Ted and Shari Pittenger outside the chicken coop, Samaritan Ministries' first office.

Stones of remembrance: Celebrating 25 years of sharing

Samaritan staff

As we celebrate 25 years of ministry this month, it is good to look back at how God has faithfully guided and protected us over the years. When the Israelites crossed the Jordan River into the promised land, they set up a pillar of stones to memorialize God’s faithfulness, and we also want to be intentional about remembering God’s provision for us. Telling the Samaritan story passes the faith to the next generation and encourages us all to persevere.

Samaritan traces its humble beginnings to our founder Ted Pittenger. As a painting contractor looking for a way to provide for his family’s health care needs, he joined a health care sharing ministry in the mid-1980s. He appreciated the Biblical principles and hoped more Christians would catch the vision for health care sharing. With an entrepreneur’s mindset, he also couldn’t help noticing some aspects of the organization that he thought could be improved.

It was common to encounter skepticism or hostility to the very idea of health care sharing in those days, and Ted heard plenty of it. He also had the audacity to suggest starting an entirely new ministry from scratch, which only met with more skepticism. He managed to find some people who were realistic about the challenges, but also willing to offer helpful thoughts and encouragement. His wife, Shari, friends at church, small business owners, fellow homeschool dads, and a couple of Christian lawyers were all important sounding boards.

At one point Ted did some soul searching and became convinced the Lord was asking him to pursue starting the ministry for the sake of helping the Body of Christ, no matter what. He determined he would stay at it if the ministry only broke even and he never drew a paycheck from it. It would take several more years to get Samaritan off the ground. Several names were abandoned because of intellectual property issues. Marketing was mostly do-it-yourself with Ted bartering his painting services for printing. He worked out of an office that had been built in the corner of an old chicken coop 50 feet from his house.

In the fall of 1994 Ted officially enrolled his family as the first membership, but only 60 other households would join in the next 12 months and some people said he should give up. The problems looked insurmountable. How do you get a critical mass of people signed up so there are enough Shares to meet Needs? For that matter, how do you get anyone to join when the initial group of members is so small? The early adopters were true believers when it came to applying a Biblical worldview to health care.

Finally, in 1997, significant growth began. The ministry passed 1,000 members that year, and God has always provided growth at opportune times since then. During the struggles of the early years, the idea of prorating was developed to avoid the ministry being swamped by a big Need or a bad month.

The first few staff were hired in 1997, and Ted finally did go on the payroll after investing countless hours without compensation for many years. Ever since, God has providentially supplied Board and staff members at the right time to help the ministry face the challenges that arose.

More Samaritan ‘memorial stones’

Looking back on the inauspicious beginning of Samaritan Ministries, we cannot help but realize that it is only by God’s grace that it took off and has now grown to more than 82,000 memberships sharing nearly 30 million dollars each month. We see His sovereign hand helping us through 25 years of ministry.

Funding the administration of the ministry always has its challenges. Ted and the Board have remained committed to running the ministry debt free, which calls for creativity, frugality, determination, and much prayer.

The first “IT department” was one part-timer who set up a phone system and built desktop computers himself. Staff made do with off-the-shelf office and database software until 2003, when Samaritan was first able to budget for an independent developer to write custom software for the processing of Needs. Whenever technology and staffing needs have arisen, growth in membership brought in the necessary revenue, mostly through the referrals of existing members. As software has increasingly moved online, Samaritan now has its own development team that also works with many contractors and vendors to build the tools staff and members need in the cloud.

In the early days when the space in the chicken coop became inadequate, staff pitched in to remodel a 800-square-foot building also on the Pittengers’ homestead. By 2000 a larger facility was needed, and after months of pursuing various options God provided a church building and a way to purchase it debt free. More growth came along, members donated, a fundraiser with Christian Community Credit Union helped out, and a unique lease-purchase agreement worked out well for all parties. In 2005 the ministry again needed more space and God provided an office building that was set up well for a computer network and was also a great deal because the company selling it was downsizing. The seller even threw in a bunch of office furniture. Through the ups and downs of the real estate market, God has provided ways for us to find buyers for existing properties and afford larger properties. Samaritan now has two offices in Peoria, Illinois, that have been completely paid for with no debt.

