Christian care-giving ministry provides tools for meeting needs
By Myra Holmes
Divorce was a dark time for Sara Anderson. Though she and her children were seeing a professional counselor to help them cope in a healthy way, she felt she needed more. So she sought help through Stephen Ministries (www.stephenministries.org), a Christian caregiving ministry founded in 1975.
Anderson was paired with a trained Stephen Minister, a member of a local church who met with her weekly to listen and lend support. Her Stephen Minister didn’t judge, try to solve her problems or tell her what to do; she just walked alongside Anderson. Sometimes, that meant sitting together in silence. Often, it meant praying together.
“She shined a light of Christ into my life,” Anderson says.
Anderson now attends Lincoln Hills Bible Church, Sioux Falls, SD, one of two USMB congregations that have found Stephen Ministry to be a helpful resource for meeting needs in their congregation and community.
Listening an important ministry tool
Despite increasing connectedness through technology, people need the simple gift of a listening ear more than ever. “I think it is rare to feel truly heard,” says Tony Randall, pastor of Lincoln Hills.
It was the awareness of that need that prompted Randall to explore Stephen Ministry for Lincoln Hills. The congregation has been a Stephen Ministry congregation for about a year and a half. There are now six trained Stephen Ministers—lay caregivers—at Lincoln Hills (pictured above), and each has been matched at least once with a “care receiver.”
Fairview (Okla.) MB Church has been a Stephen Ministry congregation for much longer—about 10 years—and currently has 12 trained Stephen Ministers (pictured below). Just like at Lincoln Hills, a felt need prompted Fairview to explore this lay caregiving ministry.
Nicole Martens, who is both a leader of Stephen Ministry at Fairview and a licensed counselor, says that options for care in their rural community are limited. So those in need often turn to the pastors, who simply can’t do it all. “There’s a lot of care that needs to be provided,” she says.
Caring ministry requires commitment
Both Randall and Martens agree that becoming a Stephen Ministry congregation is a substantial commitment. First, the congregation must enroll, a one-time step that comes with a one-time enrollment fee. Then the congregation sends chosen Stephen Leaders to a weeklong course, which equips them to oversee the ministry, train Stephen Ministers and connect those trained caregivers with care receivers.
The Stephen Ministers make a significant commitment as well, starting with 50 hours of intense training. Then they commit to two years of availability as a caregiver, with regular meetings for ongoing supervision, training and support.
Pauline Schroeder, one of the Stephen Ministers at Lincoln Hills, says that saying yes to such a commitment was not easy. “I fought it,” she admits. But the training equipped her well, and she believes God supplies what she lacks. “I have sensed his presence with me every time I go out the door to meet with my care receiver.”
Care receivers might be members of the congregation or the wider community. They are ordinary people facing common issues like chronic illness, job loss, grief, divorce or new parenthood, to name a few.
“Most of us do just fine handling our own problems,” says Randall. “For many, the problems are a little bit more difficult, to where they would probably make it on their own, but they’re going to make it a lot better with a Stephen Minister.”
This lay caregiving is not designed to tackle clinical issues, like depression or mental illness. For those more serious issues, Stephen Leaders and Stephen Ministers evaluate and recommend appropriate care.
Nor is Stephen Ministry designed to solve problems. “Sometimes people don’t want to be fixed,” says Randall. Rather, caregivers come alongside and listen. “More than anything, Stephen Ministers are good listeners,” he says.
Providing Christ-centered care
While Stephen Ministers work with both Christians and non-Christians, the care is clearly Christ-centered. The parent organization is a Christian ministry, and the training and materials are focused on Christ and on biblical principles. “Basically everything we go through is focused on Christ,” Martens says.
Because of their willingness to make the necessary commitment, Stephen Ministry has proven a valuable resource at Lincoln Hills and Fairview. The most obvious benefit is to the care receivers.
One woman who received care through Stephen Ministry at Fairview says the caregiving allowed her to “think through some of the issues and stressful circumstances in my life.” She met with her Stephen Minister every other week to “talk and vent” as she was going through a stressful season as a stay-at-home mom. “I am grateful for the people in our church who have gone through many hours of training to minister to people in our community and congregation,” she says.
Another benefit of Stephen Ministry is that it enables a congregation to empower those with caring gifts. “Most congregations have people attending with the spiritual gift of care,” Martens says. “That’s what they do and do it well. To not utilize that is a waste, a shame. You can really give them the support and the training they need to enhance the spiritual gift they have.”
Schroeder, of Lincoln Hills, is one who has been empowered. She says she has always been one to listen and meet people on a deeper level. The Stephen Ministry training has merely helped her “fine-tune that desire.”
Anderson, who found Stephen Ministry so helpful during her divorce, says that even though adding Stephen Ministries to a church’s ministry is a big commitment, if a congregation can effectively care for those in its church and community, “you will have helped spread the kingdom of God. And that’s what it’s all about.”—Myra Holmes
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