By SAMANTHA SMITH, Staff Writer | Published December 12, 2019
ATLANTA—As a full-time caregiver for her disabled husband, Katherine followed a suggestion to seek out a Stephen Minister.
She initially thought Stephen Ministry support was for her husband. But after a while, Katherine realized with astonishment that the ministry was there to help her.
Mary Stephenson, a Stephen Minister from St. Peter Chanel Church in Roswell, started coming to Katherine’s home once a week. Katherine was Stephenson’s first care receiver and the first person in the church to have a Stephen Minister.
“The best part of the entire ministry is that I had to stop for that hour,” said Katherine. That time helped her to grow in faith, spirit and peace, she said.
Stephenson and Katherine met for 19 months. Over time, Stephenson watched Katherine grow and take better care of herself outside of their meetings, which included meeting people for lunch, going on walks and joining other small groups. This was when Stephenson knew it was okay for Katherine to move away from the ministry.
Even though their time in Stephen Ministry has ended, Stephenson and Katherine have become friends. Katherine knows that if there are any changes in her life, with just a phone call, Stephenson and Stephen Ministry will be there.
Based in St. Louis, Missouri, Stephen Ministry is a not-for-profit Christian organization that equips and empowers lay caregivers to provide high quality, confidential and Christ-centered care.
Founded in 1975, Stephen Ministry is present in more than 180 Christian denominations across the United States and Canada and in 30 other countries. According to the ministry’s website, more than 1.5 million people have received care from Stephen Ministers. In Georgia, some 420 churches have a Stephen Ministry, with more than 10 of those being Catholic parishes.
The ministry supports and cares for those going through a difficult time or period of transition, which can include the death of a loved one, job loss, the onset of a disability, divorce or separation, chronic or terminal illness, separation due to military deployment, family frustrations, spiritual crisis or the loss of a home.
Stephen Ministry “allowed me to sit with somebody and to talk about what was on my mind,” said Katherine.
The conversations were more centered on Katherine than her husband.
“That was the beautiful thing,” she recalled.
Expanding pastoral outreach
“There are a lot of hurting individuals that just need someone to talk to during a difficult period,” said Msgr. Peter Rau, who brought Stephen Ministry to St. Peter Chanel Church four years ago. “A Stephen Minister is there to listen.”
Stephen Leaders assign Stephen Ministers, who provide one-on-one confidential care to people experiencing a difficult time, known as care receivers. Ministers meet with a care receiver on a weekly basis to listen, encourage and provide emotional and spiritual support.
The relationship with the Stephen Minister is confidential, with men matched with men, and women with women. Those who wish to be care receivers may contact their pastor or the Stephen Leader in their parish.
“We are willing to meet with people that aren’t necessarily members of our parish,” said Chuck Bolash, a Stephen Minister since 1997 and a leader at Holy Spirit Church in Atlanta since 2007.
He said that the group is typically able to find a Stephen Ministry for family and friends locally or in other cities.
Father Jim Duffy, SM, pastor of Our Lady of Assumption in Atlanta, brought Stephen Ministry to his parish in 2008.
“Stephen Ministry is a ministry that is dear to me,” said Father Duffy. “I am concerned with the emotional and spiritual well-being of all members of our community, but my fellow priests, deacons and I cannot reach everyone on a sustained basis.”
The pastor said that Stephen Ministers are there when clergy cannot be.
Stephen Ministry assists pastors in multiple ways in caring for their parish community. It “is a great way to help congregation members recognize that God calls all his people—not just the ordained clergy—to be involved in ministry,” states the program’s website.
Msgr. Rau said that while clergy initially responds to a crisis, sometimes people fall through the cracks when it comes to follow-up.
“Often, as is the case, people need someone other than clergy or family to whom they can share,” he said.
“Stephen Ministers will never replace the ordained clergy,” as the ministry website explains. Instead, the idea is that caring ministry is one area pastors can delegate to or share with laypeople who have the right gifts, training and commitment.
“St. Peter Chanel has been blessed by the assistance and dedication of our Stephen Ministers,” said Msgr. Rau. “I am grateful for their help.”
Ministers grow in faith
Teresa Sauer was commissioned a Stephen Minister more than five years ago at Holy Trinity Church in Peachtree City.
After being involved in a GriefShare support group, she realized in a deeper way how much people need each other as brothers and sisters in Christ.
“I wanted to help others as others had helped me in a time of need,” she said.
As a Stephen Minister, “we get to see up close God’s healing and transformative work in another’s life,” said Sauer. “As the recipient’s faith becomes stronger, our own faith grows as well.”
More than 600,000 lay people have received Stephen minister training. This experience equips participants with caring and related skills.
Stephen Ministers are not counselors or psychiatrists, but receive more than five months of extensive training to support those in their community. In addition, Stephen Ministers meet at least once a month for peer mentoring to ask questions and receive feedback on their experiences. The identity of care receivers is kept confidential.
Peer supervision is important to Stephenson because it is where she found good support to bounce ideas or concerns.
“They would be honest enough to tell me if I was wrong or if my motives were improper, or I had crossed boundaries or any of those things. I depended on them a lot,” she said.
“I have received so much more from this ministry than I ever expected,” said Paul Roberts, 70, who has been involved with Stephen Ministry for almost seven years and has been a Stephen Leader for six years. He serves at Our Lady of the Assumption Church.
“I have had the opportunity to work with people from several different Christian denominations, showing that we have much more in common than we have differences in basic doctrines of faith,” said Roberts about training and networking with others.
“I feel the presence of the Holy Spirit” in Stephen Ministry, said Bolash.
He credits the Holy Spirit for guiding him in knowing how to respond and when to listen.
Asking for help
“I think there’s a lot of people in my position that do not realize that they need to be ministered to,” said Katherine. “Others realize it, but as the person in the position, you never put yourself first. We all need to take care of ourselves.”
“Most people don’t know how to ask for help,” said John Damiano, Stephen Leader at St. Peter Chanel Church. “There are so many people that are broken and hurting.”
If facing a difficult situation, do not put off requesting support, said Roberts. “Most people who have had a Stephen Minister regret not having requested a Stephen Minister sooner. Give someone else the opportunity to be there with you, for you, for as long as there is a need, providing emotional and spiritual support,” he said.
Father Duffy encourages his parish community to be open to receiving care from a Stephen Minister, especially during the holiday season.
“It is not a sign of weakness to ask someone to walk with you when you encounter a difficult time,” he said.
A Stephen Minister who receives your call is compassionate and truly wants to help, emphasized Sauer.
“We want you to feel the relief that comes when you are cared for in a Christian manner,” she said.
Editor’s Note: The Georgia Bulletin agreed to protect the confidential nature of the Stephen Ministries program by using the first name only of the care receiver who agreed to be interviewed for the story.