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January 5, 2010

ELCA publisher's board terminates defined benefit retirement plan


Augsburg Fortress, the publishing ministry of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, announced in a Dec. 31, 2009, letter to participants that it will terminate its defined benefit retirement plan effective March 5. The action, approved by the board of trustees of Augsburg Fortress Dec. 18, affects 500 plan participants.

Not affected by the decision is the company's current retirement plan — a defined contribution plan — in which Augsburg Fortress' current employees can participate. That plan is a 403b plan "common for non-profit organizations," according to information from the publisher. Approximately 150 current employees are enrolled in this plan.

Most participants in the defined benefit plan will receive a lump sum payment, said Beth A. Lewis, president and chief executive officer, Augsburg Fortress, Minneapolis. The trustees amended the plan to provide for a "more equitable allocation of plan assets among plan participants," she wrote in the letter to plan participants. Without the amendment, more than half of the plan participants would have received nothing at all, Lewis wrote.

"We wanted to make certain that we had the most equitable distribution of assets possible," she said in an interview with the ELCA News Service. "If we had done nothing, the plan would have run out of money in approximately five years and left about 60 percent of those in the plan with no retirement benefits. We didn't think that was equitable or fair."

In 2005 the Augsburg Fortress board of trustees took action to freeze the defined benefit plan, and began offering its 403b plan to its employees. The costly defined benefit plan "has been underfunded for about nine years," Lewis said.

She explained that the defined benefit plan appeared to have enough funding to provide payments to plan participants for many years, but all of that changed when financial markets turned downward in 2008 and early 2009.

As of Dec. 31, 2009, the plan's retirement benefit obligations totaled about $24.2 million, the company said in a series of questions and answers sent to plan participants. The plan's assets were only $8.6 million.

The company said other options to fund the shortfall were considered, such as trying to find sources of external funding, declaring bankruptcy and selling company assets, or doing nothing. In the end, the board chose to terminate the plan and amend it to spread assets more equitably.

"This decision breaks our hearts," the document said. "But, among four bad options, we truly believe this is the best of them. Not good. Just the best of the hard choices facing us."

Augsburg Fortress is a separately incorporated unit of the ELCA churchwide organization. The company said it sought support from the churchwide organization, but was advised that it "has no obligations or fiduciary duties with respect to the Augsburg Fortress plan." The publisher's retirement plan is separate from any ELCA-sponsored retirement plan.

John Rahja, Augsburg Fortress' chief financial officer, said assets of the defined benefit plan are separate from the company's assets. "The plan operates independently from Augsburg Fortress. Terminating this plan really doesn't affect Augsburg Fortress operations and how we run our business day to day," he told the ELCA News Service.

The company reported to plan participants that it could not cover the retirement plan's shortfall "because of our own operational challenges resulting from fewer sales to shrinking ELCA congregations, and increasing competition from the Internet and publishers outside of the Lutheran tradition."

Rahja explained that a defined benefit plan is funded solely by the organization, and benefits are determined by average earnings and length of service. The current 403b defined contribution plan gives employees the option to contribute and the organization the option to match those contributions. Employees also determine how their retirement funds are invested, he said.

Read the letter sent to plan members who will receive a lump-sum distribution.

Read the letter sent to plan members who will not receive a lump-sum distribution.

Read the Q&A provided to plan members.

Previous articles:

• "Augsburg Fortress sales ahead of expectations," The Lutheran, December 2005

• "Augsburg Fortress reports 2006 surplus," The Lutheran, June 2007

• "Augsburg Fortress retools, shuts stores & assembly exhibits," The Lutheran, December 2008

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