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Stephen Ministry expands role of laity in pastoral care

By Virginia de Leon

Through Stephen Ministry in several area churches, lay people become caregivers, trained to help clergy meet a congregation’s pastoral care needs.

Barbara White and volunteers at Audubon Park United Methodist Church at 3908 N. Driscoll offer support and fellowship so no one suffers alone.

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Barbara White

“We walk with people through crisis and through difficult times in their lives,” said Barbara, explaining the role of Stephen ministers and leaders, who are trained and supervised by this trans-denominational ministry.

Their motto is “Christ caring for people through people.”

In the early 1990s, Barbara learned of the ministry in a presentation by members at St. John United Methodist Church, which she attended in Anchorage where she lived for almost 20 years.

“I’m a people person, and I felt God was calling me to help others,” she said.

Since moving to Suncrest in 1995 and joining Audubon a year later, Barbara has promoted Stephen Ministry, which was started in 1975 by the Rev. Kenneth Haugk, a pastor and clinical psychologist in St. Louis.

Realizing he couldn’t care for his congregation’s needs alone, he created materials and trained nine members to help those experiencing life crises. He commissioned them as “Stephen ministers,” named for St. Stephen, one of the first deacons in the early Christian church.  The apostles commissioned him to care for widows, the poor and others in need.

Other congregations wanted to create a similar program, so he founded the Stephen Ministry with its training program.

Its website says Stephen Ministry is a nonprofit, religious, educational organization that trains lay people to offer “distinctively Christian care” to people in their congregations and communities.  

It is a commitment for both individuals and congregations. It draws people who have empathy and compassion for others.

Stephen ministers make a two-year commitment, which includes 50 hours of training, supervision twice a week and visiting someone at least an hour a week.

They visit people who are suffering from the loss of a loved one, divorce, unemployment, terminal illness, a move or a life change that has resulted in grief and crisis.  People who have had difficulty adjusting to a birth or dealing with every day pressures of work, parenting and stress also turn to Stephen ministers.

The church commits to fund training and travel for the lay ministers. Members also support the ministry through prayer.

 “With this commitment, all are involved even though not all are trained or called to this ministry,” Barbara said. “Members also agree to accept help of a trained Christian friend.”

Nearly 10,000 congregations in 150 denominations worldwide are engaged in Stephen Ministry, said the website. In Washington, about 300 congregations and organizations have trained Stephen ministers.

Among them in Spokane are Whitworth and First Presbyterian; Covenant United Methodist; Redeemer, Beautiful Savior and Holy Cross Lutheran, and South Hill Bible churches.

Idaho’s 40 churches include First Presbyterian in Moscow, and First Presbyterian and Calvary Lutheran in Coeur d’Alene.

A Stephen Ministry workshop will be held from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., Saturday, Nov. 1, at Holy Cross Lutheran, 7307 N. Nevada.

Like Barbara at Audubon UMC, more than 50,000 pastors, church staff and lay people are Stephen leaders, responsible to oversee the ministry in their congregations. Barbara helps administer the program at Audubon and helps others start it in their churches.

In training, lay people discuss keeping confidentiality, listening effectively and ministering to people in specific situations.  They also learn to recognize when a person needs to be referred to a professional therapist. 

The ministers help only those who agree to receive their care, said Barbara.  Churches inform members of the program through the bulletin boards, information cards in pews, newsletters and word of mouth.

Some meet with a Stephen minister only once.  Others meet weekly or monthly.  Sometimes the relationship lasts for years.

Through her life, Barbara has felt a call to help others.  This desire to care for those in need began while attending a community church with her family in Colorado.

Later, after being baptized in a Presbyterian Church and attending Episcopal and Methodist churches, she became more aware of her calling.

At Sterling College in Kansas, she earned a bachelor’s degree in social work.  While rearing her two children, she was a school volunteer and a classroom aide.

After coming to Audubon UMC, she asked about starting a Stephen Ministry. There was little interest, but she persisted.  Ten years later, after gaining members’ support, she demonstrated the need for the program.  Pastors can help members, she said, but often have too many responsibilities to keep up with pastoral-care needs.

So in 2006, the Audubon board sent Barbara, Karyl Brantner and the church’s pastor then, the Rev. Leslie Ann Knight, to Ontario, Calif., to become Stephen leaders, so they could train others.

As a leader, my goal is to help ministers do their best,” she said. “We are caregivers but God is the cure giver. God is our stronghold.  God is in control, not me.”

With each person receiving care, Barbara listens, asks questions and clarifies to make sure she understands.  Often they read Scripture and pray together.  She also continues to pray for the person through the week.

“We focus on the process, not the results.  God takes care of the results,” said Barbara adding that her involvement deepened her confidence and her faith.

“I’ve learned if God wants me to step out in faith, God will light the path for me,” she said. 

For information, call 467-1850 or visit www.stephenministries.org.

Copyright © September 2008 - The Fig Tree