The Last Beneficiary

The following is an excerpt of remarks made by Rev. Jenny Phillips at the General Board of Pension and Health Benefits meeting on November 13, 2014.

Thank you very much for sharing your time with me today. I’m a pastor in Seattle, and I’m here on behalf of Fossil Free UMC, a group of United Methodists who are developing legislation to add coal, petroleum and natural gas added to our denomination’s investment screens.

I want you to know that we know that this may be a fool’s errand. We know that General Conference doesn’t have the authority to dictate the investment policies of the Board of Pensions. General Conference is not a fiduciary. It can’t be sued. So the stakes are different for that body than they are for you. When General Conference hands you a screening recommendation, the first thing you have to consider is the board’s fiduciary duty. You’ve got to consider how this screen is going to impact returns because you’re tasked with keeping our pensions solvent. You have to protect the agency against legal exposure that could ultimately put those assets at risk. And you have to discern how the ethical component of your fiduciary duty informs any given screening recommendation.

Now in the meantime, your staff is engaging in shareholder advocacy with a handful of the fossil fuel companies in which the board is invested. There is broad appeal for this work.

Here’s the problem. Staying at the table with these companies isn’t going to move us toward the immediate solutions we desperately need to solve the climate crisis. These companies share prices are based on their fossil fuel reserves in the ground. But the consensus of the scientific community is that we can only burn a fraction of those reserves and still sustain a livable planet.

The task at hand isn’t like asking Nike to stop making shoes in sweatshops. It’s like asking Nike to stop making shoes.

This industry’s profits, and our profits, depend on the continued production of fossil fuels, and that’s a fact we can’t change by staying at the table. As a denomination, we can’t continue to say we’re against climate change while saying we’re for fossil fuel profits.

Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone does not receive you or listen to what you have to say, leave that house or town and, once outside it, shake its dust from your feet.” (Matt 10:14)

When our denomination and its retirees profit from fossil fuels, when we insist on staying in a one-sided conversation that cannot bring the change that our survival depends on, then coal dust and tar sands and fracking byproducts cling to our feet, and we leave those dirty footprints in our places of ministry all around the world.

I know I can preach like this on Sunday morning, but on Monday, you’re still tasked with providing diversified investments to our defined benefit pension plans until the last beneficiary dies. So I want to take a moment to imagine the ministry of that last beneficiary.

Now it’s hard to know how long this United Methodist Church enterprise is going to go on. So for the sake of simplicity, let’s imagine that last beneficiary gets ordained and begins his ministry next year, in 2015. Maybe he’s a young pastor--25 years old. Perhaps he’ll serve until age 72, in which case he would retire in the year 2062. What might his ministry look like over the next four-plus decades?

Well, so much depends on location. But wherever he is located, it is certain that his ministry will be touched by climate change.

If our hypothetical last pastor serves in the continental United States, he might spend years of his ministry working on recovery from extreme weather events--the kinds scientists tell us to expect more of--events like Sandy and Katrina. Or perhaps he’ll work in a church whose endowment came from selling fracking rights, but whose tap water isn’t safe to pour over the babies he baptizes.

If he’s appointed in Alaska, his church’s building might have serious problems with its foundation, because warming temperatures are thawing the permafrost that has been the ground on which some Alaskan communities are built.

Warmer temperatures--even just a degree or two warmer--will exacerbate the spread of tropical diseases, which could really hurt the progress of our Imagine No Malaria campaign. Our pastor might be serving in the malaria-stricken Ivory Coast, tending to increasing numbers of sick people  and comforting those who are grieving untimely deaths.

The effects of climate change will make crop yields less stable, which could make food more scarce and more expensive. That’s a challenge if our pastor is serving a missionary church in Thailand. Many communities there depend on subsistence farming, and they expect more seasons of hunger.

Perhaps he’ll have to help his congregation in Ghana deal with the toxic aftermath of an oil spill that drenches their shorelines and poisons their fishing waters. Ghana is a place where oil drilling is expanding, but where the environmental safety net is virtually non-existent.

If our pastor is appointed to a church on a coastline in the Philippines, his church could be on the front lines of mitigating impacts of sea level rise. Or his church might just get washed away in a typhoon.

Scientific consensus indicates that every one of our ministries will be touched in some way by climate change, because every person on this planet will be touched by climate change. And in the next 45 years, The United Methodist Church will be on the front lines of climate change mitigation and recovery efforts worldwide. Indeed, we already are.

When I think of that last beneficiary, the one whose pension you’re charged to protect, I can’t help but feel compelled to ask you to really, really explore the possibility that there can be a responsible path in which his retirement account isn’t dependent on the flourishing of industries that will wreak such havoc and heartbreak and destruction and death upon the people he is called to serve. Thank you.

Photo by Aaron Pazan. Delegates to the United Methodist Global Young People's Gathering in the Philippines distribute supplies to other survivors of Typhoon Haiyan.