Stephen Ministries reaches those in crisis

No matter how caring and sincere a pastor or priest of any church or denomination is, he or she just can’t meet everyone’s needs for pastoral care. That’s where Stephen Ministries comes in.

The nonprofit ministry trains and organizes lay people to provide one-to-one Christian care to others.

“It’s really been very helpful being able to offer people more pastoral care,” said Becky Williams, director of Health Ministries and Pastoral Care facilitator at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church. “I’ve seen peoples’ lives changed tremendously. It gives them hope, and they know they can come through a tough time.”

Williams is one of six local Episcopalians who initially completed a rigorous 50-hour Stephen Ministry training course in 2002.

Named after Stephen, one of the first laymen in the first century church who cared for the widows in the Bible’s book of Acts, the ministry was founded by a Lutheran pastor, the Rev. Dr. Kenneth C. Haugk in 1975.

The nondenominational “caring ministry” is now in 11,000 congregations — 72 in Louisiana — across 160 Christian denominations, in all 50 states and 25 other countries, according to its website. More than 65,000 pastors, church staff and lay people have trained as Stephen leaders and have, in turned, trained more than 600,000 Stephen ministers who provide care to millions of people in a one-on-one, confidential manner.

St. Luke’s rector, the Rev. Charles Bryan Owen, said he appreciates his Stephen leaders and ministers.

“There is only so much we (the clergy) can do. If it weren’t for lay persons responding to God’s call on our lives, the church wouldn’t get off the ground,” Owen said. “I’m thrilled that we’ve got a strong Stephen Ministry going here, as well as in other churches. It crosses ecumenical lines. It’s a way we can be the body of Christ together.”

The ministry is growing in Baton Rouge.

Last year, several of St. Luke’s Stephen Ministry leaders assisted and trained several lay leaders from St. Aloysius Catholic Church, who are now training 10 ministers in their own church.

The St. Luke’s to St. Aloysius connection was “a God moment,” said Debbie Copeland, a longtime Stephen Ministries leader at St. Luke’s.

“One of our goals is to reach other denominations,” Copeland said. “Last summer I got a phone call from a lady I did not know who got my number from another lady I did not know who told me, ‘I understand you’re the person to talk to about Stephen Ministry. We’d like to start one at St. Aloysius.’ ”

The two groups met last fall and in January the Catholics took the training course, a comprehensive system detailing dealing with situations ranging from illness to grief to divorce to economic changes.

“We are not counselors, and we are very careful not to call ourselves counselors or therapists,” said Mary Morain, a retired paralegal and St. Aloysius leader.

“We are ministers, just Christian friends who show up and listen.”

Robert Miller, a St. Aloysius leader, said he got involved because the Roman Catholic Church in general and the Diocese of Baton Rouge in particular has a shortage of priests, and more laymen need to step up to help. Also, he added, too often people who are going through a personal or family crisis will say, “the church wasn’t there for me.”

“Here, we have an opportunity to just be with those people and let them know that Jesus will never let them be alone,” Miller said.

Nancy DeWitt, a St. Luke’s leader/minister and retired mental health professional, describes the ministry as Christian friendship. “Our sole responsibility is to be their Christian friend,” DeWitt said. “Our focus is making sure they know God loves them.”

Allen Paterson, a leader and minister who attends St. James Episcopal Church, said he’s been meeting with a man for an hour a week for three years and plans to continue indefinitely due to the situation.

“We want to meet their needs where they are coming from,” Paterson said. “A lot of what we do is dealing with grief — people who have lost loved ones, and they need help to get through that. Often it takes more than a year to get through that.”

If the individual’s issues indicate a need for professional counseling, the lay ministers are required by Stephen Ministries policies to refer that person to the pastor or priest, the leaders said.

They will be hosting a workshop in November, Copeland said, and anyone from any church or denomination interested in it are welcome.

“We just have this need to help somebody,” said DeWitt of St. Luke’s. “We’re walking with them through this process. God is the one who gets the results not us.”