ORLANDO, Fla. — Wesley United Methodist Church is a congregation of
a few hundred members in Marco Island, Fla. It is an active congregation
with ministries to the homeless, students and the elderly, and every
year it sends missionaries to Guatemala.
The congregation enjoys a prime location less than two miles from
Florida’s Gulf Coast and pays for it — $47,000 this year alone on
property insurance, which is about half what it would pay on the open
With help from a statewide insurance plan of the United Methodist
Church, the congregation is able to invest more in local ministries and
outreach, said Ernie Stevens, chairman of the congregation’s finance
“Everybody is subject to something, tornadoes or floods or
hurricanes or mudslides or all these things that we hear happening to
people. So if we can share each other’s burdens,” he said, “it would be
a very beneficial thing for all of us.”
Across Florida, hurricanes have pushed property insurance rates
sky-high, forcing some homeowners from their homes and prompting new
legislation that aims to reduce rates. Churches have not been immune to
the burden, but United Methodist congregations are finding relief in a
plan that spreads risk among churches statewide, making insurance
available to coastal congregations like Wesley and alleviating costs for
Now United Methodist leaders are joining with Catholics, Lutherans,
Presbyterians, Seventh-day Adventists and others to explore whether such
a plan could work nationwide.
The idea is actually fairly simple — the likelihood of a
catastrophic event devastating such a large area is not as great, so
when hurricane-prone churches share risk with churches in
earthquake-prone and tornado-prone regions, premiums go down.
“When we first met last year, I was astonished. I thought we would
all be talking about wind storm damage,” said Mickey Wilson, treasurer
of the Methodists’ statewide conference. “It’s just as difficult for
someone within a certain distance of the Missouri River to get
insurance. … It’s not just about wind storms. It’s about all sorts of
The conversation began after the Catholic Church confronted its sex
scandals, said Peter Persuitti, managing director of Arthur J. Gallagher
& Co., an Itasca, Ill.-based insurance brokerage and consulting firm
specializing in religious organizations. Churches are unique and
misunderstood by some insurers, he said. They are nonprofits serving
communities on small budgets but are very accountable to their
“If I (as an insurer) think I’m underwriting a bad risk I will
charge more,” he said.
Eventually denominations began creating their own insurance
companies. Seven years ago, denominational leaders met to discuss common
issues. After Hurricanes Katrina, Rita and so many others swept across
the Southeast in 2005, these leaders began exploring the idea of
spreading risk, Persuitti said.
He explains it this way: If you could choose between insuring
churches in Florida and insuring churches in Florida, California and the
Midwest, you would choose the latter. That’s spreading risk.
Insurance rates have surged in recent years all across Florida. Now
Florida Gov. Charlie Crist is pushing the idea of a national catastrophe
fund. Policyholders nationwide would pay into a pool that would help
cover costs no matter where a disaster occurred — a hurricane in
Louisiana, an earthquake in California or a tornado in Oklahoma, for
example. A similar fund already exists for floods.
The idea has gained some traction as disasters in recent years have
devastated areas well beyond Florida. Hurricane season started June 1,
and forecasters are predicting an above-average season, part of a
decades-long upswing in activity.
In Florida, the United Methodist Church insures all its
congregations through a plan that spreads risk statewide. Rather than
let congregations seek insurance on their own, the denomination’s
Florida Annual Conference takes all its congregations to market for a
$20 million annual fee. The fee is up from $4 million three years ago,
and the rest of the conference budget is only $12 million. But Wilson,
the treasurer of the statewide conference, said some churches couldn’t
get insurance on their own.
“It’s affected our ability to minister. It’s affected our ability to
do outreach,” he said of the climbing costs. “Having the entire nation
come into this would be just huge.”