Caring and Connection – Stephen Ministry in NWPA

Have you ever had a time when a book quote or song lyric came into your life at just the right moment to teach you something invaluable? I recently read The Gifts of Imperfection by Brené Brown, the author/research professor whose work on vulnerability we explored at the last diocesan convention, and there were several times when I stopped mid-paragraph to take notes. “THIS! This is ABSOLUTELY true for me!” may have popped out of my mouth more than once. (Aside: If you have a chance to pick up ANY of Dr. Brown’s books, it’s well worth your time. If you’re short on time, though, Youtube has several clips of her talks as well that are worth exploring.) 

There are several sections throughout the book that I’m adding to my “personality traits to work on” list, but one quote in particular caught my eye in relation to an interview I had with Robin Murray of St. John’s, Franklin: 

“One of the greatest barriers to connection is the cultural importance we place on “going it alone.” Somehow we’ve come to equate success with not needing anyone. Many of us are willing to extend a helping hand, but we’re very reluctant to reach out for help when we need it ourselves. It’s as if we’ve divided the world into “those who offer help” and “those who need help.” The truth is that we are both.”    ― Brené Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are

It particularly struck a chord because Robin and I were discussing Stephen Ministry – a one to one lay caring ministry that is based on creating connections between people who are currently hurting and those who have experienced similar situations.

From the official Stephen Ministries website:  “Stephen Ministry is the one-to-one lay caring ministry that takes place in congregations that use the Stephen Series system. Stephen Ministry congregations equip and empower lay caregivers—called Stephen Ministers—to provide high-quality, confidential, Christ-centered care to people who are hurting.”  Stephen Ministers are not counselors, but they are laypeople trained to be caring, non-judgmental, confidential listeners for those in need due to job loss, divorce, grief, chronic illness, or just going through a difficult time.

The program began in 1975 when Lutheran pastor Dr. Kenneth Haugk trained nine members of his congregation to assist with pastoral care as ‘lay listeners’. Stephen Ministry has since expanded to include over 12,000 Christian congregations around the U.S. and abroad, including the Stephen Ministry program at St. John’s, Franklin.

The group at St. John’s began their journey in 2012. The Rev. Holly Davis had initially mentioned the ministry to Robin Murray, who already had a leaning toward pastoral care (“I was convinced I was going to be a deacon!”), and told her that it was about matching people up that have similar problems. Robin’s response? “Well, I can do that!” Robin then looked into attending a free seminar about the ministry in Butler with the Rev. Ed Lowrey, Mother Holly and Linda Trikur from St. John’s, and, after Mother Holly spoke to Bishop Sean about the program, they applied for leader training in Pittsburgh. Within three months enough people in the congregation had shown interest that they began training their first group of Stephen Ministers – twice a week meetings for the next four months.

While Stephen Ministers are well trained to be lay listeners and caregivers, the thing that really strikes me about the ministry is connection. People who might normally try to “go it alone” are put in touch with people who have been in a similar place, so they can share their feelings openly and be understood on a deeper level than with someone who hasn’t experienced similar hurts. To paraphrase Brené from the quote above, we can both need help and offer help, and this ministry encompasses both sides.  I come from a family where it’s strongly encouraged NOT to talk about problems. Over time that approach becomes very isolating, and you assume that no one else has gone through what you have – you’re alone. Stephen Ministry, by pairing you with someone who’s already ‘been there, done that’, gives a feeling of deep connection to those who may well feel like they’re alone in their pain. 

Care receivers (those who need help) have different avenues available to get in touch with a Stephen Minister. They can contact the church directly, or they may be referred by a friend, family member, or a service professional. Robin has said that the Visiting Nurses Association has occasionally contacted the Stephen Ministry group on behalf of a client who has expressed interest in the program. After the initial contact is made with the church or one of the Stephen Leaders, a representative meets with the person and explains what Stephen Ministry is and is not (a caring ear, not a maid/personal shopper/etc). They are then matched with a Stephen Minister within a few days.  Meetings are usually once a week for about an hour, either in person or on the phone (though Robin says in one instance they have a care receiver who likes to stay in contact via email with their Stephen Minister when the person is away over the winter months). People are paired women to women, men to men, with similar problems if at all possible, and care receivers must be over age 21 to be put in touch with a St. John’s Stephen minister.

One example of how this works involves Robin’s best friend, who lost her son when he was 21 – just a few months before Robin went through Stephen Ministry training. Initially the woman refused to speak to anyone about what had happened, but during a later visit Robin asked if her friend would be interested in speaking with a Stephen Minister. Her friend agreed, and Robin placed a call on a Tuesday to locate a Stephen Minister. Within two days someone was in touch with her friend, and for the first time since her son’s death she was able to discuss the issue. 

