Stephen Ministry begins: ‘Blessed are they who mourn’

Stephen Ministry, grief, mourning

Stephen Ministry, grief, mourningA movement is afoot to establish Stephen Ministry in the Coastal Deanery.

An informational meeting sponsored by St. Benedict Church will be held May 1 from 2-3:30 p.m. at All Saints Lutheran Church, located at 2107 U.S. Highway 17 in Mount Pleasant. It is open to anyone interested in caring for others the way Jesus taught.

Those in the grief ministry describe themselves as a friend who will always listen. They are not professional counselors and do not try to fix problems.

“We are companions for someone who is walking down a path in life that may be difficult,” said Franciscan Sister Kathy Adamski.

“We’re not there to cure as to care and to listen — to say ‘my heart hurts for you,’” said Joanne Gilmore.

How it started
Sister Kathy is the pastoral associate at St. Benedict Church in Mount Pleasant and Gilmore is a member of Stella Maris Church on Sullivan’s Island. They were each looking for a way to help those locked in grief.

It was personal for Gilmore.

Her son died four years ago. She said it was sudden and the whole family was thrown into shock.

Much later, she reluctantly agreed to take a cruise with her husband for her 60th birthday, even though she knew she wasn’t ready. Onboard the ship she kept to herself and was mired in grief when she had a chance encounter with a Stephen Ministry volunteer.

“She was the only person of 1,600 people on the ship that I spoke to other than my husband,” Gilmore said. “She was sent by the Holy Spirit.”

They kept in touch by phone for a long time after that, Gilmore said, and eventually she came to a point where she wanted to reach out to others the same way.

Stephen Ministry is used by many Protestant faiths, but Gilmore said she was the only Catholic in the group. She wanted to bring it to Catholics in the area and started leaving information at local churches.

The first person to respond was Sister Kathy, who said it was providential; that God sent Gilmore to her.

Sister Kathy explained that St. Benedict had held 10 funerals in just six months, and she could plainly see the need for a program that helped people through the aftermath of grief.

Many ways to grieve
Although the death of a loved one is the most traumatic loss, Stephen Ministry volunteers help in many other situations.

They help people who are going through a divorce, or are caring for an ailing spouse or elderly parents. They comfort those who have lost a job, or are feeling isolated after moving to a new area.   

“There are many ways to grieve,” Sister Kathy said.

She described it as a caring ministry for anyone facing a crisis or life challenge.

“We have wonderful priests, but their burdens are so heavy,” Gilmore said, adding that all parishes need more ears to listen with compassion.  

Helping hands
The Piedmont Deanery is one area that has embraced the ministry, and many parishes have active groups.

Father Arturo O. Dalupang, pastor of St. Anthony in Florence, said he has heard a lot of positive feedback.

“People are comforted by it,” he said.

Carol Germain and Harriette Swearingen started the ministry at St. Anthony two years ago and have 10 trained volunteers: seven women and three men.

Germain said one of the rules of Stephen Ministry is that there are no cross-gender assignments. Men work with men, and women with women.

Since more women come forward seeking help, the female caregivers have been busier, but the men have had assignments too, Germain said.  

She explained that family and friends can grow impatient with those who are grieving and want them to move on with life. That is where a volunteer comes into the picture.

“We’re just a good friend, a shoulder to cry on for however long they need,” she said.

Father Dalupang said while the program is beneficial to communities that need it, he does wish it were a Catholic-based ministry.  

Since 1975
Stephen Ministry was formed 35 years ago by the Rev. Kenneth C. Haugk, Ph.D., a Methodist minister.

“I had a church full of needs, but also a church full of people,” he wrote on the organization’s Web page.

Since then, more than 10,000 congregations have opened their doors to Stephen Ministry. Based in Saint Louis, it provides separate training for leaders and helpers.

Sister Kathy and Gilmore, along with Martha Vadney, agreed to take a leadership training session in Orlando, Fla., so they could bring it back to the Coastal Deanery.

But first they had to find the funding.

Catholic Charities chips in   
When the three women were searching for funds for the required 50 hours of leadership training, they decided to try Catholic Charities.

Deacon Ed Peitler, director, said he had heard wonderful things about Stephen Ministry from a friend and fellow parishioner at St. Peter Church in Beaufort.

“It’s not just for grief, but for a variety of difficulties,” Deacon Peitler said.

Fortunately, funds were available. Deacon Peitler said a donation had been made with the stipulation that it be used to help those suffering emotional difficulty.

The next step
Now that the women have received their training, they are ready to let others know about the program.

Gilmore said the information session on May 1 is for those with a caring personality and the time to dedicate themselves to others.

Aside from the required training session, caregivers will spend at least one hour a week with their care receiver, and attend peer supervision meetings twice monthly.

Germain said her volunteers describe the ministry as a blessing to all involved.  

Sister Kathy said St. Benedict will host the first Stephen Ministry group, and hopefully it will spread to other parishes from there.