"The First Stephen Minister"
Acts 6:1-15; 7:54-8:4
Sermon Preached by Jill Getty
December 30, 2012
Well, if you thought the early church was perfect and homogenous with a plan already made to take care of every situation. Think again.
In these verses in Acts, we learn that the early church was made up of a very diverse group of people - Aramaic - speaking Jews who converted to Christianity; Greek - speaking Jews who converted to Christianity - probably at Pentecost and came from various countries; Greek-speaking Gentiles who had converted from polytheism to Christianity. They were divided by language barriers, cultural differences, religious differences; ethnic differences; and variations in the way they had viewed their original faith as Jews. The early Christian church in Jerusalem was a church of thousands. Acts tells us that on the day of Pentecost alone they had 3000 Jews convert to believe in Jesus as the Messiah and that number grew every day.1 If only church growth could happen that magnificently today - we would not have to worry about any church dying.
Growing the church took a lot of continuous effort on the part of the Twelve Apostles. The twelve preached and taught about Jesus every day in Jerusalem - at the Temple, in homes and on the streets. They were doing exactly what Jesus had told them to do - which was to preach the good news of Jesus' love and forgiveness first in Jerusalem and then to the ends of the earth.2 Many who believed may have been cut off from their families and been seen as radicals of some cult. Acts tells us that they shared everything in common so that no one went without what they truly needed in terms of food, clothing, and shelter.
"In the Jewish synagogues there was a routine custom. Collectors went around the market and the private houses every Friday morning and made a collection for the needy, partly in money and partly in goods. Later in the day this was distributed. Those who were temporarily in need received enough to enable them to carry on; and those who were permanently unable to support themselves received enough for fourteen meals, that is, enough for two meals a day for the ensuing week."3 "It is obvious from our story today that the Jewish-Christian church had taken over this practice of the Jewish synagogues to help the needy."4
But an internal problem had developed with how the food for the needy widows was distributed. The Greek speaking widows were not getting their fair share of the food distribution and the Aramaic widows were getting more than their fair share. We are not sure why this problem occurred or who caused it - maybe it was due to language barriers or accidental oversight, cultural variations or just downright discrimination. What we do know is that it was a big problem because the apostles were asked to intervene.
The problem for the apostles was that they did not have enough time to preach, teach, and solve the food distribution problem. They had their hands full of doing the ministry of word and sacrament to the very prolific and growing church. They did not have time for social gospel problems. So they told the church members to pick seven people to handle the problem.
Somehow the members of this early church containing thousands of people were able to come to agreement and picked 7 people. The Seven were all Greek speaking Jewish Christians except one who was a Greek Gentile.
The Apostles gave the congregation three key qualities to look for in picking these seven people:
The Apostles laid hands on the seven and ordained them for this enormous task. Imagine how big the issue was to need seven wise administrators to handle it so that all the widows were treated fairly and were equally taken care of. For the widowed women at this time - this assistance from the church would probably have been the only assistance they would get, so it was crucial to their survival. It was also crucial that the early church do this right for the sake of its own internal peace and reconciliation among all members.
Now we mentioned that Stephen was one of these Seven. The Bible further illuminates his lifestyle by saying that he was full of grace, full of power, full of the Holy Spirit, full of faith, and did great wonders and signs among the people. He was also a bold and insightful preacher.
The modern day Stephen Ministry Program is named after this Stephen in Acts who was "the first lay person commissioned by the Apostles to provide caring ministry to those in need" and who also became the first martyr of the Christian Church.5
The modern day "Stephen Ministry program began in 1975 by Rev. Kenneth Haugk, a pastor and clinical psychologist. He said that when he was fresh out of seminary and graduate school in clinical psychology, he had high hopes for providing pastoral care to people in his congregation and community. He felt called to pastoral ministry - to bring Christ's love to hurting people." But Haugk said that reality quickly set in. "There were so many needs and only one of him. He had only so many hours in a day and a church full of needs and people. So he applied the verse from Ephesians that says "equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ." Thus, Stephen Ministry was born. Haugk's now deceased wife, Joan, helped him, co-found the organization. They trained nine lay caregivers to be Stephen Ministers in their first class."6
"Haugk realized that he could not do it all by himself as a minister, nor was he supposed to. He came to understand that part of being a minister was equipping and empowering church members to do the work of the church. He saw that church members wanted something meaningful to do and that people who needed care needed more than a couple of visits from a staff person, they needed someone who would listen to them weekly."7
He also realized that this was a ministry that churches in all denominations could benefit from. So he began a Stephen Leaders' program to equip people from other churches and denominations to train people in their congregations to be Stephen Ministers. Stephen Ministry is now a national ministry with its headquarters located in Saint Louis, Missouri.
The Stephen Ministry Program at Westminster was started by our beloved retired minister, Rev. Jim Bennett over two decades ago.
