When Jeff and Stacey Gibbs’ newborn son, Simon Peter, passed away after being born prematurely last February, a volunteer from St. Benedict Parish drove to the hospital in the middle of the night. Bob Cownie sat with the Gibbs, who also belong to St. Benedict, and provided them with some measure of comfort and support.
“Bob didn’t say much, nor did he need to,” Jeff Gibbs recalled. “In the midst of suffering and loss, Bob’s presence was a reflection of God’s love for us.”
Cownie’s witness inspired the Gibbs to find their own way to reflect God’s love for others, so they were excited when they learned St. Benedict is preparing to start a Stephen Ministry. Through Stephen Ministry, trained laypeople provide Christian care on a one-to-one basis to individuals in crisis.
“It is not just the responsibility of priests or deacons to reach out to our brothers and sisters in need. We are all called to serve others as Christians. Accompanying others who are experiencing hard times is also a way for us to honor our son, Simon,” Jeff Gibbs explained.
Stephen Ministry began in 1975 in St. Louis, Mo., and has since spread throughout the world. Lay caregivers, called Stephen ministers, are trained using the Stephen Series, and thus far more than 600,000 people from all 50 states as well as 30 other countries have been trained as Stephen ministers, according to Stephen Ministries St. Louis. This not-for-profit, nondenominational organization has a 40-member staff and provides support for the 13,000 congregations — including several within the Diocese of Rochester — that offer Stephen Ministry.
St. Benedict Parish’s staff recently decided the time was right for the parish to start a Stephen Ministry. The parish, which has worship sites in Canandaigua and East Bloomfield, has been seeking new ways of addressing its needs, according to Deacon Claude Lester, who coordinates St. Benedict’s social ministry and sacramental preparation.
“We’re ‚Ä¶ wanting to, in a very concrete fashion, allow the baptized to take on their role as leaders in the community,” Deacon Lester said, noting that he and other staff members don’t have time to meet individually on an ongoing basis with all of the people who need them. “We’re there at the time of the emergency, the time of the crisis, but people’s needs are ongoing, and that’s where Stephen Ministry can really provide ongoing access to the healing power of Jesus Christ.”
Each Stephen minister will meet once a week for about an hour with a person who is struggling with grief, divorce, job loss, chronic or terminal illness, or another crisis. The relationship between Stephen ministers and care recipients is strictly confidential. Male Stephen ministers work with male care recipients, and female ministers work with female care recipients. If a care receiver’s needs go beyond what his or her Stephen minister can provide, the ministry team will refer the individual to an appropriate professional or community resource.
Every two weeks St. Benedict’s Stephen ministers will gather with Deacon Lester, the parish’s Stephen leader, for supervisory sessions and ongoing formation. The parish began offering a series of informational meetings about Stephen Ministry in May, and several people already have committed to the intensive weekly training required to become Stephen ministers, Deacon Lester said. This weekly training will begin after Labor Day, and the new Stephen ministers will be commissioned in December.
Parishioner John Cosgrove, who plans to become a Stephen minister, hopes the ministry will help alleviate the loneliness that seems to be increasingly prevalent these days.
“It’s important for people to be present to other people, not to solve their problems, but just to be there and listen,” Cosgrove said.
That’s exactly what fellow parishioner Mary Whalen plans to do after she completes the training.
“There’s tremendous need. I probably in the last week ran across five people that could use a Stephen minister,” Whalen said.