Stephen Ministers a comfort at Desert Foothills UM Church

The Stephens at Desert Foothills United Methodist Church include, from left, Maureen Kartchner, Dave Gould and Deb Browning. They are talking with Pastor Kristin Hansen.

Divorce. Separation. Loss of a loved one through death or estrangement. Job loss or inability to find employment. Illness. Loneliness. Discouragement.

Too often, soldiering through alone is often the path people chose, but Ahwatukee residents suffering any of these maladies of life have local laypeople, called “Stephen Ministers,” who are willing – and trained – to help them. 

The Stephen Ministry is a nonprofit interdenominational Christian educational organization founded in 1975 that is available not only in Ahwatukee, but every state, Canada and 30 other countries. More than 170 different denominations are represented in their numbers.

The ministry is named after Stephen, one of seven laypeople selected by Christ’s apostles in the Book of Acts, to help look after the needy in the nascent church, specifically the widows. 

He is also venerated as the first Christian martyr, falsely accused of “blasphemous words against Moses and God” and stoned to death.

In Ahwatukee, Stephen Ministry is an outreach of the Desert Foothills United Methodist Church. 

Pastor Kristin Hansen explained their Stephen Ministry consists of caregivers who are congregants that underwent “extensive training to provide high-quality Christian care to individuals concerned about a life situation.” 

Desert Foothills United Methodist Church member Maureen Kartchner is a Stephen Leader. 

Stephen Leaders, in addition to their Stephen Minister training, have undertaken further training and are equipped to train other Stephen Ministers.

More than 75,000 pastors, church staff and lay leaders have been trained as Stephen Leaders, according to StephenMinistries.org.

“This is a non-professional and confidential ministry offered to our congregation and the community,” explained Kartchner, a 27-year Ahwatukee resident and Desert Foothills United Methodist Church member for 19 years. 

“People receiving this support are matched with a Stephen Minister of the same gender. The identity of those receiving care, and everything they discuss with the Stephen Minister, remains private,” she explained.

Kartchner has been a Stephen Minister for nine years, and a Stephen Leader the last seven years. 

“Stephen Ministry sounded like something I’d be good at, but there was much to consider, including the long-term commitment. You go through 50 hours of training and agree to two more years of twice-monthly supervision and continuing education,” said Kartchner, who taught for the University of Arizona. “I decided to apply and was accepted.”

Her training included the admonition to listen and support – but not act as therapists. “My first care receiver is the one I remember best. I had the training, we’d role-played situations, we’d had discussions about what to do, but with the exception of remembering to say a prayer, I seemed to have forgotten everything. Expectations are high and real life isn’t the same as reading it in a book,” she said, adding:

 “So, what I did was smile, hold out my hand to shake hers and said my name. She did the same. We made small talk and said a prayer and made arrangements to meet again in a week. It takes a while to build up trust in a relationship, and so did this one.”

Being a good listener is paramount to serving.

“Listening is the most important thing you can do in a relationship. You never tell a care receiver what to do – unless there is some kind of danger. Reflective listening helps you to help her understand what she’s feeling, and let her come up with her own solutions,” said Kartchner. 

“Eventually, we got to the place of trust and she told me what was on her mind. We met for about a year, and at that time she was in a good place having resolved her original concerns, and a few more. Even though our Stephen Ministry relationship is over, we remain friends to this day.”

Patricia Lawlis, a 27-year Ahwatukee resident who gave permission for her name to be used in this article, described how an unexpected estrangement with an adult child had her seek out Stephen Ministry.

“As with most estrangement stories, it’s very complicated, but I don’t think the details will help much here,” Lawlis said. 

“The important thing is that I was devastated. I suffered with my own thoughts for a couple of weeks, going through most of the emotions common to estrangement, including anger, guilt, and depression. I also suffered from lack of sleep. 

“I tend to be a positive person, so I wouldn’t allow myself to stay down,” Lawlis continued. “I had to fight my negative thoughts. Fortunately, I was aware of what the Stephen Ministry does. I attend DFUMC regularly, so I was also aware of their many wonderful members who were Stephen Ministers.”

She contacted a friend who was a Stephen Minister, and asked for help.

“She connected me with another Stephen Minister who became my personal minister. At first, we met for lunch once a week. It was a very pleasant setting, and we were able to have enough privacy for me to feel comfortable opening up. The Stephen Minister is very well trained to ask just the right questions to get one to talk about their problem,” Lawlis said.

“My minister was very empathetic and concerned, but she did not intrude. She basically just let me talk and gave me the opportunity to work through things for myself.”

Lawlis said they eventually went to meeting every two weeks, then once a month. “She took her cues from me and encouraged me as I went through the healing process,” she added.

The mother admitted she’s not “totally healed” because her child remains estranged, but she’s coping better and was prompted to start a support group.

“I’m at peace with myself,” Lawlis said. “I’ve taken several positive steps in my healing process. One is to read extensively on the topic of estrangement to better understand the phenomenon.”

The other step was starting a discussion group on estrangement at the church.

“As I learned more about estrangement, I came to understand it is very common,” Lawlis said. “Most of us suffer in silence, but we could all cope better if we shared our stories. So now many of us do. Our group is called Living Loss and we’re open to the community.” 

The group meets at 7 p.m. the first Tuesday of every month at the church, 2156 E. Liberty Lane, Ahwatukee. People are asked to use Entry B to attend the free session. Information: 480-460-1025 and office@desertfoothills.org.

Kartchner said there wouldn’t have been a Stephen Minister at Desert Foothills United Methodist had it not been for church member Deb Browning, who’d been involved with the ministry while living in Colorado Springs.

However, launching it in Ahwatukee was a result of a personal tragedy.

“In 2006 I received the phone call no parent wants, informing me my son had passed away,” Browning said. “It challenged my faith and ability to find meaning on a daily basis was beyond my capacity. 

“We established a fund in his honor through Arizona Community Foundation which donates money to nonprofit organizations. That helped somewhat, but I still felt I needed to do something, to bring more kindness to hurting people, like myself,” added Browning, a Phoenix native who moved to Ahwatukee in 1995.

As a Stephen Minister in Colorado Springs, Browning recalled how she “saw firsthand how a supportive, non-judgmental Christian listener could make all the difference to someone who needed it.”

So, in 2009, Browning approached the pastor, the Rev. Dr. Jenny Smith, who suggested she speak with longtime member Betty Knoche, who had been a Stephen Leader at Central United Methodist Church prior to moving to Desert Foothills.

In 2009, the trained Stephen Leaders organized the inaugural Stephen Ministers training at their church.

Desert Foothills United Methodist Church, located at 2156 E. Liberty Lane, has three Stephen Leaders – Kartchner, Browning and Dave Gould.

Active Stephen Ministers are Larry Anderson, Paul Browning, Karen Colbourn, Jane Dodge, Deb Dusseau, Terry Gefriedes, Bev Jones and Gina VanderPloeg.

Although there are other churches in the East Valley offering the Stephen Ministry, Desert Foothills United Methodist, founded 26 years ago, is the only one in Ahwatukee, according to Stephen Ministries headquarters in St. Louis.

“For me, Stephen Ministry has been a calling. I know this is the work God wants me to do,” said Kartchner. 

She encouraged anyone who felt they could benefit from the care of a Stephen Minister, and want to have a confidential conversation about that care, to phone her at 480-747-5463, the church at 480-460-1025, or send a confidential email to stephenministry@desertfoothills.org.

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