By Joe Isenhower Jr.
Members of a new “Ministerial Care Coalition” to improve the health and care of LCMS church workers began developing action plans toward that goal when they gathered Sept. 9-11 in Tempe, Ariz., for their first annual conference.
Sponsored by Concordia Plan Services (CPS) and Lutheran Church Extension Fund (LCEF), the meeting involved 42 participants — representatives of 25 LCMS districts and others from several units of the Synod’s Office of National Mission. A representative from the LCMS Office of International Mission also is set to join the coalition.
During the conference, participants shared ideas about the needs of those in ministry and best practices related to worker well-being. They also heard presentations on crises in ministry and learned of various resources that are available to help with such crises.
“We have clearly witnessed the passion among our ministerial-care partners who are sincerely concerned about the health of those who are involved in the activities of ministry in our church,” the Rev. David Muench, director of Ministerial Care for CPS, said of the conference.
The Ministerial Care Coalition was formed as a result of Muench’s meeting one-on-one in the last two years with all 35 LCMS district presidents, who expressed “a high level of concern about the well-being of ministers — not just clergy, but all who are busy in the work of ministry,” he said.
Muench joined the CPS staff in 2011, after serving as the executive director of the Synod’s Commission on Ministerial Growth and Support, which ceased operation as a result of restructuring mandated by the 2010 LCMS convention.
“There’s a pressing need to elevate the level of well-being among ministers struggling with challenges from the wear and tear of everyday life and ministry,” Muench said, adding that he sees the new coalition as “a safe harbor for individuals to make a connection with people throughout the church with a passion for ministerial care.”
Each registration packet for the conference included two cards on which Muench asked participants to write down an action plan for worker wellness their districts, and then turn in one to him and take the other one home to share its points in the district.
Attendees from 16 of the 25 represented districts handed Muench their action plans by the end of the conference, while others indicated the need to discuss their plans with district presidents and others.
Muench said that within the next few months, he intends to follow up with all 25 district representatives concerning their action plans and ask them, “How are you doing and what can we do to help you move closer to your goal?”
He added that he and others also will work toward the remaining 10 LCMS districts having representatives join the coalition.
“We see the value in raising the level of ministerial care in the districts,” Muench told Reporter. “I know personally that I can’t do it from here. We’ve got to have people out there on a team who can do it.”
“So much depends on leadership with ministries,” said the Rev. Max Biesenthal, senior vice-president of LCEF and Muench’s partner in spearheading the coalition. “If the leader is wounded, the leader’s attention tends to focus on the wounds, rather than the ministry.”
“We are honored that CPS has taken the initiative and has invited us to be a partner within it,” Biesenthal said. “This is important work.”
He pointed out that LCEF offers several resources tied to church-worker wellness. They include:
- Pastor Coaching — “a process that allows a pastor to connect with a trained coach … to increase joy and effectivenss in his ministry.”
- “a wonderful loan product available for rostered church workers.”
- “a newly created Pastoral Education Loan, designed to alleviate any financial stress that results from student loans accumulated while preparing for the pastoral ministry.”
Biesenthal added that LCEF also is considering providing financial counseling for church workers.
As the conference concluded, Muench encouraged participants to share with others in their districts their passion for worker wellness and the resources available for it.
One such resource — available exclusively to members of the Ministerial Care Coalition — is a website where they can continue to share worker-wellness best practices, challenges and resources for growth and support.
“I’m so glad CPS and LCEF brought us all together,” said the Rev. Gene Wyssmann, who represented the LCMS Missouri District at the inaugural conference. “I’ve learned so much about what all is being done in other districts. It gives me a lot of encouragement.”
Wyssmann, a licensed clinical social worker who lives in Nixa (near Springfield), is a deployed assistant to Missouri District President Rev. Dr. Ray Mirly in two areas — family life and youth, and congregational health.
He added that the conference “gave me a great opportunity to hear what’s being done and consider other possibilities and realize that there are more things that we could do as a coalition.
“There are things that others are doing that we could do pretty easily,” Wyssmann told Reporter. “All I have to do is be a little more intentional about it. … The conference brought a sense of intentionality to me. It was great to see the resources from the other districts represented there.”
Wyssmann said he is “really looking forward to teaming together in this coalition to support and encourage each other.”
“This was a very exciting moment, to see representatives of most of our districts coming together, talking about what we can do to make church-worker health a priority in our congregations,” said the Rev. Steve Cholak, project coordinator for Special Ministries with the LCMS Office of National Mission — Youth Ministry.
He said that ministerial health and wellness “fits right in” with one of the priorities of National Mission. Known as “priority 5,” that priority is “nurturing pastors, missionaries and professional church workers to promote spiritual, emotional and physical well-being [that] is essential to the health of the church.”
Cholak was one of five representatives of ONM ministry areas at the conference. The other areas represented were Urban and Inner-City Mission, Church and Community Engagement, Black Ministry and Hispanic Ministry.
He indicated that the five ONM representatives plan to share about their experiences at the conference with others on that staff. He also said that the conference and coalition “works into what we’re doing in National Mission,” including with three ministerial-health related Synod Recognized Service Organizations.
“It was kind of neat,” Cholak said of the conference, “because we were all from different places. But once we were in the room, we left our badges and found the common ground.”
Jessica Sauer, a deaconess intern from Bronx, N.Y., represented the LCMS Atlantic District at the conference in Tempe. She serves as chair of the district’s Task Force 7, “which encompasses all things health and human care,” as she put it.
Married to a pastor and the daughter of a pastor and a Lutheran school teacher, Sauer wrote that “ministerial care is something near and dear to me and that I have a passion for.”
“I am thankful I had the opportunity to attend this conference,” she continued, adding that she is “looking forward to taking the information that we discussed and bringing it back to our district to share with others.”
“I believe there is a need to discuss better practices for caring for both our congregations and our church workers in a holistic manner,” Sauer wrote. “This conference was a good opportunity to connect with other people around our Synod engaged in these practices.”
Sauer indicated that among highlights of the conference for her were keynote presentations led by the Rev. Dr. Rick Armstrong, executive director of Lutheran Counseling Services in Orlando, Fla., who offered tips for helping church workers deal with a number of particular challenges and crises.
“His presentations provided many opportunities for discussion,” Sauer wrote.
Other conference presenters were:
- the Rev. Richard M. Koehneke of Fort Wayne, Ind., who offered best practices in the form of “five most pressing needs of pastors.” A member of the LCMS Indiana District Ministerial Health Commission, he coordinates a new health-and-wellness initiative of St. Peter’s Lutheran Church in Fort Wayne.
- the Rev. Mark A. Lundgren — also offering best practices as he spoke on “caring for the called: a congregational approach to ministerial health.” Lundgren, is pastor of a dual parish — St. Luke Lutheran Church, Sherry, Wis., and St. John Lutheran Church, Auburndale, Wis. He has worked in ministerial health in two LCMS districts.
- the Rev. Dr. Darrell W. Zimmermann and the Rev. Vern L. Bok, who provided conference devotions, along with Muench. Zimmermann is vice-president and chief program officer of Grace Place Lutheran Wellness Ministries in St. Louis. Bok serves as a mission and ministry facilitator for the LCMS Ohio District and is executive director of CoachAdvance, which “exists to intentionally advance God’s mission through a culture of coaching,” according to its website.