• Worker Wellness: A Heart-to-Heart True Story

  • Worker Wellness

    A Heart-to-Heart True Story

    While it was one of the worst days of our lives, it was also the beginning of the path God had chosen for us, and that path has led us to where we are now, serving Him to the best of our ability. ‘Well, it looks like I was right. It is cancer.” When the doctor spoke those words to Brett, as he was on the phone in the athletic director’s office hiding from his seventh-grade class, we knew our whole lives had changed. Since that time, almost 20 years ago, God has taught our family so many lessons. We look back at that moment with a mixture of feelings. At the time, of course, it was absolutely devastating. Brett left school and went home, where we cried together in the doorway between our kitchen and our living room, while our five-month-old played on the floor, oblivious to how much her life had just changed as well. That day is etched in our minds, and while we can still feel the pain and fear, we also look back with gratefulness and pride. Because while it was one of the worst days of our lives, it was also the beginning of the path God had chosen for us, and that path has led us to where we are now, serving Him to the best of our ability, reaching His people.

    After the devastating news, after we heard our lives would forever be altered, and after we cried in the doorway, we picked ourselves up and started planning. Brett was 23 years old, a second-year Lutheran school teacher, and our young family had no idea what was next for us. The next 18 months would be a crash course in crisis management. We learned about compromised immune systems, chemotherapy, radiation, baby immunizations, and growth charts. We found out what medical debt in America looks like. We were humbled and uplifted; we found ourselves in despair and happier than ever before.

    Colleagues, you need to take care of yourselves! To perform the duties and tasks for which we have been created and to which we have been called, we need to recognize the importance of our own health in relation to our vocation.

    To be effective as ministers, we must maintain some semblance of wellness in our own spirit, mind, and body. The worldwide pandemic has only exacerbated the already tenuous health of our LCMS church workers. As church workers, we spend so much of our time caring for others, but if we don’t care for ourselves and our families, are we truly fulfilling God’s calling? Dear friends, please don’t mistake “bearing your cross with Christ” for God’s permission to live in a way that is unhealthy for our bodies, minds, and spirit.

    Don’t learn everything the hard way, as we did. Here are some of the lessons that were the most challenging for us. Remember, we are not necessarily experts, and our experience is not unique. We are just a family who has had challenges and want others to learn from our experience, so this list is not exhaustive.

    1. If you find yourself in any type of crisis, know you are not alone.
    God holds us always and is there with you in any challenge. In some of the later suggestions, we will talk about this more, but it is important to remember this up front. You are not alone! When our infant son was stillborn, we were lost, heartbroken, and living nowhere near our family. But it turned out, we had family nearby we never even knew existed. Our pastor, new to our congregation, sat with our kids and played with them and talked with them at the hospital. For hours and hours, he provided them with comfort while we experienced one of the worst days of our lives. Friends suddenly showed up with food, rides to places, and sometimes just sat near us. We felt God’s presence in all these things.

    2. Be proactive and act preventively.
    Get the screenings, inoculations, and wellness checks recommended by your medical doctor. Learn about your family’s medical and mental health history. Don’t wait to go to the doctor or mental health professional even if “it’s not a big deal.” So many things only get worse with time (e.g., cancer). Educate yourself and your children about personal safety measures. Establish financial health as soon as you can. Create habits that minimize the chances of crises. Cultivate open lines of communication with your family. Locate resources before crises occur. While many of these things can be scary, when a crisis occurs, a lack of information makes it even more terrifying. Many crises are simply impossible to prevent. Additionally, crises can compound, which is why being proactive is so important.

    3. Advocate for yourself and your family.
    Whether your family is healthy or struggling, their health affects your ministry. Be assertive to your governing board about your needs. This can be one of the most difficult things to learn, since we spend so much of our time advocating for others. We advocate for our congregants, our school families, for our students, and the list goes on. The fact remains that we can’t keep advocating for others if we don’t first do that for ourselves, especially if we find ourselves in the midst of a crisis.

    4. Prioritize.
    Listen, we get it, there are things that you need to do. But here is the thing: You will be unable to do all of it. In the midst of a crisis, it is vital that you sit down with your family and others who are caring for you and make sure that you take care of what is important. That might mean other things won’t make the list. It is okay, and you need to give yourself permission to do that. The other part of this, that might be even more important: Delegate some things on the list to others.

    5. Let other people help you!
    While it may be challenging for church workers to do, it is often necessary to accept assistance from people that God may be using to bless you. We know that as ministers we want that to be our role, but it is important that we not get in God’s way of using someone else. While accepting help from others may feel like an “up-at-dawn, pride-swallowing siege” (thanks Jerry Maguire), you may have to do it. For us, accepting help from other people was always difficult. Sometimes we did not take it. In hindsight, the decision to turn down help was silly. And it was silly for two reasons, the first one being it would have been helpful, duh. But the second one is we did not know how God may have used our experience to bless the people who wanted to sacrifice their time and resources to support us, which we can now see as a lost opportunity. Who knows what may have come of it? Sometimes, we must swallow our pride to allow God to work in our lives and the lives of others.

    6. Appreciate the miracles.
    We wish we had been paying more attention, because had we noticed, we may have received some much-needed encouragement. The memory of the miracle we did notice has carried us through several other crises! During Brett’s cancer treatments, there were occasions when we didn’t know how we would be able to pay a chemotherapy bill, we would cry out to God in our desperation, and that week there would be an envelope in our church mailbox with cash in it for the amount of the bill. This did not happen just once, but several times, with several different kinds of bills and expenses. It was and still is humbling, not only to think about how much that person cared about us, whoever it was, but also to think about how God used that person to help us. God, who created the universe, still spent a minute to impress upon the heart of a stranger that we could use a little help. And help came.