While St. John’s is currently the only congregation in the diocese with trained Stephen Ministers, Robin would like everyone to know that if there is someone in need outside the greater Franklin area, the St. John’s group can put them in touch with other, closer churches who also have a Stephen Ministry program. They network regularly with groups in Clarion, Grove City, and Meadville, and there are several non-Episcopal congregations in the Erie area that have Stephen Ministers available as well.

If Stephen Ministry is of interest to you or your church, either as a point of connection for people in need or for discerning whether a Stephen Ministry program has a place in your community, you are welcome to contact Robin Murray (  

We don’t have to do all of it alone. We were never meant to.
 Brené Brown, Rising Strong: The Reckoning. The Rumble. The Revolution

Megin Sewak is Assistant for Communications for the Diocese of NWPA. 

St. John’s and Grace – A Relationship in Christ

A long long time ago… well, at least thirty years ago, two congregations in Franklin decided to do something radical. They decided to prepare for Christmas and Easter together, spending the seasons of Advent and Lent having soup suppers and sharing the Word of God.

The radical part about this whole idea is that one congregation was Episcopalian, St. John’s, while the other congregation was Evangelical Lutheran, Grace. Way before the official agreement between the national Episcopal Church and the national Evangelical Lutheran Church on shared ministry, St. John’s and Grace in Franklin were sharing fellowship, bible study, and prayer.

Fast forward almost twenty years and that same shared ministry of soup suppers in Advent and Lent was still going on. However, one of the congregations had fallen into some difficult decisions in financial and facility matters. Yet, since the members of Grace Lutheran knew the congregation at St. John’s and were familiar with St. John’s Church, they had an option beyond closing. They decided to sell their building and rent space from St. John’s.

After another almost ten years, the relationship between St. John’s and Grace is still going strong. Not only do the congregations share Advent and Lent soup suppers, but now also Sunday School, Adult Formation, an annual Church Picnic, Coffee Hour, Vacation Bible School, and both congregations have members in the Grace Chapter of the Daughters of the King. Joint services are held regularly and almost all the high feast days are celebrated together.

Given this great relationship, the clergy, vestry, and council of St. John’s and Grace undertook this past year to put together a document entitled the Shared Ministry Agreement. The Agreement outlines the relationship and shared ministry of the two congregations, while presenting some new ideas to help both congregations move into the future.

All this culminated in a great celebration this past December. On Sunday December 17th, 2017, Bishop Sean Rowe and Bishop Ralph Jones joined the congregations of Grace and St. John’s in a special Eucharist which included the signing of the Shared Ministry Agreement, confirmation, and the Blessing of the new Elevator Lift in the Parish Hall. Both the Vestry and the Council stood before the bishops and committed the churches to the development and partnering of this relationship.

While we can all thank the Holy Spirit for its work in bringing together the congregations of St. John’s and Grace over the years, the members of both congregations state that the real reasons the relationship has withstood the testing of time and troubles is that we have become one community. The members proclaim, “We are better together,” “We like working together, we like being in community together.” Being a part of Christ’s one Body means working together even when we are different. We strive to live this out as one community made up of Episcopalians and Lutherans in Franklin.

No longer is either congregation defensive about which ministry is whose or how they fit together. The reality of the situation is that neither Grace nor St. John’s would be able to follow through on the mission of the church in Franklin without the other. However, together, we are able to follow God’s calling to us in Franklin.

The Rev. Elizabeth Yale is Priest-in-Charge of St. John’s Church, Franklin. 

Congratulations, Rev. Mark Elliston!

The Diocese of NWPA is pleased to welcome our newest priest -the Rev. Mark Elliston! The service of ordination was held on Saturday, December 16 at Christ Church, Oil City.

Please keep Rev. Elliston and the Christ Church community in your prayers as they continue their journey together.

Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’ And I said, ‘Here am I; send me!’  –Isaiah 6:8

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Advent ATM

O’Hare Airport, Chicago, Illinois, November 30.  I needed cash and took the right hand turn towards the BMO Harris ATM.  An older adult woman in a wheelchair with an attendant rested sideways to the ATM, wanting cash.  She had repeated trouble reaching and hitting the right suggestions on the screen.  Her assistant had his back turned, protecting her privacy.  When I arrived she was retrieving her first card due to an inaccurate pin number.  She had taken nearly three minutes to get to this point; impatience was showing around my edges.

