This is part of the America's Future series airing on FOX News Channel, looking at the challenges facing the country in the 21st century.
FAIRFIELD COUNTY, Conn. — They are called to heal the souls of their flock, but when it comes to their own temporal needs, they often find their coffers lacking. A recent study by the National Association of Evangelicals found that thousands of pastors and church staff members are among the millions of Americans without adequate health insurance.
"This is a large and growing problem for American pastors and churches," NAE President Leith Anderson said.
Charles Lucchesi, the senior pastor at Calvary Protestant Evangelical Free Church on New York's Long Island, says that even though his salary package includes a stipend for health insurance, he understands he's one of the lucky ones.
"I know of a number of pastors (who face) a big struggle," he told FOX News. Lucchesi says it's not a matter of choice for many churches — some are just incapable of providing insurance for their leaders.
Skyrocketing premiums and rising fuel costs — coupled with dwindling tithes and offerings — have left many churches strapped for cash.
"The majority of our churches are probably 100 people or less," said Sumner Grant, executive director of the Ministers and Missionaries Benefits Board. "We have very few megachurches, so as a result it's very difficult for them to raise the revenues necessary to provide comprehensive benefits for their pastors and their laity."
According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, since 2001, premiums for family coverage have increased 78 percent, while wages have gone up only 19 percent.
While large, mainline denominations like the Catholic and Presbyterian churches mandate health benefits for clergy and church staff, small independent churches can't always afford the luxury of health benefits.
The Rev. Sherman Driver, the associate pastor of Beacon Hill Church in Monroe, Conn., suffers from mild cerebral palsy, and his medical insurance premiums top $1,000 a month. And while his church pays the bill, he's the only one of the three full-time church staff members who gets financial assistance. The senior pastor gets benefits from his wife's job, and the church secretary pays for her own.
But Driver soon will be leaving Beacon Hill for a new ministry, one that won't cover his high health costs.
"I and my wife are stepping out in faith that God will provide for us," he told FOX News.
Yet Grant, head of the ministers' benefits board, sees health insurance as a moral and ethical obligation, stemming from the very gospel their called to preach.
"I firmly believe that churches need to be providing comprehensive benefits for their pastors," he said. "They call their pastors for their sheep to lead the flock, and pastors ought not to have to worry about what might happen to them. Perhaps if they were hospitalized, are they going to be able to continue to serve in their church?"
But the hard reality is that small churches are like small businesses. They have to find affordable health insurance as best they can. For many pastors from the myriad tiny congregations across the country, the call to serve their faith leaves them with limited choices: Either pay out of their own pocket, find a second job, rely on a spouse's benefits — or just go without coverage.
For the Rev. Driver, that's the only choice right now. "The big issue is following the will of God, and that requires faith," he said. "I have proven throughout all my history that when I obey Him, He provides. So this isn't any different."
While for most people insurance is a safety net, a talisman against the tempests of life, for Driver and many other pastors, faith may become their only shelter from a storm.