Stephen Ministry
Psalm 23
Acts 6:1-6
John 10:22-30

April 10, 2016
A priest was instructing a class of children on the 23rd psalm. He told the children that sheep weren't smart and needed lots of guidance, and that a shepherd's job was to stay close to the sheep, protect them He pointed to the little children and said that they were the sheep and needed lots of guidance and that he was their shepherd.

After a silence of a few seconds a little boy said, "But Father I thought,  Jesus was the good shepherd."

The priest, obviously caught by surprise, said to the boy, "Well, then, who am I?"

The child frowned thoughtfully, and then said with a shrug, "I guess you must be a sheep dog."

Early in my ministry at Ark and Dove, on Good Shepherd Sunday, usually the fourth Sunday after Easter, I was robustly chastised, after worship, for my sermon which was from John, chapter 10 and the 23rd Psalm.   A guy came up to me after worship and said, “You know, I was raised on a farm.”  I have always liked farms and gardening, so he immediately had my attention and I smiled.  And he continued, “You obviously don’t know compost about sheep.”  He didn’t use the actual word compost, he used the “s” word for the raw material you mix in with straw and leaves and grass to make good compost.  I was a little taken back, all this was taking place in the smaller lobby of our unexpanded building, anyone could hear.   “In your sermon, you referred to the congregation as the flock and in another place you referred to yourself as the Pastor. Sheep," he said, "are as dumb as stones. I don’t like being compared to sheep, and I don’t like the fact that you held yourself up so high as Pastor.”  In the silence of one of those rare moments in my life, when I couldn’t think of a thing to say, while my face was turning red, he started cracking up and went to full belly laugh.  He looked at me a said “Gotcha, good sermon pastor," and walked out the door.

In the years since that incident I have been a little more careful with my bucolic sheep talk.  It’s always wise to approach ministry with a healthy dose of servant images.  When we do talk about sheep and shepherds its best to refer to God and to Christ Jesus and the shepherds and to refer to all of us as the flock; yet the very title Pastor does present an interesting dilemma, and so if a pastor is anything, she or he should be a person who cares about the members of the church. Interestingly enough if you check the constitution of the Presbyterian Church USA, over the last forty years; you will find the terms Minister of Word and Sacrament, and Teaching Elder and pastor as the official designations for clergy but you will never see at any point in the Presbyterian tradition the term Priest used.

What I am heading towards here is the concept we call the  “Priesthood of All Believers.”  In many Protestant traditions, but especially in the Presbyterian and Reformed family, we emphasize and recognize the importance of lay leadership.  We believe that all Christians are called to be servants to other people, therefore we are all called to minister to, be pastors of and serve as priests to and prophets for humanity.  That’s why starting a Stephen Ministry at Ark and Dove fits like a glove.

Today we are commissioning Gail Huff, Vaughn Brown, Kelly Burnett, Laurie Barrow, Denise Grassel and Mary Stum as Stephen Ministers, and we are commissioning Jon, Tim and Kelly Burnett as Stephen Ministry Leaders.  One small footnote here; the term is Stephen Ministry not Stephen’s Ministry, the title of this ministry comes from  Stephen who is named in the Book of Acts as a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit, and who is ordained as the first Deacon with six others in Jerusalem by the Apostles.  There was prayer and laying on of hands, which is the sign and act of ordination.  Apparently the widows, code word for poor and vulnerable persons, of the non-Jewish Christians were not being properly cared for by the Apostles because they were out of time; and the church created a new position of leadership in order to meet the need.   Stephen was such a powerful presence in the early church, he was arrested by a religious leader by the name of Saul, falsely accused of blasphemy and he was stoned to death, meaning a mob executed him by throwing large rocks at him.   In Acts Chapter 7 you find the Story of Stephen’s death.  Luke writes  that like Jesus, Stephen asked that God not hold the sin against the mob as he was killed.

So Stephen Ministry is a lay ministry in the tradition of Deacons that we are adding to our Ministries at Ark and Dove.  Ark and Dove is a permission giving church which means that when a member has an idea for ministry or comes across an idea that other churches have successfully used and that idea or ministry is compatible with the values of our church and that member is willing to call people into ministry and “shepherd” that ministry then that ministry is approved by Session.  In the case of Stephen Ministry, which is a significant undertaking, the Deacons and our Session prayed about this possibility for some time and when Kelly Burnett indicated she would lead and put her heart and soul into this work, then our church boards approved.   This has been a multi-year undertaking undergirded by some serious training and today we leap from preparation into vocation and we launch.