"Today, more than 11,000 congregations are enrolled in the Stephen Series. They represent more than 160 different Christian denominations and come from all 50 states, 10 Canadian provinces, and 24 other countries. More than 60,000 pastors, church staff, and laypeople have been trained as Stephen Leaders. These Stephen Leaders have, in turn, trained more than 500,000 congregation members to be Stephen Ministers. Since 1975 Stephen Ministers have provided distinctively Christian care to more than a million people in one-to-one Stephen Ministry caring relationships and have also used their caregiving skills to touch the lives of millions of others in informal ways."8
"Stephen Ministers assist in providing Christian care and support to people in the congregation and community who are experiencing life difficulties - like grief, loss of a job, loss of a spouse through separation or divorce, death of a loved one, terminal illness and other crisis."9
"Stephen Ministers are trained and learn to help care receivers to express their feelings; to listen without judging; and they learn how to bring faith and the Bible into the conversation."10 "They are not counselors and they are not therapists. Basically they are proactive listeners"11 "whose role is to listen and care-not counsel or advise."12 "Stephen Ministers also encourage, support, love and pray for those they work with."13
Imagine the listening that Stephen in Acts had to do as he heard the woes of the widows who had almost nothing due to the death of their spouses and the dire circumstances they were left in.
One Stephen Minister expressed in an interview with PBS that he "used to rely on himself; but through Stephen Ministry he learned that he was a caregiver and God was the cure-giver. He said he recognized God in his life a lot more than he had in the past and that was due to his Stephen Ministry experience. He said he could see God working in his care receiver and working in him too."14 Stephen Ministry helped him open himself to God.
In her article, "Three Times Blessed," located on the Stephen Ministry Website, Laura Wasson Warfel shares an article about Joseph Little. She wrote:
One day Joseph Little found himself wandering the streets of Houston alone, no longer employed, his marriage crumbling, searching for a place to live. A few weeks earlier he had moved to Houston with his family. "I had been a partner in a law firm, and I gave up my law practice to move back to my wife's hometown and work for her family's company," Joe said. "Shortly thereafter, I got served with divorce papers." "So I found myself in a new city where I knew practically no one. No job. No wife. No kids, at least temporarily. It was a great personal crisis." In his wanderings he caught sight of the steeple of First Presbyterian Church, where he had been married. He approached the associate pastor, who soon provided a Stephen Minister. For 18 months Joe's Stephen Minister cared for him as he weathered the divorce and began rebuilding his life. In early 2005, Joe took Stephen Ministry training himself. "Being a Stephen Minister has changed my life completely," he said. "It has given me skills that I use as a parent of two sons, in my personal relationships, and in my career as an attorney. I listen to people differently than I did before. It has changed every aspect of my life. I empathize so well with what people are going through because I have been a care receiver."15
I received an email this week from the National Stephen Ministry organization updating us on what Stephen Ministers are doing to help the people of Newtown, Connecticut where the horrible killing of school children and teachers occurred. The email said:
Two Stephen Ministry congregations are located right there in Newtown, with more than two dozen additional Stephen Ministry congregations within a 25-mile radius. The National Stephen Ministry organization has been communicating with Stephen Leaders from a number of those congregations. These congregations are coordinating efforts to make Stephen Ministers available to those in need. One of the congregations has even opened its sanctuary to the community twelve hours a day, with Stephen Ministers taking three-hour shifts to be available to anyone who comes by.16
Right now, we are re-emphasizing our Stephen Ministry program. One of our goals at some point in 2013 will be to train new people to be Stephen Ministers.
Maybe some of you will feel the call to join. May be some of you have wanted to become part of a life changing experience or find a new closeness with God. Stephen Ministry has a way of opening our hearts to God and to other people. Many Stephen Ministers report that the training not only helps them become a Stephen Minister but it helps them to learn to listen to a whole variety of people - to open their hearts and ears to really hear what others are saying - including spouses and family members.
I believe that St. Stephen in our Bible text today lived out "incarnational theology." In other words, he became the hands and feet and voice of Jesus Christ in his world to minister to hurting and hungry people.17 He even demonstrated this at the tragic end of his life - as he was falsely accused and then stoned to death, he prayed as he was dying just as Jesus prayed on the cross, "Lord, do not hold this sin against them." The unjust end to Stephen's life was the start of a horrible persecution of the early church that caused the early believers in Christ to be scattered throughout their world, but even here the Holy Spirit was at work and everywhere they went, they told the good news of Jesus Christ's love and forgiveness.
The First Stephen Minister sought to bring justice, healing, caring, and the truth about Christ to his world.
Is God leading you into a healing ministry?
Is God leading you to train your ears to hear the pain of others?
I pray that some of you will sense God's leading you to Stephen Ministry.
We take your confidentiality seriously. Please know that only the Prayer Ministry Team receives this information.
We take your confidentiality seriously. Please know that only a pastor receives this information.