Ministers reflect on being the ‘after people’ who help parishioners in need of counsel and support, especially during an era of solitude

GROSSE POINTE PARK  Life often presents lonely times. Life in a pandemic presents them more frequently than usual. 

Whether the death of a loved one, the loss of job, a divorce or even a sense of missing confidence and joy, often a person just needs a guide — and that was true even before COVID-19. 

Enter the Stephen Ministry, a peer-to-peer, accompaniment-centered form of ministry in which caregivers are paired with a person in need — to walk the path with them when the path seems unstable. 

“Stephen Ministry is a caring ministry, one-on-one, where lay ministers walk alongside someone who is going through a difficult time,” said Sue Buckley, co-leader of the Stephen Ministry at St. Clare of Montefalco Parish in Grosse Pointe Park. “The minister is the caregiver, but it is Christ who is doing the healing. It’s our belief that God is the healer, and we work with Him as the backdrop of the ministry.” 

Stephen Ministers aren’t there to judge or solve their care recipients’ problems, but rather to be a listening ear and friend to those who need accompaniment.  

Stephen Ministry — which takes its name from St. Stephen, one of the Church’s first deacons — traces its roots to the Lutheran faith, but today has thousands of ministries established across many denominations. 

Buckley said Stephen Ministry shouldn’t be confused with counseling or as a substitute for clinical therapy, but rather about establishing a relationship with a neutral party who can confidentially listen, and pray, with someone going through a struggle. 

Stephen Ministers normally meet with care receivers in person at home or in a public place — or, because of COVID-19 restrictions, over the phone or via Zoom. The encounters are meant to be a safe space for accompaniment and discernment, similar to how St. Stephen accompanied the apostles.  

“They are there for you, just as a soundboard with no judgment. They are not trying to fix things, they are there to be a companion,” Buckley said. “A lot of people have friends who fill that void. But there are certain topics, certain situations you don’t want to share with a friend. A Stephen Minister is the confidential person you know you can trust.” 

John Castiglione of St. Mary Parish in Monroe said Stephen Ministry has been one of the more spirit-filled, supportive ministries he has been involved in as a Catholic. 

John Castiglione of St. Mary Parish in Monroe got involved in Stephen Ministry after attending a “Called and Gifted” workshop, where he discerned his charism for walking with others.  

“It’s the most wonderful ministry I’ve been a part of in my 65 ½ years of being a Catholic,” Castiglione told Detroit Catholic. “Nothing has enriched my faith more than Stephen Ministry. It’s a caring, Christian ministry where you walk with people.”

Castiglione’s first care recipient was a parolee who called St. Mary’s looking for a spiritual guide as he adjusted to life outside of prison. Castiglione and the man met regularly in public places, with no other agenda than to just talk and pray. 

“Stephen Ministry teaches you to listen, not with your ears, but with your heart,” Castiglione said. “A lot of people listen to someone, and they can’t wait to respond. This teaches you to really listen, absorb what the person is saying and not wait for a response, but truly listen to what they are saying.” 

Parishes interested in launching a Stephen Ministry are encouraged to attend a conference hosted by the international organization, which is sponsored by the Missouri Synod of the Lutheran Church. 

Stephen Ministers are not meant to be a substitute for clinical therapy, leaders say, but a Christ-centered form of friendship for those in need.

“The conference explained what Stephen Ministry is: it’s lay Christian care, really,” said Patty Bodien, co-chair of the Stephen Ministry at St. Clare of Montefalco. “We’re the ‘after people’ — during the initial couple of weeks (of a person’s struggle), there’s a lot of attention toward the person who is struggling. But after that, everyone’s lives kind of go on, and the person is left alone. We are there to continue to be with them.” 

Laurie, whose last name Detroit Catholic isn’t revealing to protect her privacy, was one of those who was struggling. She was physically ill and couldn’t leave her home, but the disease harmed her spiritually as well, something her Stephen Minster was briefed about before their first meeting. 

“Whoever walked through the door was already prepared for what I wanted,” Laurie said. “They heard me, really listened to me, and I started to trust them. There is something very validating when someone listens to your words, and they did. The whole experience was such a blessing; I trusted her. 

Laurie learned about Stephen Ministry from the bulletin at St. Clare. She met with Buckley and Bodien, discussed her situation and was paired with a caregiver — who in some ways was lifesaving.   

“When I first asked about a Stephen Ministry, I was desperate, filled with despair and I was just clinging to life,” Laurie said. “I thought my faith was strong, but it was shaken.”

Her Stephen Minister “helped solidify my faith,” Laurie said.  

Stephen Ministers’ relationships with care receivers usually last six months to a year. After that, the care recipient can meet again with Stephen Ministry leadership to discern a new caregiver or a more formal method of counseling.

“I realized how powerful praying with somebody is. How it truly deepens your faith,” Laurie said. “It’s remarkable to be able to talk to God with somebody. In our society, people don’t talk about God. So it just took away all the doubt and really solidified the fact that my future is in God’s hands.” 

During the pandemic, there is a hesitancy to meet in person in one another’s homes, but even over Zoom, a friendly face is a welcome sight in times of crisis.

Castiglione said he doesn’t want to jeopardize the health of caregivers or care receivers, but acknowledged the lockdowns, social distancing and reduced face-to-face interaction can add to the mental anguish. 

“Things in 2020 were more different than any other year, but while they are different, some things are the same,” Castiglione said. “People are still dying, still hurting, still in need of care. If anything, there has been an increased need for someone because of the pandemic.” 

Ever since Stephen Ministry was established at St. Lawrence Parish in Utica in the early 2000s, parishioners have been able to help priests care for members of the community who need extra attention, said Mary Kraus, St. Lawrence’s Christian service coordinator. 

Kraus was a care receiver of Stephen Ministry before she worked at the parish, and can testify to the relief the ministry brings

“I think one of the things Stephen Ministry does is help the pastors and priests,” Kraus said. “It’s takes the load off a bit, enrolling parishioners to help parishioners going through hard times. I think it’s a very safe way for people to work through difficult times in their lives in a way that is safe, confidential and Christ-centered.”