Once Joe Cowan learned that Stephen Ministers help others cope with a crisis, he quickly made the decision to become one.
He was motivated to do so by the death of his wife, who passed away two years ago after battling a rare form of cancer.
“It was a very trying four-year period for our family,” said Cowan, a parishioner of St. Joseph Parish in Penfield. “Some of the things we went through, we had to learn the hard way.”
Cowan said he wanted to pay back some of the help and support he and his three children had received. The 35-year veteran of the corporate world thought that through Stephen Ministry he would be able to give advice to others facing a difficult diagnosis.
He found, though, that Stephen Ministers are volunteers trained to listen to parishioners’ problems, not just to give advice. The program, he explained, is focused on the process of healing rather than on results.
“We are really there to listen to people, to offer prayers, to be with them, to support them — not offering solutions to their problems,” said Cowan, who retired from a job in corporate real estate for Xerox.
After receiving 50 hours of training, Cowan and two other St. Joseph parishioners were commissioned March 25 as Stephen Ministers. They took part in an ecumenical class that included participants from Church of the Resurrection and Church of the Assumption in Fairport, Faith Lutheran Church in Penfield and Macedon Center-South Perinton United Methodist Church in Macedon. Although several of the other churches had hosted joint training sessions before, this was St. Joseph’s first opportunity to do so.
The challenges of an ecumenical class were formidable, said Fran Glanton, a leader of St. Joseph’s Stephen Ministry, which now has 18 ministers. Most participants didn’t know each other, Glanton said, and teachers had to bridge different personalities and faiths as they taught.
But the result was worth it, Glanton noted.
“For me, it just opened my faith in Christ even more,” Glanton said. “I saw how we are all in it together. It doesn’t matter whether we are Methodist or Lutheran or Catholic. It’s just that we all worship the same God.”
Once they are assigned to work with a person in need, Glanton said Stephen Ministers can spend several hours a week on their ministry.
“Christ is the caregiver, and he works through us,” Glanton remarked.
Stephen Ministry was started in 1975 in St. Louis by clinical psychologist and Lutheran minister the Rev. Kenneth Haugk, who felt that in his ministry some people with problems needed added spiritual guidance. Now more than 90 different denominations use the program, Glanton said.
Stephen Ministers are taught to offer confidential, unbiased listening but are not considered counselors or therapists. A coordinator refers the person in need to a minister or suggests that a person might need more extensive professional help.
“This is the kind of ministry that you join because you want to give, but you receive so much more than you give,” said St. Joseph parishioner Barbara Olmstead, who has been a Stephen Minister since 2001.
Olmstead said the ministry can help those experiencing such crises as grief, unemployment or illnesses. Ministers also are trained to help people in situations of divorce, long-term care, loss due to age, child-birth crises and relatives in crisis.
“It can be anything,” Olmstead said. “They may have so many lists of things going on in their life because they can’t talk about them with a family member, or something is a problem with a family member, or they need somebody to pray with.”
Mary Zweifel, one of St. Joseph’s new ministers, said she sees her role as a Stephen Minister as needing to lift people up rather than to drag them down. She said she began to look forward to her training sessions.
“It has gone beyond what I could have ever expected,” Zweifel said.
Janie Holcomb, a newly commissioned minister from Church of the Resurrection, said her previous career with the Salvation Army helped her transition into Stephen Ministry. She said the new ministers were sad that their training classes had come to an end, so she attended the St. Joseph’s commissioning to support her classmates.
“We all vowed to stick together,” Holcomb said.
EDITOR’S NOTE: For assistance from a Stephen Minister at St. Joseph Church, call the confidential hotline at 585/586-8089, ext. 30. For more information on Stephen Ministry, visit www.stephenministries.org.