If you haven’t had a need for a Stephen Minister, you may not know what powerful work this 15-person ministry of Church Street does, or that their work has expanded during the COVID-19 pandemic.
They call themselves the “after” people, comforting grieving church members after a loved one dies or crisis occurs. After the ministers visit, the family goes home and the loneliness of grief settles in, the Stephen Minister’s work begins. Each Stephen Minister is assigned one care receiver at a time to help walk that person through life after a crisis.
Each relationship between a Stephen Minister and care receiver is confidential. A typical relationship lasts anywhere from one to two years, although some care receivers may only need guidance for 6 months. Every once in a while a relationship will last more than two years as additional crises occur after the first.
“I can’t stress how rewarding it is to have a care receiver,” Stephen Leader of almost 10 years Doug Spencer says. “Just that relationship with a care receiver and as you watch God work in their lives and in the situation and see the healing that they go through.”
Before the pandemic, most Stephen Ministers met with their care receiver at least once a week. Now, phone calls and Zoom meetings are more common, and happen more frequently than once a week in some situations.
Rev. Pat Clendenen, who served as an Associate Pastor at Church Street from 1989 to 1994, offered to help the Stephen Ministry program at Church Street this year. She stepped in as the designated clergy in February, just as the pandemic started.
“It really is a calling. It’s not something that you just decide, ‘okay I think I’ll go and work in this area of the church this year. I’ll just volunteer here.’” Clendenen says. “ It truly is a calling.”
Becoming a Stephen Minister
Those who feel called to be a Stephen Minister participate in 50 hours of structured, intensive training developed by Stephen Ministries St. Louis. This training includes education of how to respond in certain situations, and roleplaying activities to put those lessons into action.
In addition to these 50 hours, a Stephen Minister may decide to train to be a Stephen Leader and attend an additional week of immersive training offsite, usually in St. Louis or Orlando. These Stephen Leaders provide ongoing leadership to Church Street like Clendenen, Elaine Doss and Spencer.
Doss, a two-time cancer patient, started her training at Fort Sanders Hospital in September 2018 with no intention to visit hospital patients because she was worried that she would not be able to minister to someone going through cancer.
“But by the time I got through the training, I was over all of that,” Doss says. “I think that God just shows up in every single hospital room.”
Once a Church Street Stephen Minister completes training, they are assigned a care receiver by Clendenen. Most care receivers are referred by a clergy member and first contact is made by Clendenen.
Making assignments isn’t taken lightly, and Clendenen has done her best during the pandemic to get to know both the Stephen Minister and the care receiver through phone or Zoom conversations before making an assignment.
“It has to be the right match and I have to trust that. A lot of prayer and thought goes into that,” Clendenen says. “It’s important for me to know the Stephen Minister well.”
Each Stephen Minister participates in mandatory Peer Supervision meetings, currently over Zoom, once a month and education offerings to stay up-to-date on ways to respond to different crises.
During Peer Supervision meetings, each Stephen Minister with a care receiver will give a non-specific check-in statement. The check-in statements allow Stephen Ministers to bring to the group any issues they have in their relationship and for other Stephen Ministers to offer support.
“The wisdom of many instead of the guesswork of a few is found in those peer supervision meetings,” Spencer says.
In addition to the short check-ins, one Stephen Minister each month gives an in-depth report that dives deeper into the situation, relationship and any setbacks or celebrations. The group listens to these in-depth situations and also provides support and feedback.
Working as a team with other ministries and clergy
There are often situations where a Stephen Minister cannot provide all of the necessary support needed for a care receiver, which is often brought to the attention of the ministry during the monthly Peer Supervision meetings.
The ministry will often dovetail with the Parish Health Ministry Team, with many care receivers accepting care and guidance from both ministries. Additional resources like legal support, home repairs and healthcare can also be arranged using the resources of the church congregation.
“It’s great when we can make that happen and bring it all together,” Clendenen says. “That has been a good outcome in certain situations.”
Clendenen’s familiarity with Stephen Ministry and Church Street has allowed her to lead the ministry with ease during the pandemic. At her first appointment following her time at Church Street in Brentwood, Tennessee, she was quickly immersed into Stephen Ministry training.
“I’ve really enjoyed getting back into it. It’s a really great set of Stephen Ministers,” Clendenen says, “a very unique, diverse group and this year during the pandemic it’s been tough. We’ve had some ongoing crisis situations.”
During the leadership training process, it is stressed how important it is to have clergy support Stephen Ministers, and Spencer says that he has been extremely impressed by Clendenen’s support.
“I’m so thankful for Rev. Pat Clendenen. She’s done a wonderful job,” Spencer says. “We’ve had some good clergy involved with this, and Pat has knocked it out of the ballpark. She’s doing a really, really fine job.”
Clendenen agrees that without clergy support, operating a Stephen Ministry program is tough, and that she has appreciated the support of clergy like Revs. Catherine Nance, Tim Best, Palmer Cantler and Jan Buxton Wade.
No matter when a person touches the Stephen Minister program’s process, Spencer says it’s a blessing to help those in the Church Street community see change and grow.
“We are not the fixers. God is the fixer,” Spencer says. “We are privileged to be able to be there to watch it happen.”