Ryan, I signed up to be a Stephen Minister when my church began to train for this lay ministry. I went through my training and was assigned to my first care receiver. The receiver was actually signed up by her son, who was overwhelmed trying to care for her, even though she did not live with him.
Several mistakes were made in this assignment. First, the care receiver was reluctant and pressured to enter the relationship. Second, she was also already diagnosed as bipolar and was under the care of a mental health professional she said was useless. All I was able to do was come alongside her and spend time with her once a week. Midway through my two-year assignment, the church dropped the program. Two of our caregivers had moved to another church, two others dropped out. That left me as the only active one with no more peer support.
Before churches take on such a program, I would recommend that they commit for at least one full two-year program. I made that commitment but the church didn’t keep its commitment to caregivers to continue to provide peer support. I still value the training, but I was unable to be effective as a lone wolf.
Churches who adopt this program should stick to its guidelines, one of which is not to assign known mentally ill patients to lay caregivers. Stephen ministers are intended to come alongside someone going through a temporary crisis, like a divorce or death in the family or terminal illness and support them through it. The ministry isn’t intended for permanent support for a mentally ill person by a layman.
My pastor did not have a list of resources that would have helped the person I was caring for, who was already under the care of a professional. Churches should actively be looking for such resources so they will be able to make an appropriate referral when called for. In all fairness, my church is small and my county has a dismal public mental health program. They can keep someone confined for treatment only three days — enough time to prescribe or adjust doses for medication.