Stephen Ministry is an ecumenical ministry that scores of Christian Denominations use in bunches of countries and thousands and thousands of churches.  Stephen Ministry has its roots in evangelical theology, not our brand, but is easily adoptable to most Christian traditions and can be tailored to the unique properties of specific local congregations and national denominations like Presbyterian.  Many progressive Presbyterian Churches recognize and use the Stephen Ministry program to care for their congregation.  In fact at the training I attended there were over 20 denominations represented including Catholic, Methodist, Episcopalian Lutheran and Seventh Day Adventist and people from eight countries; but I’m guessing 20% of the attendees were Presbyterian.  As a Stephen Ministry church, we have access to thousands of resources to help us provide pastoral care to each other.  Oop there I said it, that phrase “Pastoral Care.”   Just remember we belong to the flock of Jesus, not the Flock of Jon or Tim.  Jesus calls us his sheep and in one of his parables he says that he will leave 99 sheep behind to come find us when we are lost.

One of the things I like about Stephen Ministry and their materials is that they identify Stephen Ministers as “Care Givers”.  They don’t so much say Pastoral Care as they talk about care givers and care receivers.    That’s really good Presbyterian Theology, hand in glove with the Protestant concept of the Priesthood of all believers.  One person extends the care and love of Christ and another person receives that care at a time of need.   I think the single most important act that a Stephen Minister undertakes is Holy Listening.  Just as God is always ready to hear our prayers, a Stephen Minister listens for the soul of the care receiver.  To truly listen to another human being is an act of faith, hospitality and healing.

We have nine Deacons, Seven Elders and two pastors, why is  Stephen Ministry a good idea for our church?   Glad you asked.  Stephen Ministry is a good idea for our church because Stephen Ministers provide extended care to one person once a week for a period of four to six to 18 months.  Stephen Ministers are there to walk alongside one person as they experience a major life changing event like death or divorce or serious illness.  We have over 600 people in our community called Ark and Dove.  280 are official adult members, 150 of us are children, 170 of us are friends.   There is no possible way that ministers, elders and deacons can provide all the in depth care giving some people need at certain times in their lives.  Like the Apostles in Jerusalem – the cup over floweth.

Stephen Ministers are not Pastors, not therapists, not social workers doctors or nurses.  They are friends and care givers who have received 50 hours of training and who have twice monthly supervision and continuing education.  Stephen Ministers are paired with one care receiver after a thought filled and faith full process of matching a care giver with a care receiver after forms are filled out.  Through Stephen Ministry, we will be able to provide a new level of care-giving to members of our congregation who would like it.

Jon I don’t know if this has happened to Christina yet, but it happens to Kelly all the time.  A member of Ark and Dove will come up to her in David’s Natural Market or in the church halls and start a conversation with the assumption that I tell her about family or pastoral situations that are going on in our church.  And Kelly doesn’t have the slightest idea of what the member might be talking about.  I do not share anything you tell me in confidence.  Jon does not share anything you tell him in confidence.  We only share with the Deacons when we get permission.  Heck we are very careful about sharing with each other.  We call this principle in care giving confidentiality and, if anything, we are getting more careful about it in our church.  A Stephen Minister’s conversations with a care receiver will not be shared with a Pastor or a Deacon and a Stephen Minister will not disclose the name of their care receiver even to other Stephen Ministers or anyone unless we learn of a child or elder abuse situation, which all caregivers are required by law to report or unless there is possible murder or suicide.  Confidentiality is a foundation of this ministry.  Now if your big toe gets run over by your spouse in the driveway and you post it on facebook, it’s in the public domain and we all can sympathize; but if you share a confidence with a Pastor, Deacon, Elder  or Stephen Minister of this congregation then we are bound by our ordinations or commissioning to abide by confidentiality.  This helps us build trust and community.

Now you may have noticed that we have commissioned six Stephen ministers, one of whom Kelly, will be a Stephen Leader with Jon and me.  That means that we will begin this ministry modestly as we will basically only be able to serve five people at a time.   However it is our hope that in six months or so we might be able to  train and commission a second group of Stephen Ministers for our church.

I hope you will keep your ears and your hearts open for people you might recommend to Stephen Ministry either as a care giver or a  care receiver.   Our dream here is that all our ministries, worship, education, mission, administration, will be undergirded and strengthened by an ever growing circle of Stephen Ministry.  If we get enough Stephen Ministers we can offer our services in our community.

A congregation is a community of priests, pastors and prophets who support one another in life and in prophetic ministry.  I greet thee fellow priests and I celebrate starting a Stephen Ministry, a next step in our combined ministry to an aching world.

Pastor Tim Stern

See Listening For the Soul by Jean Stairs, Fortress Press Minneapolis 2000