Stephen Ministry: Expanding the church’s reach

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ENID, Okla. — “Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.”

That verse, Galatians 6:2, describes the Stephen Ministries mission to organize and train lay ministers to “provide one-to-one Christian care to hurting people in and around the congregation,” the group’s website states.

Stephen Ministries is a group of more than 12,000 congregations in the United States, Canada and 29 other nations, representing 179 different Christian denominations, all dedicated to providing lay ministers who can work alongside ordained clergy to provide pastoral care in the community.

The name Stephen comes from the Bible’s book of Acts, in which Stephen was chosen to provide caring ministry to those in need, the ministry’s website states.

The local ministry

Mary Miller, First United Methodist Church’s director of Care Ministries, brought Stephen Ministries to her church 20 years ago after learning about it through another congregation.

“Stephen ministry is a Christ-centered, care-giving ministry,” Miller said. “It’s one-on-one care for people experiencing life’s difficulties, such as the death of a spouse or other loved one, severe illness, loss of a job, or divorce, to name just a few.”

Miller attended a one-week training program in San Antonio to become a certified Stephen Ministries leader, then trained 12 more lay ministers at First United.

Since then, she’s grown the program to a network of 19 trained Stephen ministers and three active Stephen Ministries leaders, with an average of five to six care receivers at any given time.

Miller said Stephen ministers are not meant to replace ordained clergy or a psychiatrist, counselor or other clinical providers.

“A Stephen minister is not a trained counselor,” Miller said. “We’re just trained listeners who would listen, make suggestions and pray with our care receivers.”

Stephen ministers are trained, in a 50-hour certification course, to refer to clergy or counselors for needs beyond spiritually guided listening and support. Care receivers always are paired with a lay minister of the same gender, and Miller said all care receiver referrals and their conversations with Stephen ministers are confidential.

‘There to guide’

The amount of time a Stephen minister spends with a care receiver is “generally up to the care receiver,” Miller said, but ministers commit to a referral, as needed, for at least a year.

During sessions, Miller said Stephen ministers work to help care receivers feel God’s presence in their lives in the midst of emotional and physical suffering.

“We pray for healing, with God’s help, and we want them to know God will never leave them,” she said. “He’s with them at all times, and they need to lean on him for healing and help, and we’re there to guide and help them in that process.”

The Rev. Randy Mitchell, lead pastor at First United, said the network of Stephen ministers deepens the church’s ability to care for grieving and suffering members of the congregation.

“Clergy are great at responding to crises, but we get lost in the after-care, because there’s always another crisis in front of us,” he said. “Stephen ministers provide that after-care that, at times, would get lost because the ordained clergy are off to the next emergency.”

Mitchell said First United has more than 1,000 members on its rolls — an overwhelming number to receive pastoral care from the church’s two ordained ministers.

“Clergy can take care of about 150 people a piece, so there’s a lot of need out there we can’t keep track of on our own,” he said.

‘Answer to a prayer’

Stephen ministers do not replace the role of ordained clergy. Mitchell said he and the Rev. Susan Southall, the church’s minister of discipleship, make pastoral visits and provide for the immediate needs of the congregation.

But, Stephen ministers help carry that care into more long-lasting connections and “extend the caring of the church to people in need in a wide variety of difficult situations,” Mitchell said.

Linda Welch, a Stephen Ministries leader at First United, said she came to the program after seeking help for herself.

“I was raising some concerns to a minister,” Welch said, “and I asked them if they had a minister who specialized in working with people who were hurting or who had a recent diagnosis of a chronic illness.”

Welch said the ministry’s training, and the week-long seminar to become a ministry leader, changed the way she views God’s presence in her own life and in the lives of those to whom she ministers.

“It really was life-transformational for me,” Welch said. “It affirmed the need to help people overcome their challenges by really listening and developing that relationship. It’s helped me to be effective, whether they’re dealing with a chronic condition or carrying on after a life crisis, whether that’s losing a spouse or the death of a child. It was the answer to a prayer.”

Emphasis on God

Gary Miller, who was one of the first ministers recruited to the program by his wife, Mary, said the Stephen Ministries training takes the emphasis off the efforts of the lay minister, and puts emphasis on God.

“When we started this I thought I’d learn how to take care of people’s problems,” he said. “But, as we went through the training, I learned we were there to care for them and help them work out problems with God’s help. So, it’s their ideas and God’s ideas — not our ideas.

“God’s the caregiver, and that takes the pressure off you, and then it’s fun to see how God works. Deep in our hearts we want to ‘fix them,’ but we know we’re not supposed to do that.”

He said a lot of care receivers “feel like God has abandoned them,” and Stephen ministers have the opportunity to help them again feel God working in their life.

“God has asked us to do very few things, and one is to care for one another and to love one another,” Gary said. “That’s a part of God being with them, and that’s a part of why this works, is we get to be God’s hands and voice with them.”

Art of listening

Susie Zaloudek, another Stephen minister at First United, said the program is more about listening than acting.

“I think mostly if we’re able to help them in any way, it’s by listening,” Zaloudek said. “Sometimes it’s easier to talk to someone who is not a personal friend or family member. Any time you can help someone by listening and just being there for them, that’s very rewarding.”

Cyndy Shepherd, who joined the Stephen Ministries team several years ago, said it takes time to develop those listening skills.

“It really is an art to listen to the problems someone has,” she said, “and to stay focused on that and not try to tell them what to do.”

Once that art is developed, Shepherd said the Stephen minister receives blessings that far exceed the work and time involved.

“To watch them grow and strengthen in their faith — the reward is greater than anything we put in,” Shepherd said.

‘Blessed to be there’

Sometimes a Stephen minister helps a care receiver in that spiritual strengthening through several sessions. Other times, the relationship can last years, and ends only with the death of the care receiver.

Janice Cottle said her work as a Stephen minister has been shaped by the relationship she developed with one woman over the course of more than seven years.

When Cottle first met her care receiver the woman lived at home and was in the beginning stage of a long-term illness.

In the coming years, Cottle helped the woman work through emotional and spiritual weight of declining health, and being forced to move from her home to live in a nursing home, and then an accelerating cycle of alternating stays in the hospital and nursing home.

Cottle said she visited and prayed with the woman until her death and was forever changed by that process.

“I felt blessed to be there with her through her constant health decline and to pray with her,” she said. “It was really a blessing.”

Visiting with others about such topics as death, divorce and chronic illness can take an emotional toll on any minister, lay or ordained.

When Jan Hermanski started serving as a Stephen minister she said she was afraid of taking on the weight of others’ suffering.

“My first trip to the hospital was spent in a lot of prayer for myself,” she said, “because I didn’t know if I’d be able to do that.”

Now, she said she looks forward to those visits, because she receives more than she gives.

“It brightens their day,” she said, “but it also brightens mine.”

Finding answers

For information on Stephen Ministries, go to stephenministries.org.

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