How One District Is Helping Church Workers Be Their Best

April 20, 2018 | Posted by Demian Farnworth

The stress and burden of pastoring a church are enormous. You have to balance work and family life and the demands each makes while taking care of yourself. These demands can be amplified when you are working in a foreign environment—the kind of situation a church worker from the Midwest might find themselves in with a call to a church in, say, Southern California or Nevada. How do you relate to people who have a different cultural background than you?

It can be a lonely journey.

This is the kind of situation that Dr. David Rueter and his colleagues wanted to remedy when they dreamt up the program Strengthening Our Church Workers (SOCW).

Rueter has been on the Pacific Southwest District (PSD) staff for seven years as the facilitator for youth and family ministry, supervising youth events around the district. He teaches part-time in the DCE program at Concordia University Irvine.

“The favorite part of my job is to empower another leader to lead well,” Rueter said. “I enjoy equipping someone to be a leader and then stepping back to watch them lead.”

Creating healthier environments

Over the last couple years, concerns for the health of district church workers have been circling through the PSD office. To get a true measure of the situation, the district participated in a program called Church Worker Family Needs Assessment, facilitated by Concordia University Ann Arbor.

Surprisingly, “we discovered, for the most part, the marriages of our pastors were healthy,” Rueter said. There was, however, a twist. “It was interesting,” Rueter said, “because in some cases the husband would be sensitive to the life/work balance and suspect it might be off, but his wife would be satisfied with it.”

An underserved area became apparent after the study. There existed a gap in care for the single church worker. Rueter explained that it’s easy for this group to fly under the radar due to their unique challenges.

It was these circumstances that had the district staff wanting to intentionally care for their church workers through their SOCW program. It was just a matter of figuring out how to financially pull it off.

When Lutheran Church Extension Fund’s (LCEF) Kaleidoscope Fund grant was brought to their attention in the summer of 2017, Rueter saw it as an opportunity. “We thought let’s see if we can bring some of these concerns together. The grant would provide the financial support to launch a task force to evaluate the situation and create a plan to get [SOCW] off the ground.”

The first step

One way to create a healthy environment is to encourage workers to connect with journey partners. Rueter said to think of this as a mentoring arrangement that seeks to identify and snuff out occupational isolation—a real threat to both single and married church workers.

The single church worker can bury themselves in work and not take care of their emotional and social well-being. The married pastor, on the other hand, may think that he doesn’t struggle with isolation. Yet, he may not notice that he needs peers and mentors—people who understand what he is going through—in his life to help him through the struggles of his occupation.

“The idea is to have someone with a similar background and ministry,” Rueter said, “but walk with you and give you mutual support, friendship, occupational friendship.” The name the district is giving to this arrangement is Journey Partner, a nod to the idea that ministry is a journey best traveled with a partner.

“And it’s easier with technology,” Rueter added, “with video service, creating special chat rooms or groups,” that gives them access to each other when maybe it’s not physically possible. The district is going one step further, launching a website where PSD church workers can share advice on topics like leadership, finances, relationships and more.

The wellness wheel

Another tool the district will be employing to intentionally care for church workers is the Lutheran Wellness Wheel. The wheel focuses on six aspects of life:

  • Relational
  • Emotional
  • Physical
  • Financial
  • Vocational
  • Intellectual

According to Darrell Zimmerman, program vice president at Grace Place Wellness, the wheel is a tool to guide church workers’ approach to balanced, healthier lives—to “thrive in their relationship with [God], thrive in their relationships with the people around them and be at their best in their ministry.”

The idea, Rueter says, is that spiritual well-being encompasses all of these things—an “interconnectivity in these things”—and each one needs to be attended to care for the whole person.

Retiring church workers

Along with the single and married, there is a third group the district wants to ensure gets served and cared for: the retiring church worker.

“We pour our lives into the places we serve,” Rueter said, so when it comes time to retire, “do we have enough external relationships, detached from your social circle,” to successfully make that transition? The SOCW task force will be focusing on helping future retirees to anticipate the challenges they will face. This will be done, among other things, by connecting them with recent retirees who can say, “here’s what I would do slightly different or you might look at it from this way.”

The district will be modeling this portion of their program off a similar one for directors of Christian education (DCE). KINDLE’s program Finishing Well aims to help DCEs do just that. The district wants to do the same for their people, helping faithful servants hand off the legacy and finish well.

The PSD wants to take care of those who serve the people of God in body and soul whether they are newly-minted seminary grads or seasoned veterans, married or single, close to home or far away. Through the Kaleidoscope Fund, LCEF is grateful to be part of this great work and applauds the Pacific Southwest District for their intentional and loving effort.

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