by Jeni Miller
This article first appeared in the September-October 2015 issue of Lutherans Engage the World. Read the “Update” section below for developments that have taken place since its original publication.
Tired out, burned out, kicked out, down and out. It’s no secret — or shouldn’t be — that our LCMS church workers are susceptible to suffering just like those they serve. Sometimes this suffering is connected with health or financial issues. Other times it can be traced directly to the daily stress of caring for sinners — and unfortunately, some church workers suffer due to the unloving words and actions of their own congregations.
But Scripture is clear: If one part of the body suffers, we all suffer (1 Cor. 12:26).
And so together — as the Church — we seek to care for our faithful servants who are suffering.
Thankfully, the LCMS helps facilitate tangible ways in which this care can take place. Through the generous donations and support of individuals, congregations, districts and others, the LCMS Office of National Mission (ONM) is able to grant financial sustenance to three key partners in this work: DOXOLOGY, Grace Place Wellness Ministries and Shepherd’s Canyon Retreat. In addition to these Recognized Service Organizations (RSOs), the ONM also assists the Soldiers of the Cross and Veterans of the Cross programs, which offer financial support for active and retired church workers in the midst of financial or personal crises.
“This year, the amount [of the grant] will be around $850,000 to be shared between Soldiers of the Cross, Veterans of the Cross and those three organizations: DOXOLOGY, Grace Place Wellness and Shepherd’s Canyon Retreat,” noted the Rev. Bart Day, executive director of the ONM. “Veterans of the Cross gives out basically as much as is requested. In recent years, the requests are diminishing, but you never know when we will be asked for more. Soldiers of the Cross receives a good portion of that total as well, and could be nearly doubled based on the needs and requests we receive.”
Help and Hope for Church Workers and Families
Grace Place Wellness has held retreats around the country for thousands of LCMS church workers and their spouses since 1999, and they won’t be slowing down anytime soon.
According to Randy Fauser, Grace Place Wellness president and CEO, the “stressors on our church workers are getting more intense.
“Spiritual warfare is in full gear, from the outside and from within,” Fauser explained. “Grace Place Wellness is a ministry that teaches a model of preventive self-care so that our pastors, teachers, deaconesses, missionaries and chaplains will stay in ministry longer and serve with joy. We focus on spiritual, relational, financial and physical wellness. Our mission at Grace Place Wellness is to nurture vitality and joy in ministry by inspiring and equipping church workers to lead healthy lives.”
Similarly, Dave Anderson, president of Shepherd’s Canyon Retreat and a member of the organization’s board of directors, also expects that church workers will continue to experience increased stress and difficulty as ministry becomes exponentially more challenging in our anti-Christian culture.
“When a pastor — or a person in another field of full-time ministry — is in the midst of various stages of burnout, stress, depression and conflicts, the wounds can sidetrack ministry, impact the person’s family and even lead one to leave ministry,” explained Dave Anderson, president of Shepherd’s Canyon Retreat and a member of the organization’s board of directors. “Since our first retreat in March 2009, Shepherd’s Canyon Retreat has been privileged to provide an experience of restoration and healing to men and women in ministry, including pastors, teachers, missionaries, DCEs, music ministers, youth directors, camp directors and military chaplains. All restoration is the result of the work of the Holy Spirit.”
Shepherd’s Canyon Retreat has hosted nearly 275 men and women from 27 states through 44 retreats. Beginning late fall 2015, the Fellowship House at their Arizona retreat center, Standing Stones, will house retreat participants in addition to providing group and private counseling space.
The Rev. Dr. Harold Senkbeil, executive director for Spiritual Care for DOXOLOGY: The Lutheran Center for Spiritual Care and Counsel, agrees that the stressors on our church workers come from both within and outside of the church.
“We all know that it’s getting increasingly difficult to confess and live the Christian faith as our world becomes increasingly chaotic, its moral fiber unravels and religious belief is called into question,” Senkbeil said. “In such an environment, our church needs to pay special attention to its called workers. These faithful saints of God experience special emotional and spiritual stress as they strive to serve His people with confidence in a world that continually undermines their joy.”
Founded in 2007, DOXOLOGY specializes in continuing education for pastors but also offers two-day “Insight” conferences so that other church workers and laity can develop competence and confidence in their specific vocations. The RSO has served more than 600 pastors and the congregations and agencies they serve with retreat seminars geared around quality instruction in skills for the care and cure of souls, enriching worship and collegial conversation.
Wellness and Hope Extend Overseas
Through the LCMS Office of International Mission (OIM), church worker wellness is strongly supported and nurtured through several different avenues.
