Pensions and Health Benefits for their pastors' elective contribution to the pension. They still receive that invoice, but with the beginning of direct invoicing they also receive a monthly bill from Holston for the pension cost previously paid through apportioments. In addition, churches are now receiving monthly invoices from Holston for their pastors' health insurance, which was also previously paid through apportionments.

Church leaders probably expected the health and pension invoices from the conference to be combined, or they thought the General Board of Pensions invoice covered their pastors' pension costs, Tate said. That's why the question he hears most often is, "What is this?"

Two cycles of direct invoicing have now been processed, so most of the surprises have been explained. But the mysteries of the new apportionment formula are yet to be resolved, since the first-ever payments were due Feb. 10.

The new apportionment formula calls for churches to give 10 percent of their previous month’s undesignated income to the conference. “It’s too early” to tell if the process will go smoothly or if conference income generated with the new apportionment will be comparable to budgets of previous years, Tate said.

But around Feb. 15, district offices will receive a list of churches that didn't pay their first apportionment payments. And then Tate will be ready for a new round of questions.

For your information:

  • Ken Luton is not only the conference's new benefits officer, he's also a local pastor. Luton, 64, is appointed to Miller's Chapel United Methodist Church in Oak Ridge District. Luton was hired after long-time conference staff member Kathy Parker retired in December 2010.
  • Twenty-seven percent of Holston churches are now sending payments to the conference electronically, which is not only convenient but saves local churches 2 percent on their health insurance payments. The savings per church amount to $14 monthly or $168 annually.
  • Prior to direct invoicing, 35 percent of the health insurances costs were paid by the local church, 25 percent by the conference, and 40 percent by the pastor, Tate said. "Now we bill 100 percent of the cost and then the church may break it down 60 percent for the church and 40 for the pastor."
  • The conference finance staff continues to experience hardship when churches of a circuit send multiple payments for the pastor they share instead of consolidating finances, Tate said. Problems also occur when treasurers do not provide appropriate information on their remittance forms.