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North Hills Monthly

Stephen Ministers Offer Counsel to Those in Need

Oct 31, 2014 12:52PM ● By Shelly Tower Rushe
A father who lost his infant son. A soldier wounded in battle. A wife struggling to save her marriage. A widow who just needs a friend. Going through tough times alone can be difficult. You feel as if there’s no one to talk to or that you’ve bent your friend’s ear one too many times. That’s where Stephen Ministries comes in.

Stephen Ministries, started in 1975, is a church-based counseling service named for the Apostle Stephen who was chosen to provide ministry to those in need. Stephen ministers are lay persons—congregation members—who are trained to provide what they describe as “Christian care” to those in need.

Maria Swartzbaugh has been a Stephen leader—an individual in the church responsible for training Stephen ministers—at Berkeley Hills Lutheran Church in the North Hills since 2012. She is also responsible for continued education, handling referrals and matching potential care receivers with a Stephen minister.

She knows that care receivers are in good hands. “It’s a level of care below what a pastor or therapist can give, but above what a family member or friend can offer,” Swartzbaugh explained. Ministers meet with their care receiver (they typically only have one at a time) for an hour per week. To make the experience as comfortable as possible, women ministers are matched with women care receivers and men with men. As with any professional counselor, services are completely confidential. The difference is that Stephen Ministries’ services are completely free. If at any point a minister feels they cannot provide the appropriate level of care, they refer their care receiver to the proper resources.

Those interested in becoming a Stephen minister have intensive training ahead of them, including an in-house, 50-hour training program. The entire training process is approximately one year long. “It includes reading and discussing several books and being trained on different modules such as confidentiality, reflective listening, or matching care receivers with additional support or services if needed,” explained Swartzbaugh. Anyone looking to become a Stephen minister just needs to locate a church that offers the program.

Care receivers can be anyone looking for help; they do not need to be church members to be paired with a Stephen minister. “Common reasons that people seek out a Stephen minister are divorce, death of a loved one, major health issue of self or loved ones, job loss, an empty nest, loneliness or relocation,” explained Swartzbaugh. To find a church that participates, call 314-428-2600. Local churches that offer the program include Shadyside Presbyterian, Pittsburgh Chinese Church, Berkeley Hills Lutheran Church, Ingomar Methodist Church, Memorial Park Church, St. Stephen Catholic Church, Advent Lutheran Church, United Church of Christ, St. John’s Lutheran Church of Highland and Christ Episcopal Church.

At the end of the day, it’s all about helping people who need someone to listen. “The most rewarding part of the program is when a care receiver is so moved by the experience that they go through the training themselves to become a Stephen minister,” said Swartzbaugh.