One of those avenues includes free Employee Assistance Program counseling for missionaries, carried out on behalf of the OIM through Lutheran Counseling Services based in Orlando, Fla. The organization has eight therapists that are available to speak confidentially with missionaries via Skype or over the phone.
“To provide Christ-centered care is the call of the church,” said the Rev. Dr. Richard Armstrong, executive director of Lutheran Counseling Services. “Our missionaries, as with all of us, face pressures, frustrations and struggles as they live out their calling and service. Not to mention, issues and problems in relationships, parenting, health and loss at various levels, together with transitions into new cultures and situations of extended families back home and so much more.”
Care for missionaries in the field, however, doesn’t end there.
“Our missionaries are our most important assets in the field,” explained the Rev. John A. Fale, executive director of the OIM. “First and foremost, we strive to provide them with good pastoral support for the care of their soul — someone who will listen to their cares and struggles without judgment, comfort them with God’s Word, pray with them, absolve them and lead them in worship. Also, each regional director provides annual retreats for the regional team to come together for mutual support and encouragement, relaxation, worship and professional development.”
“The care for its workers is serious business for our church body,” said the Rev. Dr. Carlos Hernandez, director of LCMS Church and Community Engagement, which includes administration of Soldiers and Veterans of the Cross. “In a critical sense, our church workers serving their congregations and communities are in the front lines of Gospel proclamation, the Gospel of peace. Through the preaching and teaching of the Word and the administration of the Holy Sacraments, they equip us with the whole armor of God. When they are in crisis and not, understandably, fully functioning, the Gospel is muffled. The devil has a field day when the worker is not fully functioning because of a personal crisis. Oh yes, we need to care for our workers, our front-line troops in the battle against the devil, the world and our sinful flesh.”
Since we all suffer when one member suffers, it is truly the responsibility and privilege of all the baptized to care for the body of Christ and engage in support of those who serve that body.
How can we do this?
First, pray for your pastors and other church workers. Tell them you’re praying for them. Also, pray for the missionaries serving the LCMS.
“Our missionaries represent the entire LCMS where they serve,” Fale added. “It is so very reassuring to them to know that their brothers and sisters of the LCMS pray for them regularly. I also ask that members of the LCMS give prayerful consideration to supporting opportunities for missionaries to retreat, that they may be refreshed and renewed periodically so they can continue in their service with renewed zeal.”
Next, look out for the well-being of your church workers. Be mindful of the signs of stress and difficulty in their lives. Encourage them, and remind them to seek help and resources when needed. Point them to Christ, and suggest that they speak with their own pastor and have the Word preached and administered to them just as they share it with others.
Finally, act. Financially supporting organizations that bring relief and restore wellness to suffering church workers ensures that those who are there to serve you and the church at-large can continue in this work. Of course, even a simple act of kindness can go a long way.
“Congregations should be encouraged and reminded to do the little, simple things to love and support their church workers,” Day said. “It doesn’t have to be big and showy — the little things go a very long way, like letting the pastor use your vacation condo, baby-sitting their kids so they can have a date night, etc.”
Deaconess Jeni Miller is a freelance writer and member of Lutheran Church of the Ascension in Atlanta.
The LCMS Office of National Mission takes the well-being of the Synod’s church workers seriously. Again this year, the ONM provided $850,000 to programs and organizations that provide tangible care for church workers and their families.
However, the ultimate goal is to provide preventive care to keep church workers healthy in the first place. That’s why the ONM formed an ad hoc work group in January 2016 to study the issue further.
The work group conducted a survey of church workers in the Synod to learn which needs were going unmet, and the ONM and Concordia Plan Services jointly funded research from Dr. Ben Freudenburg of Concordia University, Ann Arbor, Mich., on the needs of LCMS church-worker families.
Freudenburg’s research found that 30 percent of the men and 27 percent of the women who participated expressed a need for marriage retreats or conferences for church workers, while 27 percent of the men and 24 percent of the women expressed a need for small-group Bible studies on various marriage topics. Furthermore, 47 percent of the church workers who participated reported that they “rarely” or “never” invested appropriately in Sabbath rest or leisure.
“The purpose of the research is to discover unmet needs facing LCMS church workers with the intent of developing new ministries to address these needs in close partnership with districts,” Hernandez said.
The work group also proposed several resolutions for consideration at this summer’s Synod convention in Milwaukee. One resolution calls for establishing “an ONM worker wellness task force,” while others call for “promoting worker wellness within circuits and districts” and establishing and promoting “the ministries of district caregivers and father confessors and spiritual companions.”