By SHEILA OJENDYK
SIMPSONVILLE — An intriguing piece of mail was delivered to St. Mary Magdalene Church in January of 2000. Jesuit Father Herbert K. Conner, pastor, passed the correspondence from the Stephen Ministry to John Byrnes one evening after a Pastoral Council meeting and asked him to investigate.
Stephen Ministry is an ecumenical outreach program in which well-trained lay men and women offer Christian support to people facing difficult life situations. Stephen ministers are not counselors. Their role is to offer one-on-one spiritual care and to walk beside people in their journey facing circumstances such as terminal illness, bereavement, unemployment, incarceration, or unwanted life transitions.
This caring ministry began in St. Louis when Kenneth C. Haugk, a young Lutheran pastor with a Ph.D. in clinical psychology, wanted to involve lay people more deeply in ministry. He trained nine people, described in his words as “… a typical church conglomeration,” to offer spiritual care and support to people in need of ministry. From this humble beginning in 1975, the Stephen Ministry has grown from one faith community to nearly 7,800 congregations in the United States and 21 other countries representing 100 Christian denominations.
The Stephen Ministry gets its title from St. Stephen, the first deacon of the early Christian church. The first verses of Acts 6 tell of the early apostles and their decision to appoint seven men who would distribute food to the widows of the community, thus freeing the apostles to focus on prayer and ministry. The first and most prominent of these seven men was Stephen.
Byrnes and his wife, Tina, followed up on Father Conner’s request to investigate the Stephen Ministry. They began by attending an information session in North Carolina last summer and returned with a recommendation to establish the ministry at St. Mary Magdalene. A serendipitous encounter with a Stephen minister from Simpsonville United Methodist Church provided further encouragement, and the Methodist group has mentored the St. Mary Magdalene group ever since.
Byrnes chose to become a Stephen leader. A Stephen leader does not serve as a minister but rather trains others for the ministry, manages the program, and provides support to the ministers.
A second leader, a woman, was needed to share the work and ensure that the knowledge would not be lost if something happened to Byrnes. Several women in the parish were asked, but none was able to serve. Byrnes was down to the wire, and at the last possible minute, Barbara Ziobro stepped forward. Byrnes says of these experiences with the Stephen Ministry, “I’ve never seen anything that has the Holy Spirit so involved.”
Byrnes and Ziobro attended an intensive seven-day training course for Stephen leaders in Orlando this past January. Nearly 600 people attended the training course. Sessions began at 8 a.m. and often did not finish until 9 or 10 p.m., yet both say they were never tired. Ziobro did remark, however, that the training packet weighed 32 pounds and that the leaders in training were encouraged to transport the packet with carts.
Father Conner asked Byrnes and Ziobro to share their impressions with the congregation at St. Mary Magdalene. First, they talked to the congregation at the weekend Masses, and then they held several informational sessions for parishioners apart from the Masses. More than 70 parishioners expressed an interest in the ministry. Out of the 70, 11 people were selected for training.
Most of the individuals in the training class are working adults. Their ages range from the early 30s to retired.
Training for a Stephen minister takes 50 hours and is very thorough. They learn not only how to provide spiritual support to people in crisis but how to set boundaries, deal with the inevitable pitfalls, and recognize their own limits. They will have ready access to counselors, mental health professionals, and Catholic Charities should the need arise.
The Stephen ministers at St. Mary Magdalene began training this past spring. The group took a break for the summer and will finish in October. Upon completion, they will be commissioned during Mass. Each individual has committed to serving as a Stephen minister for two years. Byrnes believes that St. Mary Magdalene is the only Catholic parish in South Carolina currently participating in this ministry.
Byrnes and Ziobro will assign the Stephen ministers to their care receivers (the term used in this ministry), man to man or woman to woman. Only the Stephen minister and the Stephen leader who made the pairing knows who is receiving care, and both are bound to confidentiality.
The Stephen minister makes the contact, and the minister and care receiver decide upon a mutually convenient schedule for personal visits. The relationship between Stephen minister and care receiver may be short-term or long-term, depending on the needs of the care receiver, but Byrnes stresses that there “needs to be effective care giving.” Prayer and Scripture are prominent in the relationship between Stephen minister and care receiver.
The Stephen leaders will supervise the team of Stephen ministers. All will meet regularly for discussion and mutual support, but the vow of confidentiality is never broken.
The Stephen leaders are very enthusiastic about this ministry and believe it will be particularly beneficial in a Catholic setting because of the priest shortage. A pastor in one of the training videos affirmed that Jesus worked with 12 ministers to carry on his work and that Stephen ministers help a busy pastor meet the needs of a congregation.
The Stephen Ministry team at St. Mary Magdalene has a dedicated phone number, (864) 288-4884 Ext. 239. For more information, contact Stephen Ministries in St. Louis at (314) 428-2600 or at www.stephenministries.org on the Internet.