‘I needed somebody to walk the journey with me’

(Clockwise from left) Larry Schwartz, Duane Kramer, Cheryl Nunley, Stephanie Blaker and Cathy Harrison, members of Mother Teresa of Calcutta Parish in Topeka, participate in a biweekly peer supervision meeting as part of the parish’s Stephen Ministry. The ministry was launched in July 2017 and has provided care to nearly a dozen parishioners. LEAVEN PHOTO BY MARC ANDERSON

by Marc and Julie Anderson

TOPEKA — Help. Hope. Healing.

Those are three gifts that Frances, a member of Mother Teresa of Calcutta Parish, said she received from her Stephen Minister.

Founded in St. Louis by the Rev. Kenneth C. Haugk, the ministry is a lay-centered approach to caring and supporting members of a congregation. Using his seminary and psychological training, Rev. Haugk trained lay members of his congregation to listen to and walk alongside other members who were struggling.

The ministry consists of Stephen Leaders, Stephen Ministers (also known as caregivers) and care receivers. Leaders coordinate the overall ministry and ministers provide care and support to parishioners known as care receivers.

Stephen Ministry does not provide counseling nor is it designed to encourage people to return to the sacraments, although that sometimes happens. According to the parish’s leadership team, the ministry is simply about being present to others during times of struggle.

Examples include loss of a loved one, hospitalization, divorce, unemployment or terminal illness.

Since the first nine caregivers were commissioned in March 1975, more than 600,000 members of more than 13,000 Protestant and Catholic churches worldwide have been trained as Stephen Ministers.

Mother Teresa of Calcutta Parish in Topeka became at least the third archdiocesan parish to launch a ministry last summer.

When Frances contacted the parish office, she was grieving the loss of her mother and her husband. Although she sought counseling, Frances did not feel as if she was healing in a manner consistent with her Catholic faith.

“I needed somebody of the same faith to give another perspective on the grieving process,” Frances said. “I needed somebody to walk the journey with me.”

Looking at her phone late one evening, she realized she had a voicemail. She recalls thinking, “I don’t know who the person is.”

Eventually, she found out it was her Stephen Minister, someone she now calls a godsend.

Frances recalled how nice it was to have someone she could talk to, someone who provided her with Scripture passages, prayers and other ways she could offer up her suffering.

And little by little, Frances said she realized that, while she missed her mother and her husband, she didn’t need to talk about the losses as much.

Over time, she and her caregiver started meeting less frequently. They now get together occasionally just to catch up on each other’s lives.

An absolutely crucial component of the ministry, Frances said, is its confidentiality. She felt free to express her true emotions, feelings and thoughts without fearing they’d be repeated to anyone. That confidential care, she believes, is one of the reasons the ministry can be successful at extending the arms of the church.

While priests are often the first on the scene in times of tragedy to administer sacraments, officiate at funerals or offer spiritual perspective, they are often unable to do the follow-up care they’d like to.

“Our priests can’t be there for everybody,” Frances said.

And that’s when Stephen Ministers can help. They can provide that follow-up care.

Every Stephen Minister undergoes 50 hours of training in topics such as the art of listening, maintaining boundaries and ministering to those experiencing grief. As of this writing, the parish has 17 caregivers and has provided care to nearly a dozen parishioners.

At first, some found the idea of being caregivers somewhat daunting.

Ken Blaker, one of the caregivers, said, “When I was first told about it, I thought I was too broken myself to help anyone else.”

As a former law enforcement officer and now an insurance investigator, Blaker has seen people in challenging situations of all kinds.

“I realize that everybody is going through something,” he said.

The training he has received through Stephen Ministry has helped Blaker grow personally and professionally. For example, one of his care receivers lost a spouse. While he has not experienced that situation, as he listens to his care receiver he has found himself more grateful for Stephanie, his wife of 30 years.

And while he’s always considered himself a good listener and prepared for every task assigned to him, Blaker said he finds himself praying more for parishioners, co-workers and the people he meets during his investigations. He also spends more time truly listening than he did in the past.

“I almost feel guilty. It seems as if I’m getting more out of it than my care receiver,” he said. “It takes very little effort, but it means so much [to someone else].”

That sentiment is shared by Duane Kramer, a fellow Stephen Minister.

After a bulletin announcement about Stephen Ministry was published a few years ago, Kramer, along with his wife Susan prayed and decided it would be a good way for them “to help the people who really have daily struggles in their lives.”

“We all carry burdens,” he said, adding, “It’s given me a lot more peace just knowing I am there for someone.”

In order to prepare for his weekly meeting, Kramer spends time in eucharistic adoration immediately before. And he structures each hourly meeting with Christian music, quiet time for reflection, prayer, Bible readings and time for his receiver to share whatever is most pressing on his or her heart.

It’s while listening to her care receiver’s struggles that Theresa Schwartz said she’s been blessed beyond measure.

Having retired about two years ago from 40 years of nursing, Schwartz missed caring for others and admits to “keeping an eye out for the right opportunity.”

Like the Kramers, a bulletin notice grabbed her attention. After undergoing the necessary training, eventually she was matched with her care receiver.

“We just clicked,” she said, a fact she attributes to the Holy Spirit’s guidance of the ministry as a whole.

Like Blaker, Schwartz sometimes feels she has grown a lot as a caregiver.

“I’m not sure who is healing who here,” she said, adding that her caregiver has challenged her to go deeper into her Catholic faith.

“It’s pretty amazing,” she added.

Editor’s note: The care receiver’s name in this story has been changed as Stephen Ministry promises “confidential, one-to-one Christian care.”

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