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by Janie Magruder

For nearly a quarter of a century, Dayspring has taught church members to provide specialized care for each other through Stephen Ministries, a St. Louis-based Christian educational organization founded in 1975.

Every other year or so, since Pastor Shirley and member Sally Butler first became Stephen Ministries leaders, parishioners have learned to offer individual care to those experiencing difficult times — grief, divorce, job loss, chronic or terminal illness and other crises.

“One reason I went into the ministry (in 2003) and the reason I’ve stayed, is because it’s such an important part of how we care for our congregation,” said Suzanne Harbster, a Stephen Ministries leader for four years. “Our mission is to make sure anyone who is going through a really tough time has access to someone who can bring God’s care to them, one-on-one and in a nonjudgmental, confidential way.”

It’s a Biblical calling, from Galatians 6:2: “Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.” And it’s one that 80 Stephen Ministers at Dayspring have heard over the years, and provided ongoing support to more than 350 people, Suzanne estimated.

“The biggest quality that they need to have, and this is trainable, is the desire to be a good listener,” said Suzanne, noting each Stephen Minister is asked to commit to two years of service. “It’s a listening ministry, so learning how to listen and to reflect, not to solve problems, but rather to provide empathy and appropriate encouragement, is what the training is.”

Stephen Ministries is named for Stephen, the first deacon chosen and ordained by the Apostles to extend their pastoral care. These were the first bishops of the early Church.

Today, 600,000 people from more than 13,000 congregations, representing more than 180 Christian denominations in all 50 states, ten Canadian provinces and 30 other countries, have been trained.

“A pastor is always part of the team because they are often aware of what people are going through, and can provide us with (help on making) assignments,” Suzanne said.

Pastor Joel, who has been involved with Stephen Ministries for nine years, feels the program is needed more now than ever before.

“In a world where there is so much going on, to have someone who is there to be a friend, to intentionally listen and to be fully present is such a gift,” Pastor Joel said. “I find it so rewarding to hear how our people are experiencing the Stephen Ministries program. By listening to their care receivers, they are being ministered to, as well. It’s a reciprocal relationship.”

Personally, he said, the leadership training helped him to be a better parent, friend and pastor.

“The unexpected surprise is that both persons are nurtured,” Pastor Joel said.

Among the blessings of Stephen Ministries, Suzanne said, is that — as with many volunteer opportunities — people receive more than they give.

“When you walk through a situation with someone, you grow in the process,” she said. “I may not have been in that actual situation myself, but what I learn may be helpful to me later in my life. It’s a two-way street.”

Ideally, the ministers and care receivers meet in person, in their homes, in church meeting rooms or other places of their choice.

“Not everyone can afford counselors, and some people are going to go to their ministers before they go to counselors because they feel more comfortable in a church setting,” Suzanne said.

One of her care receivers, a woman who lost her spouse to illness, met with Suzanne for more than two years to work through her grief. The woman moved away some years ago, but has returned to Dayspring on occasional Sunday mornings, and it’s “like we were never separated,” she said.

“When you see someone who has been able to come out the other end and is prospering from the relationship and experience, that’s how you know that this means so much,” said Suzanne, estimating 25 percent of care receivers go on to become Stephen Ministers.

Although some may feel they aren’t up for the responsibility of Stephen Ministries, Suzanne said the training is structured and thorough, involving role-playing and exploration of various issues ministers may encounter. Ongoing education, supervision and support after training also is provided.

To learn how to become - or receive care from - a Stephen Minister, call the church office at (480) 838-1446 or email by clicking below. We will be offering a new Stephen Minister training class in September.