"They chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit. ... And the Word of God increased; and the number of disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem." - Acts 6:5-7.
While her husband lay ill and dying, Susan Neal-Lyman was helped through her crisis, and ultimately toward a decision to join a church, by the extraordinary support of a friend from Glen Mar United Methodist Church.
After becoming a member of Glen Mar, an Ellicott City church, Neal-Lyman knew she wanted to aid others as she had been helped. Like many before her, she became a Stephen minister.
Stephen ministers are lay Christians who are trained to reach out to others in times of crises and need. Needs can range from the death of a spouse to divorce, job loss, chronic illness, depression or adjusting to the birth of a child. A Stephen minister works one-on-one with an individual in crisis to provide support, ideally seeing a client - called a care receiver - on a weekly basis.
"I wanted to use what I learned to help someone else," Neal-Lyman says. "I loved the training, and we became a very close bunch."
Unlike more informal lay ministry care programs, the Stephen ministry involves extensive and systematic training and monitoring. Stephen ministers take 50 hours of training classes, covering about 25 topics including care of oneself, listening skills, dealing with grief, depression and suicide, and when to refer to a professional.
After completing the course, participants make a 24-month commitment to provide ministry to those in need. A Stephen minister is typically assigned one, sometimes two, care receivers.
"It's probably the most extensive system of training lay people to do ministry that there is," says the Rev. Andrea Wiegand, associate pastor of First Lutheran Evangelical Church in Ellicott City, noting that more than 7,000 congregations worldwide representing 33 denominations offer Stephen ministry services.
The Stephen ministry fulfills the biblical command: "Bear one another's burdens ... and so fulfill the law of Christ" (Galatians 6:2).
Judy Theilman, a member of Glen Mar and coordinator of the Stephen ministry training program for six churches, stresses the inclusiveness of the ministry.
"If a person comes on and wants care but not religion, we will take them on. We're here to care in a Christian way whether the other person is a practicing Christian or not.
"It gives the clergy more eyes and ears," she adds. "More people are given individual care than any clergy could possibly give."
Theilman coordinates Stephen ministry training for Bethany and Glen Mar United Methodist churches, St. John's Episcopal Church, First Evangelical Lutheran Church, First Presbyterian Church of Howard County and St. John United Methodist-Presbyterian Church.
Confidentiality is of paramount importance. While ministers ideally meet twice a month for support and follow-up, names or specific facts about care receivers are never revealed. In some cases, individuals are assigned a Stephen minister from a different church to ensure confidentiality.
Being a Stephen minister is a "win-win proposition" for Theilman. "It's a way for both sides to grow in their Christian faith. When you deal with people from your congregation to support them through a crisis, it cements a bond that is almost unbreakable," she said.
She further notes the effects of the ministry in the faith life of a Stephen minister, saying, "The leadership has such a beautiful faith, it rubs off. People who come into Stephen just beginning their faith journey will say after a year that they are 10 or 15 years further along in comparison to the previous year. People who come in feeling they could never pray or share in public have no hesitation in praying or talking in public at the end of their 50 hours."
Wiegand also enthusiastically supports the Stephen ministry. "I really loved the idea that God calls us in baptism to spread God's word ... to love your neighbor as yourself," she says. "However, if people don't know how to do it, they can tend to hold back."
The Stephen ministry offers the needed skills so that people can give of themselves.
For Neal-Lyman, the benefits of being a Stephen minister are far-reaching.
"Once the confidence and trust starts to develop, you can do a lot to help. Each of my care receivers has left me with a very warm feeling," she said. The Stephen ministry "trains you for a lot of areas of life, including marriage. You learn how to listen and communicate."
Recently remarried, Neal-Lyman said, "My husband is doing Stephen training, too."
Information on the Stephen ministry or to request care: Judy Theilman, Glen Mar United Methodist Church, 410-465-4995. The Stephen ministry is open to all in need, regardless of religious affiliation.