When Kathy Bednarek experienced the pinch of raising teenagers, she sought help in gaining wisdom and coping skills during those years.
Bednarek turned to an unexpected source: Stephen Ministry at her parish, Holy Infant in Ballwin. She was matched with a Stephen Minister on three occasions over several years; each provided a confidential listening ear.
“They were very wonderful people, great listeners,” Bednarek said. “They really helped me to kind of calm down and focus on doing what I could, and trusting God to take care of the rest.” The Stephen Ministers shared Scripture passages and encouraged prayer, which comforted Bednarek.
Stephen Ministry provides a one-to-one confidential, non-judgmental and caring environment for people to talk about their faith journey during life’s difficulties. Typically, regularly scheduled visits with an individual — called a care receiver — take place over a course of months or even years, depending on the need.
Ministry situations include grief, divorce, cancer diagnosis, hospitalization, physical rehabilitation, long-term care, chronic or terminal illness, job loss, loss of a home, military deployment, onset of a disability or spiritual crisis. Some Stephen Ministers have described the ministry as an important resource for people navigating the difficulties of the pandemic. And others, like Bednarek, have credited Stephen Ministry with helping through common life stresses, such as raising children, moving to a new city or experiencing loneliness.
Care receivers have the opportunity to express themselves in a safe, confidential way to a person who is not too close to the situation. “Friends are constantly trying to tell you what to do,” said Patricia Foley, who serves as referral and training coordinator with Stephen Ministry at Holy Infant. “We are Christ-centered, process-oriented, and offer a non-judgmental listening ear. And it’s proactive listening — listening in the moment and really hearing the person. We are focused in on you and every word that comes out of your heart.”
Sherry Myers received support from her parish community when her triplets were born.
The mother of four was on bed rest toward the end of her pregnancy. Parishioners at Holy Infant pitched in, helping with meals and child care when needed.
Managing four young children was joyful, though at times stressful. So when Myers’ children were older, she sought to give back to her parish by getting involved in different ways, including Stephen Ministry.
As a physical therapist, caring for others has been part of Myers’ nature. That’s partly why Myers resonated with the mission of Stephen Ministry. Stephen Ministers receive ongoing training to help them learn how to become better proactive listeners.
“People are called to this because they’re good listeners,” said Myers. “Part of it is innate, and part of it is the training. Even though you’re not a spiritual adviser, I feel like I could be a good spiritual example” to others. She added that not everyone who seeks out a Stephen Minister is part of the parish, active in their faith or even religious. Sometimes those referrals can come by word of mouth, such as a family member or friend of a parishioner.
Alberta McGilligan, who helps coordinate ongoing training for Stephen Ministers at Holy Infant, said the lay-led ministry also is a help to priests and deacons in easing some of the demands that come with caring for their flock.
“People may talk to a priest and visit for a time or two, but they can’t necessarily keep up with ongoing visits,” she said. “We can do that with Stephen Ministry.”
Leading people to the ‘Curegiver’
Diane Jokerst had a long and fulfilling career as a nurse. In every sense of the word, she was a caregiver to others in perhaps some of their most vulnerable moments. Shortly after her retirement from nursing in 2002, Jokerst volunteered to become a Stephen Minister at her parish, St. Catherine Laboure in Sappington. It was something she felt called to that carried over from her former vocation as a nurse.
The first person she ministered to was a woman going through a difficult time. “It wasn’t a huge crisis, but I was that non-judgmental person she could speak with that wasn’t a friend or a relative,” said Jokerst. “She was able to say whatever she wanted to, and it wasn’t going to go any further than us.”
Stephen Ministers are not called upon to “fix” a person’s situation, but rather to be an active listener. “We say in Stephen Ministry that we don’t fix things,” she said. “We are the caregivers, but God is the ultimate curegiver.”
Jokerst said they’ve encountered people who are caregivers themselves and looking for someone with whom to talk. They “often forget to take care of themselves,” she said. “In order to give care, they need to take the time for themselves. And with more people who are staying in their homes longer (as they age), there can be a lot of stress on those caregivers. So now they’re reaching out more than we have seen in the past.”
Assisting with the flock
As a longtime pastor, Vincentian Father Jim Cormack said that Stephen Ministry is important in the parish and complements his work as a priest.
“Often the priest has a role at the funeral or those moments where you visit the hospital, but the ongoing care that Stephen Ministry offers can only be done by the laity,” he said. “As part of my care as pastor, when my people are in need, I want to provide a response to their need, and Stephen Ministry is that response.”
Father Cormack said the laity have an important role in being missionary disciples, and their unique perspectives offer something that is relatable to other laypeople.
“They bring to some people a kind of understanding that I can’t always bring” as priest, he said.
Jeff Pattison recently went through training to become a Stephen Leader at his parish, Holy Spirit in Maryland Heights. Those are the folks who help coordinate the Stephen Ministry team, including pairing Stephen Ministers with care receivers and providing ongoing training and support.
“As leaders, the main thing we do is administer the program and make sure it is still moving along as it should,” he said. “They have ongoing development to refresh and be reminded about the people they are there to serve.”
Pattison stressed that Stephen Ministry is not professional counseling, nor is it spiritual direction. “It’s possible that we have people who are not Catholic,” he said. “It can be your son who has never set foot in a church, and that’s OK.
We’re not there to judge, and there’s no agenda. Stephen Ministry teaches us that we care, and Jesus the cure. It’s through us, without being pushy, and just listening, that we hope people will find help. Through that listening ear, hopefully they will find a closer relationship with Christ.”
>> Caring ministry
A worldwide, interdenominational program, Stephen Ministry started in St. Louis in 1975 when Rev. Kenneth C. Haugk, a Lutheran pastor and clinical psychologist, trained several laypeople in his congregation to become Stephen Ministers.
They in turn provided spiritual care to members of their congregation and the wider community. The caregivers were so excited about the program that they encouraged Haugk to offer the ministry to other faith-based congregations.
The group eventually became a nonprofit organization and named itself Stephen Ministries St. Louis. The ministry’s namesake is St. Stephen, the first layperson comissioned by the apostles to provide caring ministry to others in need.
Stephen Ministry was named after St. Stephen, who in Acts 6 was among those chosen to provide caring ministry to those in need. Since Jesus’ time, caring ministry has been a hallmark of the Christian faith community.
Stephen Ministry is present in more than 13,000 congregations, representing more than 180 denominations, all 50 states, 10 Canadian provinces and 30 other countries. There are numerous Catholic parishes in the Archdiocese of St. Louis that have active Stephen Ministries. Many congregations have had an active Stephen Ministry for more than 30 years.
Stephen ministers come from all walks of life, sharing a passion for bringing Christ’s love and care during a time of need. They specifically carry out Christ’s commitment to “love one another as I have loved you” (John 15:12).
To learn more about Stephen Ministry or to be connected with a Stephen Minister, see www.stephenministries.org.