SOUTHBURY, Connecticut — Anne Donahue is a woman who has always wanted to help. She was a good listener, she said; she was told she had a compassionate ear.
So, a few years ago, when her Roman Catholic parish, Sacred Heart in Southbury, began a program that sent lay people to minister to those enduring trying emotional times, she signed up.
“I have a large family,” said Donahue. “I keep thinking of the fact that some people have nobody and, to me, it is just an overwhelming concept how sad that is. People such as that have to depend on a neighbor or neighbors. It has bothered me.”
Donahue is one of an estimated 40 Stephen ministers at Sacred Heart, which is one of 130 congregations in the state that have adopted the Christian support program. For the last three years, Donahue and others have been paired up with people who long for another person to talk to.
Many of these care receivers have lost a spouse or a child, have endured a divorce or are suffering from a debilitating illness. Stephen ministers meet, typically weekly, with the care receivers and listen to their concerns.
“We’re not there to solve everybody’s problems,” said Donahue, of Southbury. “We’re there to get them to open up. It’s such a huge thing for people to have an avenue to release some of this, whether it’s anger, frustration or confusion. In a family situation (the person) might not want to share with their kids exactly how hurt they are. But they need to get that out. That’s how you heal, to get rid of a lot of this stuff that is just floating around in there.”
Headquartered in St. Louis, Stephen Ministries is a not-for-profit Christian group that began in 1975 and is now active in more than 12,500 parishes around the country.
It began when founder Kenneth C. Haugk, a pastor and trained counselor, found he did not have enough time to administer pastoral care to those in his community. He began to train members of his parish in listening skills to provide a Christian-centered one-on-one care to those who are struggling, grieving, alone or need someone to talk to.
He chose the name Stephen because in the Biblical Acts, Stephen was the apostle first sent out to care for the poor.
The lay ministers are not clergy, nor therapists. They are trained to listen, and discouraged from advising. The organization now says it has trained more than 600,000 lay persons as Stephen ministers, who it claims have provided support to more than a million care receivers. An estimated 170 Christian denominations are involved in all 50 states.
The thrust, say Stephen ministers, is not acting or advising, but listening.
“It’s in our nature that we want to fix things,” said Donahue. “We always want to fix somebody else, so we are very quick to offer a solution. I don’t know how many times when I’ve finished with a care receiver, they always say to me, ‘You’re really a good listener.’ That’s funny because it affirms to me that listening is important.”
Ministers like Donahue receive 50 hours of training to equip them to deal compassionately with many specific situations, from sickness to divorce and bereavement.
They are also taught how to spot the need for a professional therapist. If their care receiver is already in treatment with a therapist, Stephen ministers must call that therapist to get his or her approval before going forward with their “ministry.”
“We are not therapists,” said Sister Patricia Torre, of Sacred Heart Parish in Southbury, which began a Stephen minister program in 2012. “We have good listening skills and we’ve learned to set boundaries.”
Care receivers do not need to be Christian or need to be associated with a church, said Janine Ushe, part of the pastoral staff at Stephen Ministries’ St. Louis headquarters. “Our goal here is not to beat people over the head with the Bible and make them come to our churches. It’s not proselytizing.”
“It’s caring for those in need,” said Catherine Hughes of Sacred Heart. “You are there to be a sounding board. In allowing them to tell their story, it’s a release of something that’s been pent-up and the more they tell their story, they are more in touch with what’s going on with it.”
One of her care receivers, Hughes said, told her, “I’ve told you things that I’ve never told anybody else.” She said that is because some of the care receivers are older and came from a society where emotional crises were “swept under the rug,” Hughes said.
Ushe said the ministry appeals to those of the Christian faith who are looking to find an avenue for their compassion. That would include Larry Gannon of Southbury, who said he had served as a Eucharistic minister, read at Mass, led services at wakes and prayers at graveside, “but nothing was as satisfying as this.”
Originally from Ohio, Gannon worked at Northeast Utilities for 24 years before retiring. He now sees a man once a week – and just listens. “The ministry is not there to make problems go away,” he said. “It’s not there to solve a problem. It’s there to be with the person to help them work through it themselves. Largely, it’s accepting people without judging them.”
Tracey O’Shaughnessy writes for the Republican-American, http://www.rep-am.com