I was 42 years old before life changing events brought me humbly seeking God. So I was a baby Christian when I showed up one night at a Stephen Ministry information session. I was looking to discover how to be Christian beyond the rituals of worship and Sunday school attendance, beyond the potlucks and the twenty-dollar checks that I dropped in the collection plate on Sundays.
Remembering the questions our pastor had asked me when I joined the church, “Will you be loyal to the United Methodist Church, and uphold it by your prayers, your presence, your gifts, and your service?” I was prayerfully looking for the service that was right for me. I wasn’t looking to gain anything for myself, but I got oh so much more than I gave during and after my 50 hours of training in how to give distinctly Christian care.
After filling out my application form and turning it in to the church office, I interviewed with the ministry leadership team. During the interview, I was thinking, What do I think qualifies me to do this sort of thing? Surely the leadership team is going to tell me, thanks but no thanks. But no, they just asked me what had attracted me to the ministry. My answer seemed to satisfy them. I told them that I just wanted to learn how to be a better Christian.
From the very first session of the 50 hours of training, I connected with the other trainees. Being with other like-thinking Christians on a regular basis, I enjoyed the fellowship, the sharing of joys and challenges, praying for one another, offering encouragement and practical help to one another and relating to one another in a deep and spiritual way. The other trainees, the leadership team and I formed strong, positive spiritual bonds of friendship and commitment. When the training was over with, I actually missed the weekly meetings.
From the 50 hours of training, I learned to listen to others and to appreciate their feelings. These are things that I had never been able to do well. I had always thought that listening is just a simple, natural, and passive activity. But, it’s actually more of an art form, a powerful caregiving tool. Using Jesus as our model, Stephen Ministers learn to be active listeners. This involves commitment, patience, and attention to body language. Stephen Ministers learn to listen for more than just words. They seek true understanding and empathy. I learned also how to be assertive, how to “speak the truth in love” and to avoid aggressive behaviors such as belittling and manipulation and how to avoid passive behaviors such as withdrawing and relinquishing rights. By learning to behave assertively, I became more aware of God’s will for my life and more aware of the needs of others. I learned to stop worrying about fixing others’ problems, that Stephen Ministers are not therapists or problem solvers, that they are simply caregivers. I learned that only God can bring about healing, forgiveness, and hope.
After my 50 hours of basic training, I continued learning and growing in the practical, hands-on service of caregiving. I gained a renewed sense of pride in who I had become and I felt good about being someone who is both needed and appreciated. I became a better husband to my wife and a better father to my sons. I could now talk with my friends and family members instead of just talking to them. And, after our pastors had made initial pastoral visits to sick and grieving church members, my fellow Stephen Ministers and I were available to provide on-going Christian care.
The greatest unanticipated reward for saying “yes” to Stephen Ministry came when I learned that my mother was dying and in great pain, physically, emotionally and spiritually. I took a week off from work and flew home to be by her side. I listened to her deepest sorrows and regrets; I held her hand and cried with her over shared memories of happy times and sad times. She finally got around to asking about my acceptance of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, which led me to offer to pray with her, something I was quite sure she had not done in years, not since she was a little girl living on a farm with her grandparents.
My mother’s emotional and spiritual pain relieved by the grace of God, I came home knowing that I had been Christ’s hands and feet for a time, that I had spoken Christ’s words of forgiveness and assurance. I came home knowing that, when the time came, my mother would be embraced in her new, eternal home. I had been her caregiver, but God had provided the cure.
Years later now, I am still caregiving, sustaining a helping relationship with my indigent son and nurturing my granddaughter’s self-esteem as she recovers from an abusive relationship and gets back on her feet financially. I could not be doing these things, would probably refuse to do these things, had I not said “yes” years ago to Stephen Ministry.
I conclude that my goal, to become a better Christian, has been, at least in-part, realized through Stephen Ministry. I am happier now than I have ever been and my spiritual gifts are more gainfully employed. So, for anyone with the desire to accept others where they are, to love others more and better, I heartily encourage them to look into Stephen Ministry for themselves.
Please feel free to comment or to post confidential questions about my Stephen Ministry experiences.