By Paula Schlueter Ross (firstname.lastname@example.org)
“We’ve got to remember that pastors are people, too.”
“Pastor Tom” (a pseudonym) laughs when he recalls those words of a concerned parishioner a few years ago when his health was a roller coaster with dips so low he was at heaven’s door more than once.
Diagnosed with two “very deadly” and rare cancers, he says it was “like winning the lottery in reverse.” Very uncertain. Very scary. And with myriad doctors and medical procedures, very expensive — especially when you’re unable to work.
Desperate, he and his wife — once caregivers to others, now needing care themselves — packed up their belongings and moved thousands of miles back to his home state to be near family.
As he explains it, “there was a gap between coming back [home] and not being able to work, and actually getting the disability that was needed to pay the bills.”
Enter Soldiers of the Cross, one of two LCMS mercy programs that assist church workers with financial needs. While “Soldiers” helps active workers facing emergencies such as serious illness, Veterans of the Cross provides grants to retirees who are struggling with basic living expenses.
Both programs depend on contributions from donors, and Soldiers of the Cross also works in conjunction with workers’ districts, which typically provide matching funds to boost the initial $1,000 to $3,000 individual grants.
The total $6,000 that Pastor Tom received from Soldiers and his district provided a much-needed feeling of “relief.” But he also “felt very supported by the church.” It wasn’t “just lip-service, but action,” he noted, and he said he’s especially grateful to his district president and the Rev. Dr. Carlos Hernandez — who receives and administers the funding requests — for their care and concern.
“It does make you feel that you are valued by the church. It does. And that they care about you.”
Today his health is “stable” and he is able to serve a local congregation part time, about 10 to 15 hours a week, leading worship and Bible study, working with confirmands, and — with a “unique perspective on illness” — visiting members who are sick and those in nursing homes.
“The service I get to do, I tell you, is really a joy,” he says, and “a great honor.”
Since 2012, Soldiers of the Cross has granted $1.1 million to pastors, teachers and other church workers in crisis, according to Hernandez, director of Church and Community Engagement with the Synod’s Office of National Mission.
That figure doesn’t include matching funds from LCMS districts, a “very important and very valuable” partnership, he notes, especially in light of the ever-increasing needs.
“In reality, what we’re trying to do through Soldiers of the Cross is help the districts help their workers,” Hernandez says, and the “ideal situation” is when a district president requests an application for assistance for a worker. District presidents are familiar with their workers’ circumstances, he explains, and so they are ideally situated to serve as liaisons between the workers and the Soldiers program.
Sometimes workers are reluctant to accept the grants, so Hernandez tells them, “Look, this is not our money — this is God’s money. You’ve been praying to God for help? This is God helping you. He’s just using us as a conduit. Know that this is a prayer that’s been answered. And we’re just here as servants of God.”
As Hernandez sees it, “we’re all part of the body of Christ, and when one part of the body is hurting, the rest comes to help.”
Church workers facing financial stress “are not at their full capacity to proclaim and share the Gospel,” he adds, so he considers the grants “an investment in the church worker and in the proclamation of the Gospel.”
The Rev. “Tim and Linda Smith” (not their real names) had never heard of Soldiers of the Cross until they were contacted by Hernandez.
Fresh off the mission field because of Tim’s debilitating illness, the couple was living with their grown children, seeing doctors, trying to figure out their next steps.
It was “a really tough time,” says Tim. “We didn’t really know where to turn [for help], we didn’t know what we were going to do.”
Soldiers of the Cross was a godsend, say the Smiths, who received a total of some $6,000 from the program and their district — enough to purchase a much-needed electric wheelchair and pay some medical bills.
“They’ve helped us out in so many ways and been so kind to us — and said prayers for us, as well. It’s really great, and I didn’t even know it existed,” said Tim.
He’s convinced that if more people and congregations knew about the Soldiers program — and the “incredible blessing” it is to hurting church workers — “they would get involved in it and want to help out with it.”
Linda agrees, adding that if you’re interested in contributing to a human-care ministry, “this is really [a valuable] one.”
For more information about Soldiers of the Cross, contact Hernandez at email@example.com or visit lcms.org/SoldiersoftheCross.
For information about Veterans of the Cross, which is administered by Concordia Plan Services for retired church workers, visit lcms.org/VeteransoftheCross.
Posted April 5, 2016