At some point in just about everybody’s life, tough circumstances may warrant the kind of aid a Stephen Minister can provide.
Deb Riley once endured such a stretch. For starters, she had to give up her hairdressing job — “I loved being a hairdresser,” she said — due to a leg condition that curtailed her ability to stand for long stretches. In addition, Riley was coping with the transition of her daughter leaving home for college.
“It was a really trying, devastating time. I was crying for two years,” she said.
Riley turned to the Stephen Ministry program at Schuyler Catholic Community (St. Mary of the Lake, Watkins Glen, and St. Benedict, Odessa). She was linked with Vincie Ruvolo, a Stephen Minister whom Riley said gave her a huge lift.
“She helped me realize there were other things in my life to fill in my time, like hobbies,” Riley said. Regarding her daughter, Riley said Ruvolo guided her toward realizing that “she’s not really gone — she’s just moved on in her life.”
Riley was so appreciative of her Stephen Minister that she sought to become one herself. She was commissioned in 1999, and is now the referrals coordinator for a team of 11 active Stephen Ministers in Schuyler.
Stephen Ministry is an international, interdenominational program that trains lay women and men to assist in the pastoral care of their community. It was begun in 1975 by Dr. Kenneth Haugk, a Lutheran minister and psychologist from St. Louis, Mo., who still oversees the organization that now has more than 9,000 outlets in more than 100 Christian denominations.
Schuyler’s Stephen Ministry was formed in 1993 and is one of three Southern Tier parish communities offering the program. The others are Blessed Trinity/St. Patrick in the Tioga County area, which began Stephen Ministry in 1985 out of St. Margaret Mary in Apalachin and has 23 active ministers; and Ithaca’s Immaculate Conception, which started its program in 2000 and has 12 active ministers.
The reasons for seeking a Stephen Minister, to name a few, are loneliness, injury, illness including terminal conditions, job loss, divorce, death, depression, being homebound, major life transitions, parenting issues, dealing with a traumatic experience, and spiritual crisis. Stephen Ministers offer emotional support through home and hospital visits as well as phone calls.
“I think, especially today, when the priest cannot be there, the Stephen Minister offers the companionship and Christian fellowship that the people need as they continue through their crisis,” said Helen Cooney, staff liaison for Stephen Ministry at Blessed Trinity/St. Patrick.
Parish teams meet regularly and stay in close touch with their pastor. Care receivers are identified through referrals or because they seek out a Stephen Minister.
“We are discouraged to approach them,” Riley noted.
Once a pairing has been made, Riley said that “the care receiver is more apt to talk to someone they’re not close to,” as opposed to a family member. “They’re not being judged.”
Stephen Ministers are bound to observe confidentiality.
“We’re very, very strict about that. There might be things you don’t want to tell your family,” said Cheryl Beach, referrals coordinator for Immaculate Conception. “Even if a relative asks us, we can’t say that we’re seeing you.”
The ministers don’t have quick solutions to most problems, said Deborah DePuy, a longtime Stephen Minister in Schuyler.
“We realize that we cannot fix the situation, the person. The more you’re into it, the more you realize you’re just an instrument,” she remarked. “It teaches you about listening, about relationships.”
Care receivers may require one or two sessions, or possibly numerous ones. Not every case can be accepted or continued.
“If there are red flags … Stephen Ministers are not psychiatrists, psychologists, counselors,” DePuy said, saying Stephen Ministers may recommend professional help.
Though not a certified professional, each Stephen Minister has undergone at least 50 hours of intensive training.
“It is a program of great commitment of time and self,” DePuy said, adding, “We really believe God calls us to this ministry.”
Cooney observed that this preparation can also be put to use in other church ministries, or in one’s family.
“How many times people have trained, and wouldn’t you know it, something happens in their own family and they say, ‘my gosh, I’m so glad to have the training,'” she said.
Although Schuyler, Tioga and Ithaca are the only Southern Tier outlets, nearly 20 parishes in the Rochester Diocese offer Stephen Ministry.
“One of the components is that the pastor has to value it and promote it,” Cooney said.
For instance, the late Father David Bonin became enthused about Stephen Ministry when he temporarily served in Apalachin in 1988, and was instrumental in getting the program started in Schuyler after he became pastor there.
DePuy observed that some people are hesitant to seek out Stephen Ministry because “Catholics have tended to look to the priest” for this kind of caregiving. But Beach said there’s nothing to lose, pointing out, “It’s free, it’s confidential. People should try us and see.”
The result can be positive for both the minister and care receiver.
“At Christmas time I receive notes of gratitude,” Beach said. “A lot of them have turned out to be friends after the (Stephen Ministry) relationship has ended.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: To contact a Stephen Ministry program in your area, call the following: Schuyler Catholic Community — Deb Riley, 607/535-2786 or 607/535-4635; Blessed Trinity/St. Patrick, Tioga County — Helen Cooney, 607/687-1068; Immaculate Conception, Ithaca, Cheryl Beach, 607/533-8637 or firstname.lastname@example.org.