Urgent need: to help struggling church-work veterans

By Kim Plummer Krull
At age 64, Rev. Edward Watson suffered a stroke that affected his speech and forced him to leave the pulpit. But this humble, soft-spoken pastor still manages to express his feelings about the small financial payments that help himveterans.gif make ends meet.

“I don’t know what I would have done without Veterans of the Cross,” said Watson, of St. Louis, referring to the LCMS program that provides assistance for impoverished church workers. “They stepped in when I needed them most.”

Watson served 23 years in the ministry before his stroke. Today, he works part time as a chaplain with an inner-city Lutheran social ministry agency. But Watson’s meager pension and modest salary nowhere near cover his daily living expenses.

The financial challenges of this dedicated pastor and other church workers who have devoted their lives to serving the Lord are painfully familiar to Voncile Stone, vice president-operations of Concordia Plan Services (CPS), which administers the Veterans of the Cross program. “It really touches my heart to see how these people are struggling — how they are basically living on a shoestring budget to get by and how some even remain in positions where they serve the Lord,” she said. “These are people whose focus is not on homes, cars, and vacations. Frugal doesn’t even come close to how they live.” 

Watson is one of 48 church workers depending on Veterans of the Cross to pay for necessities such as food, gas, and utilities. At the same time, program coordinators are dealing with their own financial challenge: funding Veterans of the Cross at a time when economic declines have dealt the program a serious blow.

In years past, Veterans of the Cross monies came from both personal donations raised primarily by LCMS World Relief and Human Care and from an endowment. But because of today’s stock market woes, return on the endowment has dropped dramatically, making personal contributions more critical than ever before. (Click here for related story, “How you can help Veterans of the Cross.”)

Program coordinators have set what they term a “conservative” budget of $400,025 needed to keep the program going in the next fiscal year, which begins July 1. Most of those dollars must come from caring Christians, said Rev. Matthew Harrison, executive director of LCMS World Relief and Human Care. 

“We take on this challenge with a deep sense of love and duty to the faithful pastors and teachers who have shared Jesus with so many,” Harrison said. “These are the people who baptized and confirmed our children, preached the Word of God, loved and prayed for us. They are church workers who have served, sometimes for decades, for very little remuneration and who, today, are barely scraping by on a very modest, or even no, pension.”  

Many Veterans of the Cross beneficiaries retired before the Synod established a new retirement plan for church workers, the Concordia Retirement Plan, in 1965. Under the prior plan, the pension is so small that, even with Social Security, many former pastors and teachers cannot make ends meet.

Others who depend on Veterans of the Cross are retirees with no pension because they served congregations that did not participate in an LCMS benefits program. Financial challenges for aged church workers grow even more urgent when health problems and unexpected emergencies throw them another curve.

Today’s Veterans of the Cross beneficiaries range in age from 60 to 93. Some have served in ministry for more than 50 years. “It’s not uncommon for us to come across a pastor who is in his 80s and still trying to serve in some capacity, despite his having major financial challenges,” Stone said.

She mentions one recent application: A pastor in his late 70s, who came out of retirement to serve a struggling rural congregation of less than 50 members. “The church can’t afford to pay him, and his pension is limited,” Stone said. “He needs assistance just so he can maintain his home and car — so he can serve this church in an area where there is no other LCMS church anywhere close and because these people won’t have any place where they can worship.”

“It’s almost heroic,” Stone said of this pastor’s plight. “All the stories we hear are very touching.”

Rev. Carlos Hernandez agrees. As director of Districts and Congregations with LCMS WR-HC, Hernandez does some case management, contacting Veterans of the Cross beneficiaries and providing pastoral care.

He recently got a call from a church elder concerned about a retired pastor. The former church worker, his wife, and the couple’s disabled son were being evicted from their home because of overdue rent payments.

“This pastor had served in very small congregations that didn’t pay much, and his other parishes didn’t even participate in a retirement plan. His pension was miniscule,” said Hernandez, who helped the pastor get emergency funds for three months of rent through a companion Veterans of the Cross program, Soldiers of the Cross. (Soldiers of the Cross gives a grant to church workers for emergency needs; Veterans of the Cross typically provides an ongoing monthly grant that averages around $300 a month.)

Hernandez urged the pastor to complete a Veterans of the Cross application, which has been approved.

But convincing retired church workers to request assistance is often a challenge. “We absolutely know that many more pastors and teachers could use help, but it’s very hard for them to ask,” Hernandez said. “They are more givers than receivers. They are lifelong givers, and you have to talk them into taking any money, no matter how much they need it.”  

Program coordinators urge struggling retirees to contact their LCMS district office or contact CPS directly for Veterans of the Cross information. Likewise, they encourage anyone with concerns about a struggling, retired pastor or teacher to make a referral through the same channels.

Stone admits such encouragement presents a “double-edged sword.”

“We want people to apply, and we love to help,” she said. “But without funding, we may have to restrict the number of people we can help.”

Over the past five years, Stone says, Veterans of the Cross never has been forced to turn away an eligible applicant. “We’ve pushed the envelope and gotten very close to that point. But when God closes a door, He opens a window,” she said. A beneficiary’s death or change in circumstances (such as moving to a nursing home) makes funds available for another former church worker in need.

Coordinators hope the program can continue to serve every eligible former church worker who requests assistance.   

“Out of all that LCMS World Relief and Human Care does, nothing is more pressing, important, and right than we should help care for our Veterans of the Cross,” Harrison said. “The Lord puts the need in front of us and provides the means. And he blesses His gifts so that mercy is multiplied.”

Hernandez says he believes people want to “give back” to church work veterans in need. “A lot of people — strong, committed laypeople and congregations — are willing to respond,” he said. “I hear glowing accounts of how their lives have been changed, transformed, and saved by their pastors. I know they want to help.”

To learn more about Veterans of the Cross, click here.

Kim Plummer Krull is a freelance writer and a member of St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, Des Peres, Mo.

Posted June 3, 2009

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