I have a friend who has been having a rough time of it recently. What is interesting to me is that we would not ordinarily be more than acquaintances, because we really don't have all that much in common. But she was having a crisis one day, and I was there. So I made use of my Peer Helper training, and we became friends. I've discovered that she does not have very many others to just listen to her. Her family members are not interested in providing emotional support. She has friends, but from what I gather, they are friends that you go out and have fun with, not ones who sit with you after a bad day.
It seemed like she had no one, except me, and I felt like an accident in the first place. Me, I don't have very many problems in my life, and I don't really talk about the ones I do have. But I know that if I wanted to, I have a long list of people I could call up. Which of us is the exception and who is the rule?
I found it amazing that something that was so simple for me to do was so helpful to her. I wondered how many other people are out there who need someone to listen to them. I tried to think of ways that I could do this for more people, like being a counselor but without having to get a degree. Maybe some kind of texting or instant messaging service? How could I find people who needed a shoulder and then volunteer to be that shoulder?
The answer was at church. Which sorta answered another question I had been noodling - where could I serve in the church? Josh joined everything that anyone asked him to, but I held back, waiting for something that was a better fit. I volunteered for the nursery a couple of times and hated it. I bake cookies once a month, which I like, but I wanted something a little more intensive.
Then I found out about Stephen Ministry, and it sounded exactly right.
Stephen Ministry is a nationwide program, active at 11,000 churches across the country. When a person is going through a difficult time, they ask for a Stephen Minister, who then visits with them weekly and just lets them talk. Okay, the Stephen Minister speaks a bit, too, but it's pretty funny how much of our training is about not talking. Most of what we say is meant to encourage the other person to talk more. We are encouraged to use open-ended questions and to never see a silence as awkward. During one class, one of my fellow trainees asked how long we should wait after a person finishes speaking before we say something. The response? "I don't think you can wait too long."
You can always tell a Stephen Minister. They're the ones sitting silently with a friendly expression and open body language.
Right now, I am just in training. I go to weekly classes that run through May, at which point I decide whether to commit at least two years to being a Stephen Minister. There are ten people in our class, mostly older women, but with one man and one eighteen-year-old young lady. Our church is not big enough to support its own program, so we share with local Presbyterian and Methodist churches. In the course of our classes, I expect to become close with my fellow trainees. Already, a couple of people have shared personal stories as they related to the material we were going through. Similar to my unexpected friendship, it feels sort of surreal to know how much will be shared between us, people who might not have much more in common than being interested in listening. Already I have shared things I wouldn't have otherwise. Not secrets, really, just regular daily stuff that I would have kept to myself ordinarily. It's a little scary.
The material so far is simple to understand, if challenging to always put into practice. Since I'm not yet a Stephen Minister, I don't have anyone assigned to me. But these are skills that can be applied to any relationship, and I'm frequently surprised at how relevant the information is to my daily life. I'm working on reading non-verbal communication and resisting the urge to respond to one thing when the other person wants to talk more about something else. It is hard, but now that I am aware of it, I can practice, and practice makes better.
I feel like this is the start of something new in my life, or maybe a continuation of what got started years ago in Peer Helpers. I am nervous and excited about where it will take me next.