Stephen Ministers struggle to help during COVID-19 pandemic

February 23, 2021

When a ministry is called to be near people who are struggling or in pain, it can be more difficult during a pandemic.

“We are truly just someone to walk alongside and listen,” said Charlotte O’Barr, 78, a member and Stephen Ministry leader at Shades Crest Baptist Church, Birmingham. “Learning to listen is most important, to not be so quick to think that I have to give an answer.”

Leaders at Shades Crest Baptist; Dawson Memorial Baptist Church, Birmingham; and First Baptist Church, Huntsville, say they have struggled with continuing their Stephen Ministry efforts during COVID-19.

Dawson Memorial has offered the ministry since 1993, and Bill Johnston, associate pastor, said it has “been beneficial here.”

Training — consisting of about 50 hours — and expectations are intense, Johnston noted, with leaders meeting twice a month to check in and remain accountable.

“It is not functioning at this time because of COVID-19,” he said.

The demands on families during the pandemic have taken their toll.

Church leaders also noted the difficulty in finding younger recruits to the ministry, as well as trying to find time to meet, even online.

“To be honest, our Stephen Ministry is not very active,” O’Barr lamented. “It involves a lot of commitment and time and investment in another person’s life.”

Shades Crest’s Stephen Ministry began in 2007, when O’Barr went to Orlando for intensive training.

“It was really an extremely interesting week” with intense periods of study, she remembered. “I never got tired of being there. It could hold my attention and made me feel like I was accomplishing something.”

The main reason O’Barr was drawn to the ministry was the idea of “just being connected to people,” she said, as well as the priority of confidentiality.

“I believe in prayer — not prayer which exposes a person’s deepest hurts,” she stressed, discouraging gossip disguised as a prayer request.

O’Barr said she wishes she’d had the training before she taught school for about 30 years.

Stephen Ministry offered visualization of Matthew 11 for her. “We simply walk alongside to lessen the load,” she said. “I think a lot of people want to be there for someone else.”

Shades Crest stays active through Stephen Ministry’s “Journeying Through Grief” effort, four books sent out periodically throughout the first year after a person loses a loved one.

“It’s one way we can let people know we are still active,” O’Barr said.

Caregivers are not problem-solvers, but someone who walks alongside people in the midst of deep hurt, listening and offering prayer and encouragement. O’Barr said it’s a “safe space” to share the deepest feelings.

Stephen Ministers rely on church leaders and members to refer people.

Charlotte Davis, 83, who has been a First, Huntsville, member for more than 40 years, was trained when she 70. Most of the Stephen Ministers in her church are in their 70s and older.

“We went in thinking we’re going to help the world, and actually, the world helped us,” Davis said. “We ministered to each other.”

Team approach

First, Huntsville, divides its ministry among three main leaders — one assigns care receivers to Stephen Leaders or care givers; another plans the programs; and the other runs the meetings. They rotate positions every few years. Davis regularly stays in touch with her leaders through email.

While First, Huntsville, mainly serves its members, they include tithing as part of their ministry, indicating they try to spend 15% of ministry outside the church.

With COVID-19, First, Huntsville, has paused its ministry, she said, although they are still encouraging leaders to write notes and call members.

For more information about Stephen Ministry, click here.

By Dianna L. Cagle

  • David Garrard Magic