Stephen ministers here to listen

Three parishioners from Mariner’s Bethel United Methodist Church, and Pastor Steve Ackerman, traveled to Pittsburgh, Penn. last year, for an intensive, 50-hour Stephen Ministries training seminar.

Those four came home and trained another 11 people, and the group now stands ready to offer a comforting presence and receptive ear for folks going through a rough patch.

Stephen Ministry is based in Christianity, but doesn’t promote any particular brand — according to the Web site (, more than 100 denominations are involved in the program.

Founded in 1975 by pastor and clinical psychologist Dr. Kenneth Haugk, more than 450,000 laypersons have received training to date — and more than twice that many people have received care, according to the Web site.

“It’s just one on one, helping people through their problems,” noted Stephen Minister Nancy Lathbury. “If someone feels they really need help, they contact us. We’ll go and meet with them, get a feel for their needs, decide which of the 11 of us is best suited, and then we’ll go and sit with them — we’re there to listen.”

As Lathbury pointed out, they didn’t have all the answers, and certainly couldn’t solve all problems. “God is the cure-giver, we’re just caregivers,” she added.

However, she said they could provide effective assistance for people dealing with grief, or struggling through major changes — divorce, perhaps, or career change.

Everything is strictly confidential, Lathbury noted, and they pair women with women, men with men. Other than a brief outline of the situation, even fellow caregivers don’t know who the other lay ministers are caring for.

And, they don’t try to take on more than they’re trained for — people with mental health (suicidal or homicidal, for instance) or drug and alcohol addictions are beyond their capabilities, Lathbury pointed out.

“We know what our limitations are,” she said. “If one of us feels their care receiver’s case is beyond them, they’ll guide that person to doctors instead.”

Still, she said Stephen Ministry was very effective, in many situations. “I know, you say it’s ‘just’ listening, but that’s a big word,” Lathbury emphasized. “That’s an important word.”

As Stephen Leader Joyce Rapley (one of the original four) pointed out, theirs was the only program of its kind in this area.

Rapley and her husband, Steve, had considered taking the seminar prior to their move to Delaware (she’s originally from the Baltimore area), and her mother-in-law had used a Stephen Minister at one point, she said.

“We felt it was something we needed to do,” she said. After they moved to Bethany Beach, and joined the Mariner’s Bethel congregation, they talked to Ackerman about it. The rest is history.

Well, there was a little more to it than that. Ackerman, Betty Mortimer and the Rapleys had to find other people interested in the mission, put on the 20-week training program (October through February) — and then, wait for some calls to come in.

They have started to come in since February, though, and so the Stephen Ministers have begun to deploy.

They continue in training, twice a month, and spend one hour each week with the care receivers, Rapley said. Some referrals come in from family members, other times the individuals in need refer themselves.

Part is being able to listen, part is being able to cope, Rapley said. “We’re trained to handle these situations, and trained to stay focused on helping the care receivers through – and in some cases, helping them get to whatever the problem is.

“We don’t give advice and we don’t try to solve problems, but if something hits a person particularly hard for some reason, they can often figure out why they feel that way, after talking about it,” she continued. “A lot of the time, if they can get to the ‘whys,’ they can get to the end.”

For some people, that might take a week. For others, it might take a month, or a year, or more. If they’re still suffering, Rapley said the Stephen Minister might suggest other support groups, maybe more of a group setting, “there’s no deadline, as far as how long someone can use us,” she noted.

And if a care receiver ever feels like prayer might help, Rapley said they would be more than happy to pray alongside. “That’s what gets a lot of people through this stuff,” she pointed out, but the most important thing is, whatever they’re most comfortable with.

“We’re just here to help, and this is for everybody,” Rapley concluded. For more information, call Mariner’s Bethel, at 539-9510.