by Kim Plummer Krull
Photos courtesy families from left to right:
When LCMS World Relief and Human Care’s Soldiers of the Cross emergency assistance program offered Phil Stilke a helping hand, the director of Christian education felt guilty. “As a church worker, I’m supposed to be the one helping people, not the other way around,” said the 44-year-old Clarksville, Tenn., father of three.
But life changed last year for the Concordia University Chicago alum and his wife, Judy. During a five-month stretch:
The Stilke family grew when two children the couple was in the process of adopting moved into their home.
At 47, Judy suffered a heart attack followed by complications resulting in multiple hospitalizations.
Phil lost his job when the congregation he had served since 2002 eliminated his position.
“We had a lot of bills at one time. Our situation was so bad, it almost resulted in us not being able to adopt the children,” Stilke said. “Soldiers of the Cross really helped us out when we needed it.”
Stilke received one of 30 grants issued in 2009 from Soldiers of the Cross, a program spearheaded by LCMS World Relief and Human Care (WR-HC) to provide emergency support for LCMS church workers based on financial need. By September of this year, the program has already issued 47 grants, a 55 percent increase to date over last year, according to WR-HC.
That steady stream of emergency requests shows no sign of slowing. “On any day, I’m working with a least a half-dozen cases, and they keep coming,” said Rev. Carlos Hernandez, WR-HC’s director of districts and congregations, who serves as the Soldiers of the Cross case manager. “Even before the economy went south, many of our church workers were toward the bottom on the economic scale. Now in this economy, they are really struggling.”
To make matters worse, the Soldiers of the Cross program also struggles. The fund depends solely on contributions. Donors are making fewer gifts at a time when more church workers need help. Program funds are depleted, says Hans Springer, associate executive director, Fund Development, with WR-HC.
“We are receiving increasing requests from districts for assistance because of illness and also unemployment, especially for Lutheran teachers who have lost their positions because of school closings or cutbacks in staff,” Springer said.
These days, Hernandez spends many hours fielding Soldiers of the Cross referrals from concerned district leaders and following up with worried church workers. “So many of our workers have needs, but we’re to the point that we have to ask whose needs are most critical,” Hernandez said.
Life or Death Needs
Rev. Carlos Hernandez (left) of WR-HC explains Soldiers of the Cross to members at an on-site congregational visit.
Photo courtesy Carlos Hernandez
Helping pastors, teachers, and other church workers keep their health insurance tops the Soldiers of the Cross priority list. It’s no exaggeration to describe some situations as life and death, such as the plight of Jocelyn Moore, the wife of Rev. Donald Moore, pastor at St. Paul Lutheran Church, Apopka, Fla.
After being diagnosed with leukemia in 2006, Jocelyn fell while carrying her son. She damaged her neck and spinal chord, injuries that now severely restrict the use of her arms and legs. In July, Jocelyn, 50, needed a bone-marrow transplant.
Today, Pastor Moore’s ministry is limited because he cares for his wife and two young sons. The small church where he has served for 11 years struggles to pay the pastor’s salary and the family’s health-insurance premiums. “Losing her health-care benefits would mean the end of [Jocelyn’s] life,” said Florida-Georgia District’s Rev. Douglas Kallesen, executive director, division of outreach, who contacted Soldiers of the Cross about the family’s crisis.
In March, a Soldiers of the Cross grant covered the family’s health-insurance premiums. People throughout the district have pitched in with other support.
“We didn’t ask for help, but people like Carlos and so many others knew we needed it,” said Pastor Moore, who this fall was staying with his wife at the home of fellow Lutherans near Gainesville so Jocelyn could remain close to the hospital after the transplant. “People have been so caring and concerned. My spiritual breath has been taken away more than once.”
Partners and donors are essential for the Soldiers of the Cross program to meet growing needs. When WR-HC created the program in 2004, the goal was to provide short-term help, typically a single payment to see a church worker through a temporary emergency. Today, dwindling church budgets and numerous school closings mean more church workers need financial assistance for longer periods.
In April, Rev. Rob Sandley was released from his call because his small Texas congregation could no longer afford a full-time pastor. Four months later, the father of three is still job hunting. “I’ve applied everywhere from Wal-Mart to [the U.S. Department of] Health and Human Services. Lowe’s [retail store] told me I was overqualified,” said Sandley, 45.
Ideally, the Concordia Seminary alum wants to stay in church work. He never declines an invitation to serve as a fill-in pastor on Sunday. “I take every single chance I get to proclaim the Gospel,” he said.
Sandley is grateful a Soldiers of the Cross grant helped his family keep their health-insurance coverage. He appreciates financial assistance from the LCMS Texas District. “But we’re not out of the woods, by any means,” said Sandley, who was looking forward to an upcoming interview for a prison-ministry position. “As of next week, we’ll be dirt poor again.”
A Compassionate, Listening Ear
Along with providing financial aid, Soldiers of the Cross offers what Hernandez calls “a compassionate, listening ear.” “When people are suffering, it’s a very lonely experience,” Hernandez said.
“They are hungry for someone to talk to. The two [financial help and pastoral care] go hand in hand.”
