Through the Stephen Ministry, people overburdened by challenges receive hope, comfort, strength, and spiritual guidance. With this free counseling program, hosted by certain churches, trained parishioners are paired with hurting members of the church and the local community. This nondenominational outreach is named for Saint Stephen, a kind and generous deacon of the early church. Here’s an overview of this empowering service.
Related resource: 25 Best Master’s in Pastoral Counseling Online Degree Programs
1. Starting a Ministry
Any church wishing to offer this program must first enroll with Stephen Ministries, the founding organization, based in St. Louis, Missouri. Enrollment entails paying a one-time registration fee, covering the cost of training, educational resources, and ongoing administrative support. The next step is designating Stephen Leaders, the pastors, and laypersons who will implement the program.
This core group attends a week-long Leader’s Training Course at the St. Louis headquarters. The counseling format integrates biblical principles with the collective insights of theologians, pastoral counselors, and mental health professionals. Among the course topics are effective listening, establishing rapport, and crisis management.
Back home, the leaders select laypeople to function as Stephen Ministers, who then undergo specialized training. This involves attending 20 weekly classes and a two-day retreat, totaling 50 hours of leader instruction. Each engaging session features devotions, lectures, video presentations, discussions, and role-playing, practicing counseling skills.
Upon course completion, Stephen Ministers are commissioned, pledging to serve for at least two years, assigned to one client at a time. To stay effective, ministers meet with their leaders twice monthly for continuing education and supervision. Additionally, they must regularly attend peer review meetings, during which other ministers offer their insights and feedback.
In this article by Baptist News Global, you can read about Rev. Kenneth Haugk, the founder of Stephen Ministry, and what spurred him to launch this program.
2. Ministerial Qualities
Parishioners seeking to become Stephen Ministers must possess certain traits. Foremost, they must be dedicated, willing to sustain a long-term relationship with each client under their wing. Also vital are empathy and compassion, free of judgment and criticism.
Simultaneously, ministers must keep a safe emotional distance from client problems. Otherwise, their own lives will be adversely affected, and they won’t have the objectivity to be helpful. Humility is needed for submitting to leadership authority and receiving the input of other program staff. Ministers must also be responsible, adhering to stipulated rules.
Since this type of counseling has a spiritual context, ministers must turn to God for guidance in their supportive roles. They’re also asked to pray with clients, to gain clear direction for their own lives.
Effective communication hinges on focused listening, sensitivity, and the ability to read nonverbal messages, such as body posture. Additionally, ministers must measure their words before speaking, projecting how they’ll be received. However, dispensing advice and being preachy is not allowed. Instead, ministers are charged with helping clients make wise, independent decisions by sorting through their thoughts, feelings, and options.
3. Care Receivers
In Stephen Ministry, clients are termed “care receivers.” Before starting counseling, each candidate meets with a Stephen Leader to assess whether the program is appropriate. Once confirmed, the leader chooses a compatible Stephen Minister and provides them with background information.
After a minister and care receiver are introduced to each other, they meet once a week for approximately one hour. Counseling must follow certain ground rules. First, both parties must be the same gender, with ministers vowing to maintain confidentiality. If a counselor needs advice from a leader, they must obtain client permission first. The only other exception to breaching confidence is when there’s a risk of suicide or harm to another person.
Among the reasons for seeking Christian counseling are a traumatic event, such as a disabling injury, hospitalization, death of a loved one, job loss, diagnosis of terminal illness, divorce, or separation. People may want help with managing overwhelming feelings, including depression, anxiety, and frustration.
Or, people may be struggling with change, as in a recent move, childbirth, adoption, declining health, retirement, financial constraints, aging, and entering a nursing home or assisted living facility. Other common causes are family discord and domestic problems.
This peer counseling format is so successful that, as of this writing, roughly 13,000 host churches exist worldwide. From Stephen Ministry, there are other impressive facts about the organization.
4. Assistance Given
Each Stephen Minister is trained to listen patiently and attentively, showing genuine concern. Of all counseling skills, this is the most important. Confusion clears as clients give voice to troubling thoughts and feelings. Being accepted and understood alleviates frustration, tension, and fear.
Ministers follow established protocols for addressing each client concern mentioned above. In each case, they help care receivers explore viable options. If a client’s needs are beyond the scope of Christian counseling, a referral is made to another community resource or professional.
As clients can be community members, they may have no affinity for religion. In that event, ministers must be tactful when presenting biblical ways to handle problems. On the other hand, hurting believers may need reassurance of God’s love. Challenges can strain a person’s faith. If clients express an interest in scriptures that apply to their situation, a minister can read them during meetings, recording the verses for subsequent client use.
Stephen Ministry is a free, confidential, nondenominational counseling service, offered by trained laypersons of enrolled churches. Support is warmly extended to both community and church members faced with traumatic situations. Assistance is available for however long a client needs.
While pursuing your counseling degree, consider joining the Stephen Ministry. By doing so, you’ll gain skills in organization, communication, perception, and problem-solving, promoting career success. Plus, as you see God working for your clients’ welfare, your faith will markedly grow.
If your local church doesn’t offer this program, request a free information packet through the link above. You can also speak with your pastor about taking an introductory workshop.
When you care for the hurting like Saint Stephen, you’ll draw the loving grace of God.