Kneeling before her congregation, Sheila Leach made a commitment to God and to her fellow parishioners at St. Matthew’s Evangelical Lutheran Church. She would listen to them, pray for them, be with them in their sorrow and pain—as long as they needed her.
But Leach isn’t ordained. She isn’t a professional counselor either. Her public commissioning in early February was part of the entrance to Stephen Ministry leadership, lay people who work one-on-one with fellow parishioners counseling them through tough times in their lives. Stephen ministers also help relieve the pressure on pastors in dealing with some of the emotional needs of their parishioners.
Named for St. Stephen, the first layperson referenced in Acts 6 whom the apostles appointed to a caring ministry, Stephen Ministry, began in 1975 in St. Louis. Now, it’s in more than 11,000 congregations worldwide, according to organization statistics.
In 2013 there were 483 Stephen ministries in North Carolina. St. Matthew’s has one of the oldest Stephen Ministry branches in New Hanover County. This year it’s turning 20 and celebrating with a year of events, starting with a free public-lecture series on cancer and wellness in March, April, and May. The celebration will culminate in November with a reunion of all past Stephen ministers at the church.
Connie Hill, founder of the Christian breast cancer support ministry, Lump to Laughter, will give the first lecture on her experiences with breast cancer. She’ll also discuss what led her to start her organization at 6:30 p.m. on March 4th at the church (612 S. College Rd.). Other lectures will follow on the first Tuesday of each month at 6:30 p.m.
Normally, Stephen Ministry is a private, confidential ministry, but the lecture series is an outreach to the community. Since St. Matthew’s began its ministry, 58 people have become Stephen ministers and leaders there, according to Ana Maria Jackson, one of the church’s Stephen leaders.
“We felt like pioneers back then; we really did,” Pat Mahl, the original Stephen leader at St. Matthew, said. “Stephen ministry has been the most influential thing in my life . . . Watching the power and sharing of the Holy Spirit through this ministry, you realize this person needs this Stephen minister. It makes you feel very small, and powerless.”
“Care receivers”—as the Stephen ministry calls its clients—are interviewed by St. Matthew’s pastor, the Reverend Samuel Zumwalt, to see if they are open to speaking with a Stephen minister. Some care receivers are dealing with grief from the loss of a spouse or a child, a cancer diagnosis, or depression.
Just becoming a Stephen minister involves 50 hours of training. Leach returned recently from a week-long training for leadership, which she characterized as an intense experience.
“What we do is just short of professional help,” Leach said. But the Stephen ministers are frank about not being professional counselors, and if a person needs that help, the church has community services they can refer to a care receiver. Some Stephen ministers might work with one care receiver for two or three years or until that person doesn’t need their help. “It’s humbling to see the power of prayer,” Jackson added. “You see when they get the peace.”
The result of working that closely with fellow parishioners creates “wonderful friendships through this afterward,” Leach added. But it can be a struggle getting care receivers to accept the help, Mahl said. After all, that can mean being vulnerable with someone possibly seen at church the next week. Through the ministry, women meet with women, and men meet with men. “Very few men accept the support of a Stephen minister because they often say they can handle things on their own,” Jackson said. “We’re really listening and praying for them. For me, the most beautiful thing is I’m holding you in prayer. When it is my care receiver, there’s more of a sense of commitment.”
Lecture with Connie Hill (Lump to Laughter)
March 4th, 6:30 p.m. March 4
St. Matthew’s Evangelical Lutheran Church, 612 S. College Rd.