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Stephen Ministers care for those seeking help in all lifes crises
Area churches in Gainesville have program available
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Bruce Johnson, left, and Bruce Doll are leaders in Stephen Ministry at Gainesville First United Methodist Church and First Presbyterian Church in Gainesville, respectively. The program is one-to-one counseling from lay people to provide high-quality, confidential, Christ-centered care to people who are hurting. During the weekly hourlong meeting, Stephen Ministers remember to have empty chair to represent God being there, said the Rev. Bruce Fields, the associate pastor of pastoral care at First Baptist Church and a Stephen Minister and Leader at the church.

Stephen Ministry Definitions

  • A Stephen Minister is lay person who provides one-to-one Christian care to hurting people.
  • A Stephen Leader is a pastor, church staffer or other lay leader who directs the Stephen Ministry in the church and trains Stephen Ministers in their congregation. 
  • A care receiver is a hurting individual who receives care from a Stephen Minister.
  • The name is based on Stephen from the book of Acts in the New Testament. Stephen was chosedn to provide caring ministry to those in need. 
  • Note: Stephen ministers are not professional counselor and the program is not designed for people who need professional help.

Facts

  • A Stephen Minister undergoes 50 hours of training in topics such as listening, feelings, assertiveness, confidentiality and ministering to people in situations like divorce, terminal illness, grief and childbirth.
  • A Stephen Minister is assigned to only one care receiver of the same gender at a time and meets with that person for an hour each week.
  • Stephen Ministers meet twice monthly for supervision and continuing education.
  • Stephen Ministers usually commit to three years of service.

About 20 years ago, a crisis struck Bruce Johnson and his family. And its impact on his daily life was acute.

“I was thinking about it all of the time,” the 74-year-old Gainesville man said. “I was missing exits off the interstate (while driving). I wasn’t being the husband and father I could be. ... I lost my focus.”

To find his way out of his fog, Johnson approached his church’s minister for help. The pastor asked Johnson to meet with a Stephen minister. He agreed and believed it was the best decision.

“I would say it helped me get my life back,” Johnson said. “I was more relaxed. I was more joyful. I was having more fun. I was able to care for my family members the way I did before.”

Johnson is one of many men and women who the Stephen Ministry program has helped since its inception in 1975 in St. Louis, Mo.

The Stephen Ministry offers one-on-one counseling from trained lay members to people struggling with transitions in life, said the Rev. Bruce Fields, associate pastor of pastoral care for 25 years at First Baptist Church off Green Street in Gainesville. For example, people seek help to deal with grief after losing a loved one whether through death or divorce. Others may need help while going through a job crisis.

“And some older folks may be going through loneliness,” Fields said. “Or they may be moving from their home into a care facility.”

These life transitions create fear and uncertainty as a person’s security is shaken.

“And we need someone to help us walk through the changes instead of dealing with it on our own,” said Fields, who is a trained Stephen Minister and Stephen Leader.

That’s exactly what Johnson needed. He meet with a Stephen minister — men and women are paired with the same gender — for an hour on a weekly basis for a year. Based on the 50 hours of training, the Stephen minister asked questions and listened to Johnson talk about his situation, which always stays confidential, the No. 1 foundation to the program.

“One of the biggest advantages is to sit with someone and say whatever you want to and know it does not go further and know it is strictly confidential,” Johnson said, noting it is why he does not disclose his reason for needing help. “Confidentiality is primary.”

The second advantage is the Stephen minister is not emotionally invested compared to a friend or family member.

“All of my close and good Christian friends said ‘Let go and let God,” Johnson said. “I heard it so much I said ‘Show me the switch that does that.’”

Stephen ministers, however, pray for their care receivers (a name given to those seeking help) and help guide them along the difficult path.

Bruce Doll, a Stephen minister and leader at First Presbyterian Church in Gainesville, said he also looks for visual cues.

“You have to watch their expressions, watch what they are doing with their hands,” he said, noting they may not tell you everything at first. “And you have to pay attention to their posture. Do they sit up straight or are they leaned back or are they slumping?”

He said it helps him to read his care receivers and then ask questions. But he never tells them what to do.

“The Stephen Ministry is not a solution ministry,” he said. “You don’t go in and fix the problem. You are there to help them work through the problem and guide them.”

Johnson agreed, saying the program works, especially since it holds the care receivers accountable.

“I knew when I sat down with him, we’d be discussing the things I might have agreed to change or think about,” he said. “And he cared about me and helped me take care of myself.”

These weekly talks changed Johnson and led him to become a Stephen minister, giving him the task of helping someone else through a time of crisis.

Barb Mistarz became a Stephen minister 14 years ago to help someone through a tough situation and make a difference since she could not help her own father.

“My dad had Parkinson’s, and he lived in Ohio,” the 62-year-old Gainesville resident said. “I couldn’t be there to help him ... but I could help other people here.”

Little did Mistarz know what she would learn.

“You also learn a lot of basic life skills, like better listening skills and learning how to be assertive instead of aggressive,” she said. “You learn how to care for people in all kinds of situations and what to say and what not to say.”

She also pointed out you receive more in return from your care receiver. For example, one of the care receivers Mistarz helped died while Mistarz was tending to her own dying father. During the woman’s funeral, a letter Mistarz wrote was read. About the same time, her father died.

“It was more like she was up there and she was saying it was OK and he could come up to. I feel like she helped him get there,” Mistarz said. “For it to happen during her service ... God’s hand was all over it,”

And each Stephen minister was quick to point out God is the one who is really helping.

“God is the cure giver and the Stephen minister is the caregiver,” Fields said.

For more information about Stephen Ministry, visit https://www.stephenministries.org.

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