BATH TOWNSHIP, Ohio — The Stephen Ministry is looking for compassionate men and women who want to help people who are hurting.
"God is the cure giver. Stephen ministers are the caregivers," said the Rev. Maureen Webber, associate minister of pastoral care at The Bath Church — United Church of Christ. "Stephen ministers are not counselors or therapists. They are people who are present to listen and to walk alongside someone who is going through a trial in life. It could be divorce, loss of a job, loss of a loved one, illness or other difficult situations.
"Stephen ministers live out Jesus' commandment to 'love one another as I have loved you.'"
The St. Louis-based lay ministry provides trained caregivers to give confidential one-on-one help to people who are going through a life crisis. It was founded in 1975, when the Rev. Kenneth C. Haugk, a pastor and clinical psychologist, trained nine lay people at his church to assist him in providing Christian care for members of their congregation and community.
The ministry — named for St. Stephen — has grown to include more than 500,000 ministers in more than 11,000 congregations from 150 denominations in every state, 10 Canadian provinces and 24 other countries.
The Bath Church is one of more than a dozen congregations in the Akron, Ohio, area that have trained Stephen ministers available to help those in need.
Webber, who is also a Stephen Ministry leader, oversees the program at Bath, Ohio, UCC, where a special workshop to provide information about the Stephen ministry will take place from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. April 13. The workshop will include three sessions: ministering to those experiencing grief, an introduction to Stephen Ministry and how to care in a distinctively Christian way.
Although the ministry is Christian-based, Webber said anyone can benefit from the skills that are taught.
Karen Brandt, 56, another Stephen Ministry leader at Bath UCC, agrees. She said the ministry training has helped her become a better listener as a public school teacher and at home.
"People want to be heard, and as a Stephen minister, your role is to listen. You're not there to supply all the answers or to give advice," said Brandt, of Copley Township, Ohio. "One of the beautiful things about the ministry is that you get to build relationships with people and make a difference in their lives."
Stephen Ministers receive 50 hours of training to equip them with practical skills to help develop a trusting bond with care receivers. Those skills include non-judgmental listening, practicing assertiveness, observing confidentiality, establishing boundaries and recognizing the limits of care that they can offer.
Spiritually, they are encouraged to form prayer-partner relationships with other Stephen Ministers. They are also trained to use scripture to help identify ways that Christ cared for others. Although Stephen ministers may openly reflect their Christian identity, they strive to do so without proselytizing.
Stephen ministers commit themselves to two years of care giving but can extend that commitment.
Meg Lamb, of Bath Township, became a Stephen minister in 2008 and is now a ministry leader who trains others.
"I was drawn to the ministry by my own personal life experiences. There have been a lot of times when I could have used someone in my corner," said Lamb, 52. "The Stephen Ministry is a way for me to be that support person for someone else. What I have found is that my care receivers actually inspire me with their strength to keep pushing on when life throws them a curve ball."
Like Lamb, Barry Lamkin believes he is sometimes getting more out of the relationship than the care receiver.
"I became a Stephen minister because I wanted to help people who are going through a difficult time. I'm a pretty good listener, so it's a good fit for me," said Lamkin, 63, of Richfield, Ohio. "I see myself as being there to help people feel God's love and presence in times when they may feel alone. It's amazing how just sitting and listening, being present and supportive of people can help them along as they find a way to work through a tough time."
Webber said lay people like Lamkin, Lamb and Brandt help the pastoral staff at the 800-member Bath church with pastoral care.
"Sometimes we don't have enough energy or time to get to everyone who needs pastoral care," Webber said. "The Stephen Ministry is a way to equip the laity to work alongside the pastoral staff to provide care to the hurting. Stephen ministers are living out the call to love one another. And they are examples of the scripture that tells us, "If we love one another, they will know you are my disciples.'"
Webber said one of the benefits of sharing pastoral care responsibilities with the laity is that parishioners are building relationships with each other.
"The Stephen Ministry has been such an asset to this congregation. It's outstanding to have a ministry that takes place between lay people and allows both the care giver and the care receiver to grow in their faith," Webber said. "Jesus calls us to care for one another. This is just one of the ways to do that."