Caring for the Needs of the Embattled Church Worker

December 7, 2017 | Posted by Demian Farnworth

Editor’s Note:

To celebrate the announcement of the 2017 Kaleidoscope Fund grant recipients, we are sharing the 2016 recipient’s stories over the next two months. See all 2016 stories here as they are published.

-LCEF Editorial Team

“Who is a bigger enemy to the devil than the preacher of the Word and Sacrament?” asks Rev. Dr. Carlos Hernandez, Director, Church and Community Engagement in the LCMS Office of National Mission. “So one way to bring preachers down is to mess with their livelihood.”

Dr. Hernandez runs the Soldiers of the Cross (SOTC), a program that has since 2004 provided emergency support and pastoral care for Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod church workers based on financial need. Dr. Hernandez is the right man for the job. His devotion to LCMS church workers, particularly pastors, is fierce.

“These are courageous church workers for going into this work. This is spiritual warfare. They are spiritual soldiers, on the front lines. Church workers are the church militant.”

This explains the name of the program: Soldiers of the Cross.

“Even though we’ve won, on this side of the church triumphant, the devil will double down on the church worker, the preacher. And there is nothing that will drain you more than financial stress. And financial stress short circuits their ministry. So it’s important that there are people keeping them lifted up, walking among the most in need.”

Ideal candidates for SOTC aid

In 1937, the LCMS created the Veterans of the Cross (VOTC) to help care for the spiritual and physical well-being of retired servants of the church, who had enrolled in the old, low-benefit pension plan. They often had staggering medical expenses and experienced difficulties meeting their basic needs.

VOTC continues to this day, and is designed to help some retirees who need supplementary assistance because of lifetime service in small congregations that are unable to afford full-time salaries and thereby have a lower rate of contribution to the worker’s Concordia Plan Services retirement account. VOTC is long-term care whereas SOTC is short term care.

Therefore, a good candidate for the Soldiers of the Cross program would be the church worker who couldn’t drive a car because of an ailment that disabled his legs. With special equipment, however, he could drive his car and continue his ministry. Yet, the cost for the special equipment was more than the church worker could afford. With the financial help of the local district, the SOTC program was able to provide funds to purchase the equipment so the pastor could keep working.

Dr. Hernandez said that SOTC would prefer if the congregation and district cared for the worker before they stepped in. Sometimes a financial solution comes from a wealthy member of the congregation, but if that financial solution doesn’t materialize from the congregation, then Dr. Hernandez will work with the district to create a solution.

Another great candidate was a church worker who was in between parishes when his wife gave birth to their child. To save cost the church worker brought in a midwife, which was about $1,000. SOTC and the district helped cover that cost.

This is more than just financial help

Medical is about a third of the requests that come through SOTC, and the amount they cover varies, sometimes covering the worker’s full medical coverage for three months at a time.

“Once there was a staff worker at a church who was let go because the church needed to reduce expenses,” said Dr. Hernandez. “The wife was in cancer treatment at the time. SOTC paid for three quarters of the year to help cover their living expenses.”

This is more than just financial or medical aid, though. This becomes spiritual and pastoral care, where Dr. Hernandez’ experience and training comes in handy. He’s been with the Synod for 19 years and has a Masters in Sacred Theology in Pastoral Counseling from New York Theological Seminary. He started in this position over ten years ago and has single-handily managed most of the history in partnership with district presidents.

“Often you are listening to people,” Dr. Hernandez said, “hear them pour their heart out. So this becomes spiritual and emotional counseling, with some clinical help thrown in. We are not just after a financial solution. But social and pastoral care.”

This is also case management work. “We have files on every worker in financial need,” he adds. “They download the application from the website and fill it out and I get all information from the worker.”

And the variety of church workers who need help is endless.

SOTC always partners with the district

Another category of church worker they help is the worker priest, where a church can’t afford to pay a full-time pastor a full salary, but will pay half, so he might get a part time job. Dr. Hernandez sees a lot of these types of workers.

“In Texas, there was a worker priest who couldn’t find a job in the community he was serving,” Dr. Hernandez said, “so he had to drive to Louisiana. The district got involved and we partnered with them to take care of this particular worker priest.”

For the most part, the concentration of help goes to cover smaller congregations. The process usually starts when a church worker is hit with an unexpected expense or income loss and asks, “How am I going to pay for this?” SOTC is there for the worker in need of help right now. And Dr. Hernandez said that SOTC always tries to make it a partnership with the district.

“We give one part and the district gives the remaining portion, up to $5,000; so we pay $3,500 and the district will cover the other $1,500.”

How many people does SOTC help in a month?

“We help about eight to ten people a month; these are new people. Per year four to six people may recur again, but ultimately SOTC is for short term care.”

What happens to those people who need long-term care? That’s the purpose behind VOTC. For example, in the Mid-South District a worker had a stroke and couldn’t use a computer anymore. He had a small parish and he was a retired pastor, but social security and retirement were not enough. He was a good candidate for Veterans of the Cross since his needs were long term.

Widows are another common recipient of SOTC care. Say the husband is a church worker and he dies and the widow is left with a ton of bills in the wake. This is particularly true if the church worker died of a complicated medical issue with lots of treatment. Collectors can hound the widows. Widows usually reach out to their church for help, which gets back to the district.

“When the district reaches out to us we give the money directly to the district so it is always the district who is caring for the church worker and his family. Never sent to the worker directly, but comes from the district, because this is their worker. And this is something that must have full district approval.”

In some districts, there is a counselor or therapist on staff to help church workers through spiritually difficult times, whether they are medical or financial. This, Dr. Hernandez says, is important since they know that the church worker is being cared for in a pastoral way. So sometimes Dr. Hernandez never talks to the church worker since the district is giving all the spiritual care.

“You came in the nick of time!”

In the old days, SOTC used to give away a lot of money. But times have gotten tough lately, and the SOTC budget has shrunk. Not too long ago Hernandez’ boss gave him $18,000 a month and said he needed to make that last. This meant he had to pace himself, but it was a real struggle.

“I wasn’t sure what I was going to do,” said Dr. Hernandez. “But then Kaleidoscope Fund came along just in the nick of time!”

“You are funding life or death work,” he said. “During any kind of challenge we need to stand by them, the front line mission, and make sure they are taken care of, that they have what they need.”

Caring for the needs of the embattled church worker is an incredible opportunity to partner with those who are sharing the saving grace of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. That’s exactly the kind of ministry the Kaleidoscope Fund was intended to support.

Congratulations, Dr. Hernandez and Soldiers of the Cross!

We are now accepting applications for The Kaleidoscope Fund 2017 grants.

Demian Farnworth
Senior Content Writer for the Lutheran Church Extension Fund.