A Sharing of the Caring

Lay Ministers Help Churches Meet Today's Specialized Needs

Published: Saturday, April 18, 1998
Section: LIVING
Page: E1

By Mark I. Pinsky of The Sentinel Staff

In the days of simpler Sundays, Protestant pastors could attend to almost any personal crisis in their small congregations.

They had time to counsel church members in the wake of a family death, serious illness or the rare incidence of divorce.

But no more. The complexity of modern life and the growth in congregation size dictates that much of what a pastor once did now is handled by an array of specialized ministries.

In fact, any church that does not offer services for seniors, single parents and substance abusers has little chance to compete for new members, much less hang on to the ones it has. Protestant churches, in particular, are offering these ministries - in addition to casual dress, rock music and chatty sermons to stave off declining membership.

``Churches that are growing have lay ministries involved,'' said the Rev. Thomas Chenault of the 1,200-member Livingston Street Church of God in Orlando.

The shift toward lay ministries has an overlooked benefit, said the Rev. John Dalles of Wekiva Presbyterian Church, one that harks back to the early days of the church.

``As we care for one another in a variety of lay ministries, it helps us mature as Christians - both the giver and the receiver,'' said Dalles, who frequently refers members to a lay ministry.

With a 1,000-member congregation, his church also has a program to train lay ministers.

Every Tuesday evening, Laurie Farquharson stands before a semicircle of 18 church members in Wekiva Presbyterian's education building. About half the group is training for the Stephen Ministry. The other half has completed the training and is there to offer support and advice.

The national interdenominational Stephen Ministry, one of many such programs, has trained 27,000 people in 6,000 congregations, including 300 churches in Florida. Based in St. Louis, the program prepares people for a one-to-one relationship with members dealing with grief, divorce or single parenthood.

Farquharson, who is the church's director of Christian education, said the trainee's goal is to become a ``caring, Christian friend.''

``We are caregivers,'' Farquharson told trainees during a recent session. ``God is the cure giver.

``The whole purpose is to sort through options - not give advice.''

After six months of training, the lay ministers commit to counseling members for an hour a week for a minimum of a year. Farquharson assigns lay ministers to those who ask for support, trying to match life experiences. Men are paired with men; women with women.

Diane Gosheff of Longwood has been a Stephen minister for the past three years.

``This was one of the talents I may have with people that was God-given,'' to be a good listener, said the home care nursing coordinator for Florida Hospital. ``Having gone through divorce and different challenges always sharpens your perspective and intuition about people and their pain.''

That pain can be associated with anything from the illness and death of a spouse to a divorce.

An 87-year-old Longwood woman who always prided herself on being self-sufficient, was stretched to the limit while caring for her terminally ill husband in 1996.

``I needed somebody,'' said the woman, who asked not to be identified.

Because she could not leave her husband to attend services at Wekiva Presbyterian, an associate minister recommended the Stephen Ministry.

`It was wonderful to have someone come in once a week,'' she said. ``We talked about everything. It gave me a chance to open up my feelings of depression.''

The sessions, which usually began with a 15-20-minute prayer, continued for three months after her husband's death, including a period when the woman suffered a broken ankle.

`My Stephen minister saw me through all those things,'' she said. ``We became very good friends.''

Another member of the congregation, a man in his 30s, had a similar experience with a Stephen minister while he was going through a divorce.

Though he already was seeing a family therapist at work, the man agreed to see a divorced male lay minister, which proved to be beneficial.

``The Stephen minister was in many respects more effective, because the issues that a Christian goes through in a divorce or any crisis tend to be be more God-centered,'' he said.

The two met for about five months, the man said. More than two years later, they are still friends.

Not all churches make religion a central feature of their ministries.

``We don't open with a prayer, and we don't come from a biblical perspective,'' said Susan Sunka of the Parent Resource Center, a nonprofit Orlando organization that provides leaders for small church groups in the area.

Some churches offer this type of counseling as an outreach to the general community, Sunka said, deciding that a religious approach might stop some people from joining.

Megachurches with large staffs, such as Northland Community in Longwood, Calvary Assembly in Winter Park, First Baptist of Orlando and St. Luke's United Methodist Church in Windemere, have scores of specialized ministries. But the principle is applicable in smaller churches as well.

``We've not always had paid clergy, so ministers have had to work'' in secular jobs, giving others the opportunity to serve, said the Rev. Jeffrey Oglesby of the 187-member Ebenezer United Methodist Church in Orlando. ``In the African American community, there's been a sense of the church as family, the family of God. In that context, it's very easy for members of the church to share with other members.''

In fact, John Vaughn, editor of Church Growth Today in Bolivar, Mo., said that because Christian church members far outnumber clergy, ``laymen in general do more ministry by accident than any single pastor could do on purpose.''

Copyright 1998, Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.
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