SIKESTON - Life brings with it a variety of needs and circumstances and a special group of individuals is committed to helping people cope with what comes their way.
A confidential program, Stephen Ministry equips participating individuals to help those in need whether it is someone who is hospitalized, in a job crises or households experiencing birth or adoption. It could also be the aging and elderly, an individual facing a life transition or someone simply needing a Christian friend's support.
"It is a complete system for training and organizing lay people to provide one-to-one care to people who may be hurting in any one or more of the dozens of ways we humans can suffer," explained the Rev. Elbridge Bartley.
Angie Sharp's enthusiasm for the program is evident as she talks about what Stephen Ministry means and why she wanted to be a part of it.
"I wanted to do this because for one thing I believe the Lord told me to and two, for me, giving of myself unselfishly, not expecting anything in return, through my church into my community gives me a large sense of joy, of peace, of happiness," Sharp said.
Sharp and Bartley, along with their minister, the Rev. Bill Koch, pastor of the First United Methodist Church, recently joined more than 500 individuals of all denominations seeking to become Stephen Ministers at a week-long intense session in St. Louis where they received about 65 hours of training.
"It's a program of helping lay persons to do basic pastoral type of visitation that puts them in the position of being a Christian helper more so than just a next door neighbor or a friend," explained Koch. "I think it's a great program."
"Stephen Ministry is perhaps the most significant thing in the Lord's work I have ever been asked to participate in," remarked Bartley. "The caregiving that happens through these personal contacts is typically referred to as a Stephen Ministry. It is a ministry of 'Christ caring for people through people' because Christ works through the Stephen Ministry to bring hope and healing to the care receiver."
The program was established 27 years ago, added Bartley, pointing out there are over 8,000 churches of more than 100 different denominations in the U.S. and some overseas countries that participate in it.
"The training process takes you through every teeny tiny step that you could even think of," said Sharp. "They've thought about just about every situation that could possibly come up and it's very specific in how to deal with the situation. If someone's got mental problems it tells you how to get them to the resources they need because that's not what you're there for. It tells you how to train your people and how to use visual aids. That's why the manual is 35 pounds," she joked.
Koch pointed out the program stresses to the Stephen Ministers the importance of keeping conversations they have with the caregiving recipients confidential.
"We have friends and friends that we can confide in and that is the training that the Stephen Minister receives, how to facilitate somebody confiding in them while maintaining that person's sense of dignity and privacy," noted Koch, who said Stephen Ministry was not created to replace pastoral ministry.
What Sharp is looking forward to is reaching out to others and making a difference in their lives. "I'm eager to see and to feel that our community is being cared for by godly people and that hopefully this ministry will bring people to Christ not just to our church but to any church, to let them see there are Christians who care and who love them."
She stressed there's no gimmick to Stephen Ministry and it's purpose isn't to lecture or convert individuals to a certain religion.
"We're not there to preach to anybody," Sharp said. "It's not about making anybody feel uncomfortable, or feel like they have to be a Christian. It's about us being there for someone to lean on, whether that takes you into where you want to talk about God or whether you don't, just so long as you feel there's someone out there who cares about what you have to say and about how you feel. Your race, your religion, none of that matters."
Currently Sharp, Bartley and Koch are educating their church congregation about Stephen Ministry and giving them a sense of ownership, especially since the First United Methodist Church in Sikeston is believed to be the first church in the community to participate in the Stephen Ministry program.
The next step is to train the care givers. The actual class of instruction, two, 10-week sessions, for those selected to be Stephen Ministers is anticipated to start in September with the first Stephen Ministers expected to be commissioned next March or April.
Afterward, Stephen Ministers will be matched with the right need such as pairing a woman with children with another woman with children. The Stephen Minister is also paired with the same gender.
"I cannot help but feel that many lives will be touched and blessed by this program in Sikeston in the months and years ahead," Bartley said.
"The purpose is to help those who are hurting and it doesn't mean someone who has cancer or who is going through some traumatic thing," Sharp said. "It could be someone who is left alone because their children have gone off to college in the fall and they just need someone to talk to or it could be someone whose husband or wife has just left whether they've passed away or just walked out the door. It doesn't cost anything, we're not getting anything for it, we just want people to know there are people out there who want to help."
For more information on Stephen Ministry contact the First United Methodist Church at 471-3283.