In June, Sandy Kocab suffered a mother’s worst nightmare. The former Lutheran schoolteacher had moved to Florida to be near her police-officer son. She was working with the LCMS Florida-Georgia District to find a teaching position when her son, Jeffrey Kocab, 31, was killed while on duty. Two weeks later, Jeffrey’s first child—and Sandy’s first grandchild—was delivered stillborn.
“It’s been overwhelming,” said Sandy Kocab, 57. “I had bills that needed to be paid. I didn’t know how I was going to manage.”
The district contacted Soldiers of the Cross. “Pastor Carlos called me soon after we buried Jeff. I got very emotional, but it meant a lot to know that the Lutheran Church had a fund that could help provide for us. He was very consoling,” said Kocab, who received a grant to help with living and medical expenses.
Both LCMS seminaries also have requested Soldiers of the Cross assistance for graduates without calls. On Call Day in April 2010, 21 Concordia Theological Seminary (CTS) candidates for placement remained unplaced. The CTS faculty and congregations made donations to help the students. WR-HC issued grants for nine future pastors, including those with spouses, children, and mounting bills.
Rev. Mark Sheafer, CTS director of financial aid, knows this economy is tough for all graduates, not just seminary students. But unlike graduates in other fields who can actively pursue multiple job possibilities, seminary grads “have to wait for that first call to come in,” Sheafer said. “They seek a very specialized job, and the placement process is very specialized. They have been trained, and we want them to be available when that call does come in.”
By September, all but one of the CTS graduates assisted by Soldiers of the Cross had received a call. But the waiting and searching continues for many other LCMS church workers. Hernandez recently worked with one district to provide financial help for 10 teachers after their school closed.
Of course, church workers’ families are not alone in their financial battles. In August, 9.6 percent of Americans were unemployed, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Why help church workers when many others also face economic challenges?
“These are people who aren’t making a lot of money to begin with. Many have not been able to generate large savings to fall back on,” said LCMS Texas District president Rev. Kenneth Hennings. “They have been moved by the Holy Spirit to dedicate their lives to sharing the Gospel and supporting people on their own spiritual journey. They have educated themselves and dedicated themselves.”
Through Soldiers of the Cross, fellow Lutherans assist “proclaimers of the Gospel,” Hernandez said. “We’re just hurting ourselves if we don’t step up to the plate and help our Church’s most vital voice.”
Indeed, Phil Stilke hopes to resume using his “voice” as a director of Christian education. In the meantime, he says Soldiers of the Cross support helped his family in a way that goes beyond finances. “In church work, it takes a lot of hours and a lot of commitment to do the job well. Your family doesn’t always come first,” he said. “This has been good for my wife and my children to see that this is how Christ’s Kingdom works.”
“With so much chaos in my family life and career,” Stilke added, “it’s refreshing to know that people are stirred by the Holy Spirit to provide love and care.”
About the Author: Kim Plummer Krull is an editor-at-large for The Lutheran Witness and a member of St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, Des Peres, Mo.
Share Christ’s Mercy
Photos courtesy families from left to right: The Moores, the Sandleys, and the Stilkes
Help Church Workers in Need
LCMS World Relief and Human Care (WR-HC) shares Christ’s mercy with people in need around the world, including those who are hungry, ill, and homeless. But this year, the Synod’s mercy arm is designating all gifts for LCMS World Relief and Human Care Sunday on Nov. 21 to help LCMS church workers with financial crises through the Soldiers of the Cross emergency assistance fund.
“One of our Synod’s top priorities must be helping our church workers in their time of need,” said Rev. Matthew C. Harrison, president of Synod and former WR-HC executive director. “These are the men and women who teach our children and preach God’s Word. Many have given a large portion of their lives to serve, very often in modest circumstances. While these are challenging times for many families, we must make every attempt to help our servants of the Church.”
WR-HC is working to raise a minimum of $300,000 by June 2011 to assist the growing number of struggling church workers and their families. The need is urgent. At a time when more pastors and teachers need emergency assistance,the Soldiers of the Cross fund—which depends solely on donor contributions—is depleted.
Soldiers of the Cross
- To make a gift for WR-HC’s Soldiers of the Cross:
Mail a check to LCMS World Relief and Human Care, P.O. Box 66861, St. Louis, MO, 63166-6861. (Make checks payable to LCMS World Relief and Human Care; designate “Soldiers of the Cross” in the memo line.)
Call toll-free, 888-930-4438 to make a gift by credit card.
Give online at http://givenowlcms.org.
- To make a Soldiers of the Cross referral on behalf of a church worker, contact your LCMS district office or WR-HC’s Rev. Carlos Hernandez at 314-956-2005 or firstname.lastname@example.org. (Hernandez also serves as case manager for Veterans of the Cross, a companion program also funded by WR-HC to assist impoverished church-work retirees and their families.)
- For free, downloadable WR-HC Sunday resources, visit www.lcms.org/wrhcsunday.
- To order offering envelopes, call 800-248-1930, ext. 1639 or 1672. Please note that the Sunday before Thanksgiving is the traditional WR-HC Sunday, although congregations also celebrate the emphasis at other times during the church year.