    7. Ask questions.
    Seriously. Ask all the questions. Sometimes you might need help with this, so plan ahead. Find a person to bring with you, or someone to stand next to you, when you are talking to the doctors, nurses, caregivers, directors, or whoever it is you have to talk to in the midst of your crisis. Even better, find a person who is willing to be straightforward and direct and bring that person with you! Sometimes we don’t understand, but we don’t ask the question because we are self-conscious, worried about offending someone or about saying the wrong thing. We need to remember that in a time of crisis, we need the answers to all of our questions, even if we think they might be stupid or a waste of someone’s time. When we sat in an office, listening to a surgeon go on about a procedure, hearing the medical jargon and terminology, it definitely felt overwhelming. Enter mom. Brett’s mom, a nurse, was the perfect person to bring along to ask the right questions to help a young family navigate a serious cancer diagnosis. And believe us when we tell you, Nurse Karen has no problem asking the right questions. One of the wisest choices we made was bringing her along for the ride!

    8. Focus on the goal.
    Or, at the very least, a goal. When we dealt with cancer treatments, it was sometimes difficult to see the light at the end of the tunnel. One early morning, Brett ended up having a very direct discussion with a police officer on the side of the road because that officer had made an assumption. Why would this 20-something be violently throwing up on the edge of a busy road at 5:30 in the morning? Was he still out from the night before? Nope! He insisted on driving himself to his radiation treatments and made it halfway before getting sick. After that, our goal shifted from the big goal “remember you are doing this so you can get well and serve God for a long time,” to “this week, let’s just get Brett to treatments and back without side-of-the-road vomiting or other incidents.” And, you know what, we did. He made it the rest of the week and finished out that round of treatments. Then, we focused on the next part. Then, the next. Of course, the big goal was still there because we wanted our family to keep growing and serving, but sometimes it seemed a long way off. The smaller goals helped.

    9. Every person is different, which means every crisis is different.
    Every family is different, which means every crisis is different. God made us all different, which means, you guessed it, every crisis is different. What we experienced will resonate with some, but not with others. Some of you may read this advice and think we have lost our minds, and others will be nodding your heads in agreement. Someone may try to run with some of our ideas and they will fall flat, and someone else will do it and it will work wonders in their lives. That is how life works. We are not the same, which is so awesome. But it means what we experienced won’t be the same as you, and that is okay. People have lots of help and lots of advice for others, especially when there is a crisis. We have been there and heard it. When we experienced the loss of our son, there were several individuals whose advice amounted to “get over it, you will be fine.” Wow, was that difficult for us to hear! Looking back, we know those people had good intentions and certainly did not mean for us to hear their advice in the way that we did, but clearly our experience was different than theirs. It is hard when that happens to feel like you can make it through a crisis. When you hear advice like that, you start to wonder what is wrong with you and your family, since you can’t seem to just “move on.” We eventually realized of course nothing is wrong with us! Everyone experiences loss differently, everyone grieves differently, and everyone walks through a crisis by a different path. We are here to tell you that it is okay. God wants us to be different, and He made you for a purpose. He will use your crisis to teach you or teach others, or maybe you will never know or see the reasons, but He is there. And no matter what others say, you are doing fine. Trust us, we have been there. But, you know, not exactly there, because we are different, remember? But definitely trust God. He does know.

    10. Jesus loves you.
    How often as church workers do we take our faith for granted? The single most important factor in surviving any crisis is a solid relationship with Jesus. Our God is all powerful, He is able to work through people and circumstances, He is able to work through science and doctors, through law enforcement and other public servants. God has no limits, and His love for you and your family is unfathomable. As humans, we may not always understand how God is working in our lives, but He promises “all things work for good to those that love him.” We know this to be true in our own lives, and we know that if God works positive things through sad, scary, and devastating circumstances in our lives, He will do it for you too. So, make your family’s relationship with Jesus a priority. Take opportunities to be fed spiritually. It is advisable, even required, that on occasion your family should worship in a place that isn’t “work,” not your congregation and home church, but somewhere else where you can just be and worship. Seek out spiritual enrichment activities, check with your District representatives and worker wellness entities to find grants or events that will build your faith and that of your family.

    • Who do you know who might benefit from reading these experiences and suggestions? (Share it with them.)
    • How has God equipped you to be the kind of helper suggested in this article?
    • How will reading this affect your faith and life?

    God does not afflict or grieve the sons of men. No matter what you are going through right now or what you will walk through in the future, or what you have already experienced, God’s concern is your well-being. We were created for perfection and while sin has made that impossible, in Matthew we learn that even the hairs on our heads are numbered. God sees you, He knows you, and His love for you never ends. Our hope is, whatever your circumstance, you can read this and be encouraged. We hope you can feel God’s great love for you and that you find practical and tangible assistance through the lessons God taught us. Making your health, and the health of your family, a priority will enable you to be the minister that God has called you to be.

    Brett and Heather Hardecopf live in Elk River, Minnesota. Brett is the principal at St. John Lutheran School, serves on several boards and committees in the Minnesota South District, and is a current Van Lunen Fellow. Brett is a cancer survivor who runs marathons for physical and mental health. Heather loves baking and ballet to maintain her own health. Heather serves the Minnesota South District as a member of the Ministerial Health Committee. Brett and Heather have two daughters with them on earth and two babies in heaven. Brett and Heather have known God’s love and compassion in many challenges of life and work to share that with church workers, students, and their families.

    Photo © iStock/Hakase


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