By Jeni Miller
“The devil loves to isolate us Christians, especially church workers and especially after a disaster,” said the Rev. Brian Bucklew, pastor of Zion Lutheran Church in Delmont, S.D., and Emmaus Lutheran Church,Tripp, S.D.
Bucklew knows first-hand the toll that natural disasters can take on a congregation and church worker, since he lived through such a nightmare on Mother’s Day (May 10), 2015. He had been serving as pastor of the two small, rural churches for nearly four years when a tornado hit Delmont, destroying Zion’s church building and parsonage.
“At the time of the tornado my family and I were out of state on vacation,” recalled Bucklew. “The tornado hit shortly after the Sunday church service. My family and I were at church in Little Rock, Arkansas … just about to take communion when I noticed my phone kept ringing over and over again. When I answered the phone, my head trustee told me, ‘Pastor, a tornado just hit Delmont. The church and parsonage are gone.’ ”
Like any faithful church worker, Bucklew set to work caring for his people through this tragedy. Of course, the work was never-ending and the tasks multiplied quickly. But pastors and church workers in situations like this also carry the burden of caring for their own family at the same time, while they themselves may also have lost their home and all of their belongings.
A partnership for worker care
“It isn’t often noted, but some of the worst effects of disaster-response work is the effect it has on the families of disaster responders,” said John Elliott, district disaster response coordinator (DDRC) for the LCMS Florida-Georgia District. “The families of those who lead others through disasters often deal with the effects of the disaster while they watch their loved one take on the burdens of others. This can cause them to feel left behind to fend for themselves.”
LCMS Disaster Response — as part of its care of churches and workers who find themselves in the aftermath of a catastrophic event — has partnered with the Florida-Georgia District to provide respite, counseling and aftercare for pastors and their families, like the Bucklews.
That partnership supports LCMS convention actions that call for enhanced worker care.
“The Church, including the Synod, has a responsibility to love and support our workers,” noted the Rev. Bart Day, executive director for the LCMS Office of National Mission.
“One part of that care is offering respite care and counseling, especially during and after times of crisis. Caring for our caregivers brings unique challenges. Often workers do not want to receive respite care and support. The Office of National Mission remains committed to provide avenues where this can happen in healthy and helpful ways that benefit the worker and those they serve.”
This Synod-district cooperation has allowed pastors and other church workers around the country an opportunity for respite care and counseling in Orlando, Fla. — funded by an LCMS Disaster Response grant. After a counseling session with the Rev. Dr. Rick Armstrong of Lutheran Counseling Services, participants are sent to “unplug” and rest for several days. The program is funded as the need arises, and no applications are taken as it is offered quietly and confidentially to those responders who are thought to be most in need.
“The families,” according to Armstrong, “usually … begin their first morning with me giving them an opportunity to process what has gone on and continues in their congregation [and] community, as well as within themselves and their relationship together. My experience has been that, as the leader is cared for and supported, the congregation and ministry is cared for and renewed.”
“We have very fond memories of that trip,” said Bucklew. “It was a great time of healing. Respite-care ministry, especially after a disaster, is absolutely critical for church workers and their families. You can only give so much before you run out of steam.”
Feeding the comfort-starved
“The under-shepherd must be fed by the Good Shepherd in order to feed Christ’s sheep,” Bucklew continued. “After a disaster, people are starving for comfort, including the church worker and his family. I am very thankful for having good brothers and sisters in Christ that not only suggested, but lovingly demanded that I receive respite care.”
While the respite-care program is not necessarily new for the LCMS Florida-Georgia District, the program as it exists today has only been in place since 2015.
“[The partnership started in] 2015 at the LCMS Disaster Response conference,” Elliott recalled. “I approached [LCMS Disaster Response Director] Rev. Ross Johnson regarding some respite-care needs that were observed. With his permission, a grant request was written and submitted to LCMS Disaster Response.”
“Ultimately, it is such a small investment,” said Johnson, “but it is one of many supports that Disaster Response offers for churches and pastors – and much of it is possible because of the generosity of so many across the Synod. It’s an intentional building up of marriage and families. We leave it fairly unstructured to allow the pastor and his family to have the flexibility that they need.”
Similar to the situation encountered by the Bucklew family and their community, the Rev. Terry Makelin also experienced both the tragedy of disaster and relief of respite and aftercare. Makelin, who had served both St. John’s Lutheran Church in Pilger, Neb., and First Trinity Lutheran Church, Altona, Neb., cared for his people after a series of tornadoes that swept through Pilger, destroying three-quarters of its homes, as well as all of its businesses, the middle school, and St. John’s Lutheran Church and its parsonage.
Makelin recalled that after the disaster, “it did not take long to realize that I needed help. It was a week before the adrenaline wore off. I feel the best thing offered by this [respite-care] program was that I did not have to do anything to make it happen, and I got to spend time away with my wife — perhaps to reintroduce myself and seek her forgiveness for abandoning her in her time of need as I took care of others.”
“The church is a community of believers,” said the Rev. Joel Hempel, director of LCMS Specialized Pastoral Ministry. “One of the things we believe is that God places us in community to care for one another, including the care of our church workers.
“Few of us have the strength to be vulnerable and ask for help.” Hempel said. “But we can be certain we all need help at different times. Assume that to be true of our ministers as well. If you know they experienced crisis in their lives or were struck with disaster, insist they receive support. Direct them to places of healing.”
Deaconess Jeni Miller (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a freelance writer and member of Lutheran Church of the Ascension in Atlanta.
Posted May 17, 2017