Stephen Ministry offers accompaniment to those in need
June 25, 2021
For most of her life, Diane Williams has been the go-to person for care and support when others were confronted with crises and difficult situations.
But three years ago, two of her grandchildren died tragically 24 days apart. She then found herself needing emotional and spiritual help – the kind of support she had been providing to others as a commissioned Stephen Minister at St. Mary Parish in Bellevue.
“It’s pretty unusual for a Stephen Minister to need a caregiver, but I did,” she said. “I decided it would be best with that turmoil going on that maybe I needed some assistance, too. I had a caregiver myself for about a year and a half.”
Through her own service experiences as a Stephen Minister and as the homebound coordinator for St. Mary Parish, Williams understood and appreciated the importance of having a person in her life with whom she could share her sorrow and express her feelings.
“It’s hard to go through a lot of pain,” Williams said. “I know Jesus gives us the strength to do it if we have a person to talk with.
“I’ve learned to be a good listener. A lot of our part as a Stephen Minister is to just listen and make them feel comfortable.”
Paul Hartnett, also a parishioner at St. Mary, found out in 2018 how beneficial it can be to have “a good listener” to confide in, when his wife of 67 years, Marge, died unexpectedly that June.
“It happened overnight. I really, really had a tough time dealing with it. I was a tough case,” he said. “The gentleman they had me with (Ray Romero) had lost his wife, too. He had an understanding of losing a loved one.”
Hartnett said he and his wife were known in their church and community as “the power couple.”
Paul was a well-known public official in Sarpy County. He had spent nearly 50 years serving variously as a member of the Bellevue Board of Education, the Nebraska State Legislature and the Douglas-Sarpy County Learning Community.
Marge was active at St. Mary, serving on the parish council, teaching religious education, coordinating senior activities and leading the Ladies Guild.
After she died, Paul became depressed and withdrawn. He avoided going out in public and was even reluctant to attend a dinner being held in his honor months after Marge’s death.
“At first, Dad was just in shock. He didn’t want to do anything for several months,” said Debbie Burchard, the Hartnetts’ daughter. “Ray was so good about listening, and because he had been through it himself, I think Dad felt reassured. Dad really did benefit.”
Romero visited Hartnett on a weekly basis for several months. Their sessions would always include prayer and an opportunity for Hartnett to share his thoughts and feelings. Romero listened and offered encouragement.
“Ray was a godsend to me,” Hartnett said.
Burchard, who saw the positive impact Romero’s visits had on her father, is now in training to become a Stephen Minister herself.
George Lamperti, Stephen Ministry leader at St. Mary, said the program is available in about 50 Christian churches in the Omaha area and 13,000 in the United States, Canada and other countries.
And although Stephen Ministers are volunteers, participation requirements are stringent, including more than 50 hours of training to become commissioned.
“There are 25 modules that we go through,” Lamperti said. “The modules teach us how to listen, how to feed back and give people confidence in what we’re doing.”
Stephen Ministers are assigned one person at a time, whom they typically meet with on a regular basis for 6 to 24 months.
“Caregivers are not assigned another care receiver until the previous relationship contract has ended,” Williams said. “Ending a relationship is normally based on the care receiver’s desires if they no longer feel they need to have a Stephen Minister caregiver.”
Lamperti said care receiver referrals often come from parish priests or parishioners who are aware of someone who is experiencing a difficult or stressful time in their life, possibly because of the death of a loved one, health issues, a divorce or the loss of a job.
“Normally, if we hear of somebody who is running into trouble, we call them. Sometimes we get a call, but not usually,” he said. “In our society, people have a tendency not to ask for help. It often takes three or four invitations and some convincing.”
A typical session, Lamperti said, starts and ends with prayer.
“What we try to do is emulate what Jesus would do when a person is in trouble,” he said. “We look at Jesus as the caregiver. We are the facilitators.
“Generally, we try to focus on one of those things people are feeling bad about. What we do is listen to what they say and reflect back a clear understanding.”
Lamperti noted the Stephen Ministry’s commitment to confidentiality. What’s discussed stays between the minister and care receiver. Also, ministers do not disclose the identity of their care receivers to others.
Both Williams and Hartnett said they would encourage any person who is experiencing a difficult situation in their life to seek the help of a Stephen Minister.
“I would recommend talking to the parish priest and let them know you’re concerned and you’d like to have some assistance but you’re not sure how to get it,” Williams said.
“It’s hard sometimes to focus on living when you go through a lot of pain. It’s hard to do it without somebody else to share it with,” she said. “Jesus gives us those friends to reach out and talk with to pass that pain and the struggles.”
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Stephen ministries provides ‘Christ-centered care’
Founded in 1975 by clinical psychologist Dr. Kenneth C. Haugk, St. Louis-based Stephen Ministries was established to provide one-to-one, Christ-centered care to people who are at a difficult place in life.
George Lamperti, a Stephen Leader at St. Mary Parish in Bellevue, said the ministry doesn’t offer solutions, just a listening ear. The program, he said, is based on what Haugk did as a psychologist – listen to people.
“He felt that if he could train people to listen correctly and let people talk through their problems that Jesus, in his infinite wisdom, helps people essentially heal themselves,” he said.
Stephen Ministry programs can be found in about 13,000 Christian churches in the United States, Canada and other countries. More than 75,000 pastors and lay leaders from those congregations serve as Stephen Leaders and more than 600,000 lay people have received Stephen Minister training.
Stephen Ministers are matched with care receivers with whom they regularly meet for as long as the need persists. More than 1.5 million people have sought help from Stephen Ministers in times of crisis.
Stephen Ministry care receivers are generally members of local church congregations and communities but are not required to be of the Christian faith.
“What we do is listen to what they say and reflect back a clear understanding,” Lamperti said. “An important part of it is not judging anybody or their feelings. Their feelings are there. They are very real.
“The person needs to be loved and understood. And frankly, the good Lord takes care of the rest.”
To find out more about St. Mary Parish’s Stephen Ministry, contact George Lamperti at 402-871-6288