Neither a vacation nor a pastors’ conference, DOXOLOGY retreats help pastors be better pastors.

By Adriane Dorr

Pastors spend their days caring for others: praying, counseling, writing sermons, picking hymns, visiting the sick and shut-ins, studying Scripture, catechizing, penning newsletter articles and answering phone calls. But when the day is done, the coffee pot is empty and the narthex is dark, who cares for the pastors?

DOXOLOGY, a Recognized Service Organization of the LCMS, took on the profound task of pastoral care for pastors in 2007 in a new and innovative way. Neither a vacation nor a pastors’ conference, DOXOLOGY exists to strengthen, encourage and equip pastors, often emotionally and physically exhausted from giving so much of themselves, for intentional, faithful ministry in the Church. In short, DOXOLOGY helps pastors pastor others.

Clergy surveys completed over the last 40 years indicate that pastors struggle to find ways to best serve their congregations and are often at a loss as to how to resolve conflict and concern within their parishes. They “also noted frequent disagreement between pastors and lay leaders regarding their unique responsibilities in the church’s life and mission,” Dr. Beverly Yahnke, co-founder of DOXOLOGY, says. “They observed that pastors worked diligently but did not always find joy in their service. … Parishes had the desire to move beyond dissonance or dysfunction but were unclear how to do so.” In short, pastors were asking for advanced training and practical ministry tools to keep them from burning out.

Caring for the whole person

The Rev. Dr. Harold Senkbeil, an LCMS parish pastor for more than 30 years and former associate professor of Pastoral Ministry and Missions at Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne, Ind., and Yahnke, an LCMS member and clinical psychologist, came up with a solution. Senkbeil noted the necessity of theological care for men in the ministry, while Yahnke pinpointed the practical need to tend to their personal well-being and to better understand the emotional issues underlying the spiritual needs of others. In short, they determined, the Church must find a way to care for the whole person, encouraging men in their identity as pastors while simultaneously realizing the importance of receiving care themselves, even from their own brothers in the pastoral office.

Grounded in Scripture, the innovative program consists of three components: the Gathering, the Encore and the Reunion. The first immerses participants in theology and training on self-care and is only for pastors. Central to the weekend are worship services where, instead of leading, pastors are able simply to receive God’s good gifts from the event chaplain. 

“DOXOLOGY focuses on helping pastors develop advanced skills for the care of the souls entrusted to them and those in the community who do not yet know the Lord Jesus,” explains Senkbeil. “Pastors can only give what they themselves have received. Our DOXOLOGY chaplains provide Christ’s gifts to those called to bring those same gifts to others.”

“Many pastors also make frequent use of these chaplains for personal consultation and pastoral care,” says Senkbeil. In addition, the men partake of sessions by theologians that assist them in examining their own theological and spiritual well-being. Throughout the weekend, Senkbeil and Yahnke are on call to provide counsel to the pastors. 

Later in the year, the Encore brings together the pastors and one lay leader from each of their congregations. Time is set aside for purposeful conversation, encouraging attendees to discover and discuss ways in which pastor and parish can come to a robust understanding of caring for one another in the Church’s life together. 

The Reunion, the final of DOXOLOGY’s three parts, culminates in a retreat weekend for pastors and their wives. Worship, fellowship, refreshment and theological encouragement are offered both for the couple jointly and individually.

The added bonus? Pastors seeking the Doctor of Ministry degree from either LCMS seminary can earn graduate credits in counseling or pastoral theology for completion of the DOXOLOGY program.

Real life, up close and personal

Topics discussed at DOXOLOGY retreats are difficult, hitting close to home for many pastors who have experienced similar complex situations in real life, either through members of their parishes or in their own lives. Discussions range from recognizing depression and combating pornography to overcoming compassion fatigue, identifying pastoral ethics, treating sexual addictions and preventing suicide. In each case, pastors learn how to recognize the warning signs in members of their own congregations and how to prevent or heal those hurts in their own lives and in the lives of their brother pastors.

Being fed to feed others

Participants are frank about DOXOLOGY’s benefits. “The pastor is placed in a congregation by the Lord as a servant of the Lord,” says the Rev. Lucas Woodford, pastor of Zion Lutheran Church and School, Mayer, Minn. “DOXOLOGY refines pastors in the way they think and act as pastors. It facilitates healing for pastoral hearts that have been broken. In short, it frees pastors to embrace the care and cure of souls in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ.”

“There are many pressures that I and many other pastors feel in regard to what we supposedly need to be and do to make ourselves and our church a ‘success,’ ” says the Rev. Paul Dare, pastor of Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Saint Cloud, Minn. “These pressures often rob a pastor of his joy in ministry and his identity as a called servant of the Word. DOXOLOGY has helped me and other pastors to have a good conscience before God and to have joy in ministry restored to us by renewing in heart and mind God’s model and desires for pastoral ministry.”

Rev. Tom Schmitt, pastor of Zion Lutheran Church, Omaha, Neb., noted, “When I signed up for DOXOLOGY, my tank was empty. When I finished DOXOLOGY, not only was my tank filled, but I found my ministry suddenly had more gears to use! DOXOLOGY connects the caregiver first to the care of his great Good Shepherd, Jesus Christ, and then to a network of wonderful servant-minded pastors for additional support.”

Women in the church have benefited from the program as well. “DOXOLOGY has provided me with a better understanding of the challenges pastors face as they shepherd souls,” says Deaconess Kim Schave, who attended with her husband, the Rev. Steven Schave. “The access we both had to spiritual counsel as well as a newly-acquired support system made up of other pastors and pastors’ wives has helped us both better deal with some of the challenges unique to our roles.”

Duke Consults with DOXOLOGY on Clergy Wellness Data

DOXOLOGY’s rich theological care has piqued the interest of those beyond the LCMS. The program’s unique focus on the spiritual care of the pastor created helpful discussion with Duke University researchers who consulted with Senkbeil and Yahnke regarding the program’s combined attention to pastoral care and Christian psychology. 

The program, which “has gathered data from every pastor enrolled on three occasions over a one-year period,” according to Yahnke, needed proof that pastors who attend DOXOLOGY retreats saw verifiable, impactful changes. “Research was essential to determine exactly what the program provided for pastors and congregations and to what extent there were measurable benefits,” said Yahnke. 

Compiling the research involved delving into pastors’ emotional, interpersonal, mental and spiritual health. But the subsequent data gave a telling glimpse into how pastors function and what the Church can do to enhance their capabilities. “ The earliest findings of the research provide compelling evidence for congregations, districts and foundations alike that DOXOLOGY’s advanced training program has a clear and measurable benefit for pastors, laity and pastors’ wives as well,” Yahnke says. “Research data indicate that the completion of the DOXOLOGY program results in dramatic improvements in many areas for pastors and their people.”

The groundbreaking study indicates that areas of measurable improvement for pastors who have attended DOXOLOGY retreats include the following:

• Lay leaders become more attuned to the work of the pastoral office, and the congregation better supports the pastor in that work.
• Pastors learn how to set boundaries, balance their time and care for both their parish and family. 
• Pastors find renewed joy and contentment in the Office of the Holy Ministry.
• Pastors work more efficiently and effectively.
• Pastors relearn the importance of a rich devotional life that leads them deeper into the mysteries and treasures of God’s holy Word.
• Pastors are able to seek counsel and spiritual care in their own struggles from other men in the office. 

“Additional research is being processed in the months ahead that will determine pastoral gains in the areas of interpersonal functioning and emotional well-being,” Yahnke notes. “DOXOLOGY assists pastors to be the best pastors that they can be, and now the data have been gathered to prove it.”