Public policy memorials

The founders of Samaritan were always concerned about a loss of Christian values in our country and what that might mean for long-held religious and economic freedoms, particularly in the area of health care.

Newsletter articles have pointed out that the problems with Social Security and Medicare are so huge that they threaten the financial stability of the country. According to the U.S. Treasury, taxes to fund these two entitlement programs are projected to fall $46.7 trillion short over the next 75 years. However, economist and Boston University professor Larry Kotlikoff has carefully documented that the liabilities aren’t being accounted for properly and the true shortfall is $211 trillion.

When Samaritan was first getting going in the 1990s, members breathed a sigh of relief and prayer of thanks when the Clinton administration’s attempt to nationalize even more of the health care industry fizzled out. Then in 2007, under the leadership of Mitt Romney, Massachusetts passed a mandate that all citizens of that state acquire insurance. Both the Massachusetts law and an exemption for health care sharing in it became an important precedent for a federal law under president Obama which threatened the very existence of health care sharing.

In 2008 we prayed for courage and scraped together funds from the sale of a property to join with other health care sharing ministries in raising awareness of our religious liberty concerns with legislators. By the grace of God a key bipartisan group of senators included language in the legislation to exempt members of health care sharing ministries from penalties associated with the mandate to have insurance. We were still concerned about the language surviving in the law, but God providentially protected it through unique political circumstances that prevented the House of Representatives from making changes.

In 2011 another threat came out of the blue when the state of Washington issued a cease-and-desist order to Samaritan Ministries. Ironically, the insurance commissioner’s office said its action was intended to protect consumers by making certain that insurers kept their promises, yet it would prevent Samaritan Ministries’ members from fulfilling their commitments to share with one another.

We soon found out that one Samaritan member had just been elected to the Washington state senate and another member was a long-time lobbyist. Many other states had regulations that clarified health care sharing is not insurance and is exempt from insurance law, and similar language was introduced in a bill in Washington. Miraculously, the measure was passed in both houses of the legislature and signed by the governor so quickly that it didn’t interrupt sharing for members in Washington. God had turned a threat into greater protection!

The federal Affordable Care Act turned out to be ironic as well. It threatened health care sharing but led to its growth. As regulations inevitably drove up insurance prices even while using taxes to subsidize it, many people were forced to look for alternatives. We praise God that He is sovereign over everything, including the state of Washington and Washington D.C. As Romans 13:1 teaches us, “There is no authority except that which God has established.”

We continue to pray for our country’s leaders and remain concerned about protecting liberty in health care, and not just for Christians who want to practice their faith through health care sharing. All Americans deserve free market choices in health care, not a big-business-big-government cartel that stifles innovation and results in skyrocketing prices and poor quality. By the grace of God we seek to play our part in modeling how Christian liberty and charity inspire real solutions to the health care challenges that face our country.

So that all peoples might know

Joshua not only commanded the Israelites to set up stones of remembrance. He also told the people how to interpret their meaning:

He said to the Israelites, “In the future when your descendants ask their parents, ‘What do these stones mean?’ tell them, ‘Israel crossed the Jordan on dry ground.’ For the Lord your God dried up the Jordan before you until you had crossed over. The Lord your God did to the Jordan what he had done to the Red Sea when he dried it up before us until we had crossed over. He did this so that all the peoples of the earth might know that the hand of the Lord is powerful and so that you might always fear the Lord your God. ..."

—Joshua 4:20-24

We should follow this Biblical example. When we remember how God has protected and blessed Samaritan Ministries in the past, it should cause us to praise Him with a heart of worship. As we look to Him in faith for guidance we will find the courage to face whatever challenges are to come. 

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