The Salvation Army has been accused of a “grave injustice” by refusing to pay pensions to former full-time officers who quit after years of dedicated service but before their official retirement date.
At least 17 complaints from former officers have been lodged with the Pensions Ombudsman since May 2020, and campaigners say hundreds more have been affected.
Philip Mountain, one of the complainants, said it had been a shock to discover he would never receive a pension even though he served as a minister of religion for 21 years.
“It was a tremendously rewarding experience, I have no regrets at all. But I do feel angry with the leadership over this,” he said.
The Salvation Army, a global Christian church which works among disadvantaged communities, provides officers with housing and a car and pays them an allowance of £12,240 a year.
Officers are not legally employed by the Salvation Army, and have no contracts of employment. Instead they sign a “covenant with God”.
The Salvation Army funds a non-contributory pension scheme, the Salvation Army Officers Pension Fund, established by an act of parliament in 1963.
The Salvation Army says the fund is a registered charity that provides discretionary allowances to retired officers. Those who resign before their retirement age usually receive a modest one-off grant to tide them over.
But former officers say their pension pots should be allowed to grow until retirement age when they can be drawn upon, in line with most pension funds.
Mountain and his wife, Marion, between them served 46 years in the Salvation Army, in training and as officers. Marion Mountain served an additional nine years as a sister-in-charge of a leprosy hospital in India.
When they quit in 2011, Mountain was given a termination grant of £1,378 to help with temporary living expenses. Both have been told they will not be entitled to a pension at retirement age.
“The Salvation Army was paying in amounts to the pension fund every month we worked. For many years, our payslips had a section detailing ‘employer’s pension contribution’,” he said.
“What’s happened to that money? Between us we gave 55 years of full-time service without a penny of pension to show for it.”
David Kendall, another former officer, resigned in 2006 after 16 years of service. His wife, Barbara, who also served for 16 years, quit at the same time.
Kendall, 56, now runs his own business. “When I retire, a pension from the Salvation Army would be helpful but not essential. But this is not just about me, it’s a matter of fighting for justice.”
In August 2013, Kendall received a letter from the Salvation Army saying he would after all get a pension. Seven months later, another letter said he would only be able to draw a pension if he was in receipt of pension credit, rather than by right – in other words, the pension would be means tested.
The pensions policy was “irreconcilable with the ethics of the Salvation Army”, said Kendall, who still serves as a volunteer, or “soldier”. “They are hiding behind the letter of the law rather than doing what’s right.”
Under new arrangements put in place in 2017, officers who resign with more than 10 years service may receive a discretionary portable pension. This provision has not been backdated.
According to the Charity Commission, the Salvation Army Trust and the Salvation Army Social Work Trust, both UK charities, had a combined annual income up to March 2020 of £400m. Seven staff employees earned more than £100,000 a year.
A Salvation Army spokesperson said the fund was “legally prohibited” from paying a pension to officers who leave service before retirement age.
“In order to address issues that may arise from this, we began paying a grant to Salvation Army officers who resign before reaching retirement age in the early 2000s.
In 2017 the Salvation Army updated their practices so an officer leaving service before retirement who has been in service for at least 10 years can receive a transfer value into a nominated pension pot. While this remains discretionary, it should mean that no officer who chooses to leave early goes without some financial support.
“Our donors expect their money to be used to help vulnerable people and we work hard to ensure as much money as possible goes directly to our services.”
A spokesperson for the Pensions Ombudsman confirmed it had received at least 17 complaints which were at “very early stages of our process”.