HANCOCK COUNTY — There are moments when Barb Knox sees it’s working — when these times of conversation, in which she provides mainly a listening ear, are helping a struggling person progress.
“When a person acts at greater peace, I feel like it’s helping,” Knox said.
Sometimes she sees a difference in that person’s family, too.
Knox is one of about a dozen members of Wilkinson Church of Christ who have been trained as Stephen Ministers. Zion Lutheran Church in New Palestine also has a Stephen Ministry, and St. James Lutheran Church in Greenfield has been working to restart its group.
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Stephen Ministers are not ordained ministers; they’re laypeople who offer a caring presence to those facing a challenging season of life.
Those challenges could involve grief, divorce, job loss, chronic or terminal illness, relocation, separation because of military deployment and more.
“We are not trained counselors,” said Lynda Utt, one of the Stephen Ministers at Zion. (In fact, the program urges counseling for those with issues needing care beyond what a Stephen Minister can provide.) “We’re people who really listen and just help people who are struggling.”
Utt is one of the three Stephen Ministry leaders at Zion; they have been trained to work with other church members and prepare them to be lay caregivers.
Utt, Kevin Knippenberg and Gloria Means went through training last year, Utt said. They have since trained several other church members who are recognized as Stephen Ministers, ready to help people get through tough times.
Zion’s service is available without charge for one hour per week to church and community members. Sometimes, the lay care ministers offer advice based on biblical teachings, Utt said.
In the book of Acts, Chapter 6, Stephen was chosen to provide caring ministry to those in need. Since the time of Christ’s apostles, caring ministry has been considered a hallmark of the Christian faith community, Utt said.
Noting how there are always people in need of care in the congregation and community — more than a pastor alone can care for — church leaders at Zion thought the program would be great to implement.
The Rev. Jason Taylor said he’s been impressed with the training participating church members received.
He said he likes being able to connect someone in need with a Christian who might simply listen to an issue.
“A lot of times, pastors are going from one emergency to the next,” Taylor said. “It’s great to be able to provide help on a continuous basis.”
Sometimes, even the most well-intentioned people aren’t great listeners, Taylor said. He thinks it’s important to have trained listeners who don’t necessarily offer advice but are willing to sit, listen and learn about another person’s needs.
“To have someone say, ‘I am going to listen to you’ — that is such a valuable tool and skill,” Taylor said.
Stephen Ministers go through 50 hours of training, Utt said. The process includes a mixture of lectures, videos, group discussions, skill practices and spiritual growth activities.
Following the initial training, Stephen Ministers participate in monthly continuing education sessions.
Utt said her reason for becoming involved is simple.
“This a wonderful opportunity to share Christ’s love to someone who is hurting,” Utt said.
Joan Wheeler of New Palestine is one of the lay caregivers in the Zion program and has been working with a resident in a nursing home. Wheeler became a Stephen Minister not only because she felt the church pastor needed some help but also because it would give her a chance to share her faith.
Wheeler joked she was given the gift of gab from God and that the program has been good for her, too.
“I’ve been trained now to be a good listener,” She said. “I do believe this is a calling for me.”
Stephen Ministers at Wilkinson have also completed the 50 hours of training, and additional people are going through the training at the church.
“It’s kind of a quiet ministry,” said Tammy Stunda. “You’re just one on one with someone.”
Those already serving in the program meet regularly in a group Stunda facilitates. They don’t discuss the people they’re caring for — those conversations are confidential — but work to further hone their skills and encourage each other in the ministry.
“It’s a good backup to the ministry staff,” said Ken Smoak, one of the Stephen Ministers at Wilkinson. “(It) keeps people from falling through the cracks.”
Two other members of the Wilkinson group said the training has also helped them know how to respond when they or family members are facing their own tough times.
Kathy Robinson said after the deaths of family members or friends in recent years, “I had to kick in my Stephen Ministry and remember what we were taught … and try to stay focused.”
Dawn Fout has done that, too.
“My mind goes, ‘OK, Stephen Minister, what are you going to do?'”
Anyone interested in learning more about the Stephen Minister program at Zion and to determine if it might be right for someone in need can call Jason Taylor at 317-861-4210.
To learn more about the program at Wilkinson Church of Christ, call 765-781-2565 or visit wccin.org and select “Ministries,” then “Stephen Ministry.”