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The admonition found in Galatians 6:2 is one exhilarating and exhausting. It is, at once, a consolation and a challenge.
We read, and hopefully heed, the words of St. Paul, “Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the laws of Christ.”
The same command and commission can be found in the Torah, which demands the people of God seek the welfare of the whole human community. It is present in the five pillars of Islam, in the practices of Hinduism and in the eightfold path of Buddhism.
From earliest human history, stories of kindness and compassion, charity and mercy are intimately linked with our path to divinity.
Stephen Vincent Benet reminds us, “Grant us brotherhood, not only for this day, but for all our years—a brotherhood not of words but of acts and deeds.”
In today’s world, we’d extend those words to include the sisterhood that comprises the second half of society.
John Donne cautions us to recall none of us is “an island entire of itself” but each of us is “a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were...any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind. Therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls. It tolls for thee.”
With the strength of these few examples, clearly we are called to carry each other’s burdens to be authentic humans beings. The question remains: How can we do this effectively, with caring love, and without causing either a parasitic relationship or embarrassment?
Though there are many agencies, organizations, and groups that have responded to the question, a particular ministry is outstanding in its commitment.
Distinctively Christian in its foundations, Stephen Ministry embraces those of all creeds, as well as those who have no church affiliation. Its mission and ministry are to act upon the Pauline plea with mercy and without judgment.
Stephen ministers provide a listening ear and a compassionate heart to all who are suffering and dealing with loss of any kind, including death of a loved one or spiritual crisis. To provide an extra degree of comfort, men are paired with male recipients and women with females.
To meet the unique challenges of grievers, the ministers participate in a lengthy training program. In the course of a 20-week, 50-hour long educational process, plus follow up meetings with peer support groups and continuing education, they are trained to be spiritual caregivers who understand the crucial need for confidentiality. This trust factor is essential, as stated in one of the brochures: “A Stephen minister never speaks the name of a care receiver. A care receiver is known only to the assigned Stephen minister and Stephen leader.”
Although I was familiar with the ministry, I met with a group of women from Camp United Methodist Church, a designated Stephen Ministry congregation. I wanted to do some heavy listening and questioning. It was a moving experience. I was struck by the prayerfulness, profound commitment, and sense of merciful understanding that emanated from them.
Each woman told her own story of gratitude for being a part of this endeavor. Each commented the spiritual benefits they received far surpassed any service they had rendered, but they were quick to note there were stereotypes in the community that required refutation.
They are not people who were going to ram religion down anyone’s throat, but they were women who were interested in continually trying to be holy and letting God use them as instruments of goodness. They preach the good news by being good news to their care receivers.
All agreed they were often counted among a sparse number of visitors. Sometimes the only caller a person received was his or her Stephen minister, who provided a contact with a world otherwise unseen and unheard.
Although there is a suggested timeframe for effective ministry, modification is necessary for those who are aging. Their needs change as rapidly as their bodily deterioration. New challenges arise, sometimes weekly, as they are less and less able to manage but cannot afford, or do not wish, to leave home.
With all the technological advances we have made over the years, we seem to have lost touch with human angst and the compassion necessary to address it. Extended families who live on the same land, or near by, have become yesterday’s postcard.
What relatives once accomplished is now the province of friendly neighbors—among them Stephen ministers who come with love already in place! They come as confidantes with hearts to hear and ears to listen. They also come with the tools to be better at it and to do it with a certain structure. In this way, they avoid becoming enablers instead of empowerers. They can keep their care receivers on track without taking away dignity or integrity.
While stories of the recipients cannot be told, those of the caregivers can. Each mentioned the benefits she had received; from the program and from the person she visited. They learned firsthand how difficult it is to watch, wait, see and act in the life of another. They discovered the privilege of being a part of someone’s life and making a difference. They thrilled with the reality their own sufferings and loss had given them the wherewithal to understand another’s pain.
They mentioned the prayer list at church anonymously included both givers and receivers of the Stephen Ministry. As one voice, they proclaimed: “We are the prayer until words are necessary.”
Some words are necessary. One care receiver, a Stephen leader, decided to speak publicly of his experience. During the painful process of relocating his mother in a nursing facility, Rev. Rich—as he is familiarly known—sought the support of a Stephen minister.
“Putting Mom into a home, wrestling with that decision, was more than I could handle alone. I needed a man-to-man listener, a person with whom I could vent. This was a personal walk that could not be done with church folks or staff. It was a transition in my life as well as my mom’s and it was hard to deal with it. Men don’t know that they are in need. They go into the cave of “I-can-handle-it-myself.” But that’s not true. My Stephen minister was my lifesaver.”
Another Stephen minister, Janette Schroeder, remarked, “I think the real ‘proof of the pudding’ is in the people who are a part of this ministry. One of the first things one is asked to think about before undertaking the training is to examine one’s own motives and personal agenda.
“The small group dynamic is definitely alive and well. Future Stephen ministers laugh, cry, hug, feel frustrations, stretch our comfort zones and pray together for God’s guidance. We learn things about ourselves and about others in the group that we didn’t expect to learn. In an atmosphere like that, it’s almost impossible not to gain a close affection for others in the group.
“I have said from the beginning of my Stephen Ministry experiences that I know how blessed I am. The program’s goal is to teach us to be reflectors of God’s love and care. We hope to learn to be more genuinely loving to one anotheree as Jesus was.”
Anyone interested in learning more about Stephen Ministry locally can contact Adriana Sidelinger at Camp United Methodist Church or Carol Asby at Seaside. The Web site for general information is www.stephenministries.org.
Fran Salone-Pelletier has a master’s degree in theology and is the author of “Awakening to God: The Sunday Readings in Our Lives” [a trilogy of Scriptural meditations], lead chaplain at Brunswick Community Hospital, religious educator, retreat leader and lecturer.