by Bob Wardwell.
“Here I am Lord, Is it I Lord?
I have heard you calling in the night”
I was 19 years old when I heard the calling in the night. The voice inside my heart repeated the same brief message, feed my sheep. I had always liked the image of the Good Shepherd and His sheep. Struggling with career choices, I surmised that I was being called to be a pastor.
My seminary experience was wonderful, particularly my clinical pastoral education at Haverford State Hospital. It led me to believe I was called to serve as a hospital chaplain, but ultimately God led me to a career with Medicare and Medicaid.
In retirement, I hoped to find a way to answer that original call. It came at St. Peter’s Church, Lewes, through something called Stephen Ministry. I said yes to training as a Stephen Minister and so did nine other people, including my wife of 51 years. It has made a positive difference in the lives of each one of us, and in the lives of the people we have served.
Stephen Ministry is a congregational ministry that teaches lay caregivers, called Stephen Ministers, to provide one-on-one, confidential, Christ-centered care to people in need of support through a rough patch in their lives. Stephen Ministers do not provide professional counseling or replace parish clergy’s pastoral support. It is facilitated through an interdenominational organization started in 1975 by a Lutheran pastor and psychologist. Individual congregations enroll in this program and receive leadership training and necessary materials to begin and manage the program in their church. Since its inception, over 13,000 congregations and 75,000 pastors have used this ministry to train over 600,000 lay people for this form of service.
Pastors screen and encourage members, and occasionally non-members, of their church to accept the support of a Stephen Minister when they believe it would be beneficial. Strict confidentiality is maintained throughout the relationship even if the care receiver choses to identify or speak about the relationship with others. Each assignment begins and ends according to the needs and choice of the care receiver and may last from a few weeks to a couple years. Typical crises in our church have included severe and/or terminal illnesses, grief over the loss of a loved one, and caregiving for a close family member.
My first care receiver has given me permission to write about our relationship; but, I’m not using his real name. Charlie and his wife relocated to this area and were enjoying retirement. Slowly, but progressively, his wife of 50 years started to develop the symptoms of dementia that first robbed her of the ability to communicate, then robbed her of her mobility. She slowly lost much of the person she had been. Anyone who has loved and helped care for a person with dementia understands the protracted grief over the loss of the person they loved and the daily struggle to maintain a life at home for their loved one. Charlie would often say that his wife meant everything to him and all he was doing could never begin to repay all she had done for him.
Charlie and I walked together for about two years, and I spent a lot of time listening to and reflecting his feelings and helping him ponder his options and the decisions he needed to make as her decline continued. I encouraged his self-care and continued reliance on God for guidance and strength. I last saw his wife as one of our clergy made his regular visit to offer them both Holy Communion. I could see little of the beautiful and intelligent woman she had been, but Charlie still did. Shortly thereafter, she became whole in the nearer presence of God. It was my great privilege to walk with Charlie and I saw love in action far beyond what anyone expects when they vow “in sickness and in health.”
I have come to believe that what we do in Stephen Ministry is at the core of what being a Christian community of faith is all about. In our bi-weekly supervision groups, we become Stephen Ministers to each other. We support each other so we can support other people. I believe this ministry has also contributed to the overall sense of community that initially drew us to St. Peter’s. We train a new Stephen Ministry class each year as folks move away or find other avenues for service. I have been trained as a Stephen Leader and through a Stephen Ministry contact, have become a volunteer hospice chaplain, further fulfilling my calling of 50 years ago.
But that same small voice tells me I need to encourage others to feed His sheep beyond St. Peter’s, Lewes. So please consider allowing me to tell you about starting Stephen Ministry in your parish. I will tell a good news story that, like the Gospel, I am compelled to share. I can be reached at: email@example.com. You may also wish to visit: www.stephenministries.org for more details.
Bob Wardwell is a Stephen Ministry Leader at St. Peter’s Church in Lewes. firstname.lastname@example.org