Not long after Lori quit her job to become a stay-at-home mom for her two young children, she faced the sudden death of her father, which left her shattered and not knowing where to turn.
"It scared my children to see me cry, so I kept my feelings inside," she says. After several months, the dam burst in the middle of a church service, and she left the sanctuary in tears. A pastor then suggested she might benefit from the church's Stephen Ministry program.
"I was very skeptical," Lori says. "What could a layperson have to offer me?"
But over the next year she met weekly with a Stephen Minister - a woman about her age - and found it made a huge difference in her own and her family's lives. The caregiver helped her through the deep grief after her father's death, and later through other family difficulties.
"She was an active listener," Lori says. "She asked questions that really made me think, and she was gradually able to help me bring God back to front and center."
Spiritual caregiving for people in crisis is an expanding service being offered by congregations in many denominations - here and abroad. As people's lives have become more mobile and fragmented, and separated from family, many have looked to their churches for help in times of need. The demand has often far outstripped the ability of pastors to respond. Now, lay volunteers are receiving in-depth training that enables them to extend the reach of pastoral care far beyond what their ministers alone could provide.
In the process, caregivers find their work boosts their own spiritual growth and skills, strengthens ties within their churches, and offers a meaningful way to reach out to the surrounding community.
Some denominations have their own care programs, but Christian churches in more than 90 denominations in the US and 19 other countries on five continents have enrolled in the Stephen Ministries program, which offers a complete system for training and managing a caregiving ministry.
Started by the Rev. Kenneth Haugk - an overworked pastor in St. Louis who trained some of his own congregation back in 1975 - the initiative has enrolled more than 7,000 congregations and helped prepare more than 250,000 laypersons to be Stephen ministers. (The program, they say, is named for St. Stephen, considered the first layperson commissioned by the Apostles to minister to people in need.)
The growth and success of the program is attributable, says Joel Bretscher of the St. Louis staff, not only to the need for care, but also to the hunger that churchgoers have to do something in ministry beyond simply serve on a church committee.
"This is one of the most satisfying pieces of my life," concurs Kim Risedorph, a Stephen Minister at San Ramon Valley United Methodist Church in Alamo, Calif. "I really enjoy praying for others - it was something I was yearning to do. It's a privilege to be available to people in pain and to watch and see how willing God is to bring healing."
Like some others who serve, Ms. Risedorph herself was a "care receiver" in the program several years ago, and now she trains caregivers at her church, a 1,000-member congregation that has 20 active Stephen ministers.
Caregivers develop specific skills to help individuals work through a variety of crises, such as divorce; grief from losing a spouse, or child, or parent; difficult custody battles; unemployment; coping with a child's drug or alcohol problem; and adjusting to radical lifestyle changes (an older person no longer able to drive, for instance); or health difficulties. Men serve as caregivers for men, and women for women.
They are not counselors, however. "Our mission is not to give advice, but to be a safe, confidential place for people to tell their story," Risedorph emphasizes. "They have the capacity to come to their own answers. What we say is that we are the caregivers and God is the cure-giver."
Participants from several churches say the highly structured nature of the program and the quality of the training are keys to making their efforts successful.
Congregations enroll with Stephen Ministries St. Louis, and their pastor and lay leaders attend a seven-day leaders Training Course to learn how to implement the program. As Stephen leaders, they return to their church and set up a 50-hour training program for selected lay volunteers. Resource materials are available at each level.
To provide support and ensure the quality of care, ongoing peer supervision is mandatory for caregivers. They and the leaders meet biweekly to discuss their work, but maintain total confidentiality regarding those they are helping.
"There has to be an ongoing sense of integrity when you are dealing with such huge issues in other people's lives," Risedorph explains.
Each church runs its own program, but St. Louis staff are available for consulting on any questions.
"It's a terrific program," says the Rev. Mark Gaertner, a minister for pastoral care at Trinity Lutheran Church in Clinton Township, Mich. His church, which has about 2,500 members, has been involved now for 15 years, and it currently has 35 active Stephen ministers.
"Our training program runs from September through April almost every Sunday night. And we have day-long seminars on two important skills: active listening and assertiveness - expressing feelings in a straightforward way."
Other topics covered include confidentiality, feelings, ministering to people in specific situations, how to maintain the appropriate boundaries while giving care, how to recognize when needs go beyond the kind of care ministers can provide, and how to make referrals.
The training is "distinctively Christian care," says Mr. Bretscher. "It is not psychology, but biblically based; [any] psychology involved is compatible with Christian beliefs."
Karen Holton is a Stephen leader at the United Methodist Church in Worthington, Ohio, where about 100 ministers have been trained. A two-year commitment to the program is common, given the major time demands, "but we have people still involved from six years ago," she says.
She has also found the ministry a meaningful way to engage with Christians of other traditions. Several hundred people from almost 50 denominations participated in the leadership training she attended, and in the Worthington area, six churches of different denominations are in the program. "We started a network of Stephen Ministry congregations five years ago to share resources," she says.
Churches often find the benefits go beyond those gained in the one-on-one relationship.
"A lot of people who've gone through the training - even if they are no longer active caregivers - use those [heightened listening and caring] skills in their relationship with others," Rev. Gaertner says. "It makes our congregation a warm and welcoming place." And, it's been a means of outreach. About one-third of the group's care receivers, he says, are people outside the church community.
One of the challenges is maintaining the momentum of the program when the commitment level demanded is so great. Churches often find the level of participation goes in cycles. And sometimes the program's structure doesn't meet a particular congregation's need.
The Congregational Church of Topsfield, Mass., has its own pastoral-care team, which uses Christian caregiving principles though not the structured Stephen Ministry program. But they were inspired by another Stephen Ministries offering to start small groups to spur spiritual growth and develop a sense of community within their large congregation.
"We have almost 500 members, and you aren't going to get to know people just by coming to church each week," says Associate Pastor Jean Sangster. "By being part of a small group, you can develop relationships - with each other and with God."
Through the ChristCare program, church members are trained to lead small groups that meet regularly. "We've covered many topics, from the Book of John, to women of the Bible, to how to have a stronger relationship with God," says Barbara Whitcher, who leads a group on women at mid-life. Small groups give people an opportunity to develop their spiritual gifts, she adds. "It's a nurturing situation and builds confidence."
There is also a service component. One small group, for example, offers a regular worship service at a nearby nursing home.
In both the Stephen and ChristCare ministries, the aim of the staff is to "equip the equippers." In addition to training and ongoing consultation, they do an annual newsletter, maintain a website (www.stephenministries.org), and are developing a special level on the site for Stephen leaders. They are now servicing congregations as distant as Argentina, Malaysia and Korea, Saudi Arabia, Malawi and South Africa, and Australia.
Ms. Holton, who first participated in Stephen Ministry in a California church, actually chose her new church when she moved to Ohio on the basis of whether it had a Stephen Ministry program.
"I've been touched by this program personally in two congregations ... and I tell a lot of friends about the joy it is for both people involved," she says. "Somebody is there and cares. That's the crux of it."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society