It takes time to build trust, Joyce McNeil said, and as a Stephen minister at Carroll Lutheran Village, a retirement community in Westminster, McNeil, 86, is grateful each time she reaches it with a care receiver.
“We do talk and we do pray,” McNeil said. “Once they feel comfortable with you, they want a better relationship with God and don’t feel alone.”
McNeil was always interested in Stephen Ministry, a one-on-one, Christ-centered care program for people facing life difficulties that began in St. Louis in 1975. The name Stephen was chosen because of the stories in the Bible, in Acts 6, in which Stephen is among those chosen to provide caring ministry to those in need.
McNeil first learned about the ministry at her church but was too busy with life and its responsibilities to give it her full attention. When three residents at Carroll Lutheran decided to start a program, she signed up.
“I always wanted to give back,” McNeil said.
Months before the pandemic began, residents Bob Nicoll, Connie Kidder and Jay King had started taking the necessary steps to bring a Stephen Ministry program to Carroll Lutheran, including each of them completing 50 hours of specialized training to form the leadership team. Responsible for training and overseeing the Stephen ministers, of which there are now eight, the leadership team also includes resident James Boesler, the village’s spiritual committee chair and Associate Chaplain Charles Marshall.
“When the pandemic hit, we were unable to meet,” said Nicoll, who is the team leader. “People were in need.”
Typically, a Stephen Ministry program is based in a church to help spiritual leaders cater to the individual needs of their congregation. Issues such as marital problems or health concerns are common. At Carroll Lutheran, which has assisted living and skilled care facilities and roughly 700 residents, issues range from depression to end-of-life concerns to loneliness. The leadership team works with Marshall to find those residents who may benefit from sharing with a Stephen minister.
“It is one-on-one care,” Boesler said. “We don’t try to fix or fault God’s path. We will listen and pray and move things in a more positive direction.”
Team leaders work carefully to keep the relationship between the care receiver and his or her Stephen minster confidential, even from one’s spouse. While it is a Christian-based program, Stephen Ministries welcomes everyone, the group said.
“We’re here for you,” Boesler said. “We make no bones about that. We respect that.”
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“We’re trained to be active listeners to help understand what they are going through,” King said.
Kidder was involved with Stephen Ministries at her former church and knows how it can help.
“I’ve had some significant losses in my life,” Kidder said. “This is a way to give and share all that I received.”
One of Kidder’s duties as a team leader is to help locate residents that could benefit from the program. She works closely with Marshall as well as the staff to help identify future care receivers.
“Once they are assigned to a Stephen minister, they get together once a week and then two times a month,” Kidder said. “Gradually, the need for a minister passes and there is closure.”
The leadership team was planning to train a new class of Stephen ministers to help reach even more residents.
“People are reluctant to seek help, especially men,” Nicoll said. “Stephen ministers help each care receiver, see how they are doing and give guidance.”