by Marc and Julie Anderson
LEAWOOD — They call themselves the “after people.”
They are the people who, when everyone else leaves, remain.
They are the Stephen Ministers.
For Chris Callegari, the “after” meant the weeks and months following the funeral of his son Nick.
“[My wife and I] only had ourselves to talk to,” said Callegari.
Callegari said he was used to solving problems for his family. Yet, he couldn’t fix the pain he and his wife Lori felt. When Father Brian Schieber, pastor of St. Michael the Archangel Parish in Leawood, suggested Stephen Ministry, they agreed to try it.
Founded in St. Louis by the Rev. Kenneth C. Haugk, Stephen Ministry is a lay-based approach to caring and supporting members of a congregation. Using his seminary and clinical psychological training, Rev. Haugk trained lay members of the congregation to listen to and walk alongside fellow members who were struggling.
The first nine caregivers were commissioned in March 1975. Since then, more than 600,000 members of more than 12,000 Protestant and Catholic congregations have been trained as Stephen Ministers.
At least two archdiocesan parishes, Holy Spirit in Overland Park and St. Michael the Archangel, have established ministries. Mother Teresa of Calcutta Parish in Topeka is preparing to launch its ministry in January, and other parishes are considering it.
In 2010, then-pastor of St. Michael Father Bill Porter was looking for a way to extend his reach. With a parish of 2,000 families, according to Deacon Mark Stukel, Father Porter “didn’t have arms to reach out to his parishioners the way he wanted to.”
Father Porter and the staff learned of Stephen Ministry in 2010. By the next year, Deacon Mark Stukel and his wife Kim had been asked to lead the ministry.
The couple spent a week in training in January 2012. That April, they started training parishioners. Since then, more than 65 parishioners have trained in three classes.
The ministry consists of Stephen Leaders, Stephen Ministers and care receivers. Leaders coordinate the overall ministry; ministers provide care and support to fellow parishioners known as care receivers.
The ministry does not provide counseling, nor is it designed to encourage people to return to the sacraments, although that sometimes happens. According to Lisa Sizemore, the parish’s referral coordinator along with her husband Herb, the ministry is simply about presence.
When a parishioner calls the parish office or the confidential Stephen Ministry number, Lisa returns the call within a few hours. She then establishes a time to visit the person in the home to explain the process and gather more information.
During the home visit, Lisa said she promises the care receiver a Stephen Minister will call within 24 to 48 hours. Upon her return home, the Sizemores pray for guidance, then Lisa calls a Stephen Minister she thinks might be a good fit.
“What I promise every care receiver is safe, quiet, faith-filled and confidential care,” said Lisa.
In four years, nearly 100 care receivers have been matched successfully. (The Stephen Minister can decline the assignment if he or she doesn’t feel it’s a good fit.) There’s not been one match, Lisa said, that has not worked well.
In Callegari’s case, his Stephen Minister had also lost a child. As a result, he could relate with many of the emotions Callegari has experienced in the past year.
“It’s very helpful to be able to discuss your feelings with someone else,” said Callegari.
“Oftentimes, there are feelings you cannot share with your family and friends,” he added.
And while Stephen Ministers provide care, they grow, too, in the process.
Although a cradle Catholic, parishioner Melanie Irwin said she’d never previously gotten involved with any parish ministry.
“I liked the idea of helping one-on-one,” she said. “I’m getting way more out of this than I ever expected to.
“It’s changed me,” Irwin continued. “I’m more content with myself. I’m a happier person. I’m less anxious.
“I’ve just been able to put more trust in God.”
“When you’re going to ‘be Christ’ to someone, you have to know him,” said Irwin. “That’s really what Stephen Ministry does. You’re being Christ to someone else.”
Sometimes listening can be challenging. So, every two weeks all Stephen Ministers come together under the guidance of Deacon Stukel for prayer and sharing.
“They listen to me. They will give me support,” said Irwin, adding that a care receiver’s deep crisis can affect the minister personally.
“People go through all kinds of things,” she said. “We’re there to listen. We’re not there to fix the problem. We’re there to walk with them, to listen to them.”
In listening, Deacon Stukel said the parish, too, has experienced growth.
“Evangelization is opening up your heart to someone — not preaching, but just being present. This is the ministry of presence, but it’s so important that people do that.
“It’s how the church becomes the church and not just a building.”