MIFFLINTOWN - Sometimes all it takes to be a minister is a listening ear.
A small group of volunteer ministers at Aldersgate United Methodist Church in Mifflintown are trained to be sounding boards and encouragers to people who struggle with grief and despair.
Mother and daughter team Patsy Campbell and Kim Dreibelbis initiated the Stephen Ministry about three years ago after learning about it from a relative.
The outreach ministry, based in St. Louis, Mo., began after a pastor and clinical psychologist noticed that many people he cared for were slipping through the cracks. As a pastor, he was there for the families in times of crisis, but as soon as the crisis ended, he had to move on to help with another tragedy. He needed help, people to take up where he left off and minister to the people who continued to hurt.
"The pastor takes care of the initial crisis, then we are the next step," Dreibelbis said. "We walk alongside them. We help them get what they need spiritually, physically, mentally."
Trained Stephen Ministers, though not counselors, work in one-on-one, confidential relationships with a care receiver, Dreibelbis explained. Sometimes care receivers are referred to the ministry by a pastor, and others come seeking help on their own.
The group tries to pair the minister and care receiver based on their life experiences, Campbell said. Ministers only work with care receivers of the same gender, and the ministry only accept ministers and care receivers over age 18, she said.
Once the partnership forms, the minister and care receiver set up meetings to talk, sometimes a couple times a week, sometimes once a month, she said.
The minister is trained to listen in a non-judgmental way and to focus on progress rather than problem-solving, Campbell said.
Though Stephen Ministry is a Christian organization, the care givers are not always Christians or church-goers, she said.
"Care receivers can be of any faith or no faith. We don't push Christianity but do share when opportunity presents itself," Campbell said.
Dreibelbis added: "We always ask, 'Can I pray for you?' It's an opportunity to bring people to the Lord, but we're not Bible beaters."
Confidentiality is very important to the ministry, both the mother and daughter stressed.
Ministers are instructed not to share names or details about their care receiver with anyone, she said. Even during the ministers' monthly support meeting, they do not share the names of their care receivers, she said.
Confidentiality is important for many reasons, but especially because many people will not ask for a Stephen Minister because they fear someone else may find out, Dreibelbis said.
Before receiving a care giver, Stephen Ministers participate in 50-hour training sessions using the materials developed by the founding pastor, Campbell said. She and Dreibelbis participated in an extra 50 hours of training to lead the local group.
To become a Stephen Minister, the group leaders and pastor interview the person and review their application before accepting them for training, Dreibelbis said.
"We don't want to be an exclusive club, but we want people whose heart is to be part of the program," Dreibelbis said.
Every ministry volunteer is coached on how to look for signs that their care receiver may need more help than the ministry can provide, Dreibelbis said. If necessary, the minister will refer their care receiver to social services, she said.
All ministers sign up for a two-year commitment, but many serve longer, Dreibelbis said.
"A lot of times friendships are born and ... continue even after the ministry closes," Campbell added.
Dreibelbis said one of the hardest things for ministers to learn and accept is that they cannot fix things for their care receiver.
"We let the caregiving up to God," Dreibelbis said. "It's not our responsibility to make that person OK. It's God's."
Stephen Minister Terry Waters said she enjoys not feeling the obligation that she has to fix her care receiver's problem.
"I'm a sounding board," Waters said. "My job is to listen. It's a different relationship than what I'm used to."
She also has used her ministry training with other relationships, especially her family and co-workers.
Aldersgate is one of more than 150 denominations that participate in the international ministry.
For more information about the ministry at Aldersgate, call the church office at 436-6750.