PHILADELPHIA — They gave their lives to teach in Catholic schools, nurse in Catholic hospitals and care for members of parishes, but now they face an uncertain future, one in which they must look to those they served for help.

Without 401Ks, and sometimes even pensions and Social Security, to support them, the nation’s priests and religious brothers and sisters are living their retirement years with limited resources to pay for the basic needs many laypeople take for granted upon leaving the workforce.

Although several efforts begun in the 1980s to care for members of religious communities are bearing fruit, it is unlikely any will raise all the money required. The actual need reaches into the billions, far surpassing what is collected, said Sister Janice Bader, a member of the Sisters of the Most Precious Blood of O’Fallon, Mo., and executive director of the National Religious Retirement Office (NRRO).

She said a recent actuarial study showed that the unfunded need currently exceeds $4 billion, though that amount is down from more than $8 billion in a similar study done in 2004. The Retirement Fund for Religious, the largest of several fundraising appeals for priests, sisters and brothers in religious communities, raises an average of $28 million annually.

Meanwhile, some diocesan pension funds set up to support retired priests also are struggling, suffering from the same woes as those afflicting the private sector.

In the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, where Archbishop Charles Chaput has been addressing what he called “well-intentioned but poor management decisions made over a period of nearly two decades,” the priest pension fund has fallen dangerously short, according to a report by the Philadelphia Inquirer. In April, priests living in Church-owned properties were asked to return portions of their pensions to the archdiocese.


National Problem

Charles Zech, who directs the Center for the Study of Church Management at Villanova University in Pennsylvania, said he wouldn’t be surprised if every diocese had priest-pension issues in one form or another because many corporate pension funds are facing the same problem.

With people living longer, the ability of such funds to cover everyone has been strained, while a struggling economy has taken its toll on investments. Zech said even without the additional burden of having to pay claims in clergy sexual-abuse cases, the Church pension-fund problem would be severe.

Still, Zech said, when it comes to retirement, diocesan priests may be in better shape than their senior counterparts in religious communities.

Sister Janice explained that this is because diocesan priests function under a different compensation system than religious. “[Priests] are responsible for their own savings as individuals, whereas religious pool their funds. In most cases, if a priest is living in a parish rectory, his food and housing are provided and that does not need to come out of his salary. For religious, what we receive has to cover food and housing.”

And with more senior members than younger ones contributing money to the pool, religious communities that already have insufficient savings for retirement are facing reduced income. According to the NRRO, by 2022, religious over the age of 70 will outnumber those under 70 by nearly four to one. In 2011, just 6% of the 559 religious communities reporting to the NRRO had adequate funding for retirement. This, combined with rising health-care costs, has led to a retirement-funding predicament for the nation’s religious.


Catholic Generosity

There is good news, however, in the generosity of Catholics, who have responded consistently since 1986 by giving to the Retirement Fund for Religious. The most recent collection totaled $29 million after somewhat of a decline since 2008.

“Whether it’s because people know more about it is hard to tell,” Sister Janice said. “We think we’re getting the word out, but we still run into people who have not heard anything of the need or think religious are supported through the dioceses or the Vatican.”

The appeal, the largest national collection administered by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, is co-sponsored by the USCCB, Conference of Major Superiors of Men, Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious and the Leadership Conference of Women Religious.

Besides the national collection, some dioceses conduct their own collections, distributing more than $3.9 million to religious communities in their locales, Sister Janice said.

In the Milwaukee Archdiocese, the Foundation for Religious Retirement, which was started just before the NRRO, raises $200,000 to $300,000 a year through direct-mail appeals for communities of women religious with motherhouses in the archdiocese. Jan Parrott, executive director of the foundation, said the archdiocese also raises money for the NRRO as part of a combined collection done in June.

Additionally, Support Our Aging Religious (SOAR), a group started by laypeople in the Washington, D.C., area in 1986, this year distributed $1.1 million in grants to religious communities for such needs as alarm systems and medical equipment. SOAR seeks donations through direct mail and special events and works closely with the NRRO to supplement that group’s efforts.

Sister Kathleen Lunsmann, a member of the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary in Scranton, Pa., and president of SOAR, said her group receives about $2 million in funding requests each year, but the need is even greater. “If we raised $5 million, we would be able to give out $5 million,” she said, “and we would be able to change our methodology. The top grant is now $25,000, and we’re often funding projects that cost a lot more.”


Inadequate Pensions

Parrott said most of her foundation’s donors seem to understand that religious sisters were not compensated for their work at the level laypeople were and that very little money is available to them through pensions or Social Security. Even after religious became eligible for Social Security in 1972, the low wages they earned generated only about a third of what other U.S. workers get.

Sister Janice said she would describe the current situation for senior priests and religious as serious, though not necessarily a crisis: “Religious communities are working very hard to leverage the funds that we give them, to decrease expenses and to seek additional sources of income.”

She said communities are doing this by divesting themselves of or finding new uses for underused buildings, applying for benefits like Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, and seeking professional advice on investment strategies and cost-effective, quality care for aging members.

About 80% of the funds collected through the annual appeal are distributed on a per-capita basis and used for the day-to-day living expenses of senior religious to cover health-care needs, prescription drugs or the cost of hiring nurses or aides. The remaining 15% to 20% goes toward specific projects and strategies that help religious communities become more financially stable.

For example, the Sisters of Providence in Melbourne, Ky., recently received funding to relocate their administrative offices from a large building they had sold to a new wing of another building. The move enabled them to save $400,000 a year in maintenance, utilities and upkeep.

Besides allocating funding for such projects and the day-to-day care of senior religious, the NRRO offers communities the services of 80 volunteer consultants with expertise in finance, elder-care delivery and leadership planning to help them find ways to lower costs.


Crisis Ahead?

Sister Janice said many communities likely will reach a crisis point in five to 10 years, when the last of the large groups of religious enter retirement. Currently, she said, a significant number of religious in their late 60s and early 70s still are serving in full-time compensated ministry, but the younger groups following them are much smaller.

Register correspondent Judy Roberts writes from Graytown, Ohio.