Written by by Peter G. Sánchez
Twelve men — six permanent deacons and six deacon candidates in formation — recently completed their training in Stephen Ministry to prepare them to bring comfort to their grieving brothers and sisters.
Stephen Ministry, named after Saint Stephen, one of the first seven deacons, began in 1975 and is now a worldwide ministry aimed at providing compassionate care to those suffering a loss, and/or going through a rough time in their lives.
Since 2011, when the program was first brought to South Jersey, more than 150 individuals have been trained and certified as Stephen Ministers.
The deacons and fourth year candidates became part of this group on May 2 when, after a 20-week, 50-hour classroom course, they received their certificates here at the Diaconate Education Center.
The classes, which began in January, trained students in listening to those in need, or the “care receivers”; helping them deal with their grief; being assertive when helping care receivers in their journey; and other issues affecting them, such as an illness, relocation or death of a loved one.
Both deacon candidates in formation and seasoned clergymen found the training instrumental.
“This is one of the best courses I’ve taken” in formation, said Bill Brewer from Marmora’s Resurrection Parish.
“I’m learning how to be pastoral and present to those who I will work with,” he added, especially in “learning the difference between being assertive and aggressive,” in expressing thoughts to care receivers.
Deacon James Rocks from Saint Rose of Lima in Haddon Heights, has served 39 years as a permanent deacon ministering in parishes, and has taught in high school classrooms.
“I knew this course wouldn’t hurt; it’s going to help me deal better with people,” he said, adding that the lessons “reinforced and sharpened old skills and added new ones.”
Deacon Michael Carter, director of formation for the Diocese of Camden’s Office of the Diaconate, says the Stephen Ministry training will continue to be a vital part of diaconate formation for candidates and interested permanent deacons.
In addition to the pillars of intellectual and spiritual formation deacon candidates receive in such areas as Catholic morality, canon law and social teaching, the Stephen Ministry coursework is centered on their human and pastoral formation, all to foster compassionate caregiving throughout South Jersey. “The hope is to keep building and building this” to create caregivers who can bring their knowledge to their own communities; assisting care receivers, and passing what they know on to future Stephen ministers, Deacon Carter said.
Father Sanjai Devis, director of Stephen Ministry for the diocese, knows the impact the present and soon-to-be deacons promise to make. “In hospitals, marriage prep, in people’s grief — this program changes lives,” he said.