She drew out a second credit card.  She repeated the routine.  I thought:  why don’t I step up to the ATM, interrupt them, handle my business, and move on to my gate, which by the way didn’t board for over an hour?  Her second card was rejected to her increasing despair.  She hung her head in frustration, sadness, and anxiety.  Over my shoulder a young couple rolled their eyes  in unison, indicating they thought this old lady was an intolerable pain.  They apparently didn’t need cash so desperately and moved on.  Not me.  I needed cash and this was the last ATM of my bank before the gate.

Frustration and impatience increased as she reached for a third card; painfully reached, her anxiety rising together with her confusion.  Her escort and I both now began to coach her in hopes that this time the card would work.  She lowered her requested amount from $40 to $20.  The screen noted she had exceeded her available credit.  She was crushed.  The young man’s face empathetically frowned.  I was frustrated.  Then the young man said quietly, yet loud enough for all to hear, “Don’t worry!  You don’t have to give me anything.  Really.  This is my job!”  All she wanted to do was give thanks to this young man for helping her through the airport from car to gate.  When the screen showed no funds her head drooped, her hands went to her lap, and a profound sadness enveloped her face.  They left the ATM and headed towards her gate.

Realizing my own shortsightedness, I quickly inserted my card, took my money, and headed to find them.  This shouldn’t be so hard, I thought, there aren’t that many people in wheelchairs. The hallway reached out with people shoulder to shoulder.  Looking left a twosome came into sight and I headed their way.  After weaving and dodging for 100 yards, there they were!  He was talking kindly to her as he pulled her over to wait.  I knelt down next to her;  “You want to help this young man for his kindness.  I saw you at the ATM.  Here’s some money for you to give him.”  I handed her $20.  “Oh, thank you honey!  You don’t know how much this means to me.”  “And to me as well!”  I thought: you’ll never know.  “Merry Christmas!”  With a smile on her face and a befuddled look on the young man’s, I turned towards my gate grateful, once again, for Advent and Jesus’ unusual and beautiful ways of showing up.

Happy Advent.

The Rev. Alvin Johnson is Canon for Congregational Vitality and Innovation for the Diocese of Northwestern Pennsylvania. 

Daughters of the King – Prayer, Service, Evangelism

The newly formed Martha Chapter of The Order of the Daughters of the King was instituted at Trinity Episcopal Church in New Castle on all Saints Day.  Kathy Paulo, Province III Daughters of the King Vice President, presented the charter to the Rev. Erin Betz Shank. Twelve Daughters of the King from the Diocese of Northwestern PA and the Diocese of Pittsburgh participated in the Services of Institution and Admission.  The three new daughters, Pamela Chill, Ashlie Sochor and Laura Betz, completed a three-month discernment period during which they participated in a twelve-part course of study.  Their final step was to take vows pledging to live a life of prayer, service and evangelism and to dedicate themselves to the spread of Christ’s Kingdom and the strengthening of the spiritual life of their parish.

Martha Chapter is the second chapter to be formed in the Diocese of Northwestern PA.  Grace Chapter at St John’s in Franklin was instituted in 2005.  The Rev. Sean Rowe, then rector of St. John’s, received the charter for the newly formed chapter and admitted six women to the Order.  Today the chapter has 24 members, including four women from the Grace Lutheran congregation which shares space at St. John’s.

The idea for the lay order was conceived in 1885 by a group of women in a NYC Sunday School class and has grown to include over 25,000 women and girls in the USA and more than 5,000 members in 21 other countries.  Though officially an Episcopal lay order, the Daughters of the King has embraced ecumenism by welcoming into its membership women from the ELCA, Roman Catholic, Moravian and Anglican Churches.

No chapter can do all things, but, following a Rule of Life, Daughters serve their clergy, parish and community whenever and wherever they can.  They take to heart their motto which ends with the words, “Lord, what would you have me do?”

You are encouraged to consider how a Daughters of the King Chapter could strengthen the spiritual life and outreach of your parish or mission.

Kathy Paulo is a member of St. John’s, Franklin. 

Courage & Collaboration – Bishops’ Addresses from Convention 2017

During the plenary session of the 107th Diocesan Convention we heard from both the Rt. Rev. William Franklin of the Diocese of Western New York and our own Bishop Sean as they discussed the potential collaborative relationship between our two dioceses. The full addresses are available below.

107th Diocesan Convention Wrap-Up

This year’s convention had it all: business, programming, guests from Western New York, some surprises, and even a little dancing (check out Facebook for that!).  The first surprise of the weekend came from the Standing Committee, who issued a proclamation at the start of business that this convention was being held in honor of the Rt. Rev. Sean Rowe’s tenth consecration anniversary.

Guests from the Diocese of Western New York, including the Rt. Rev. William Franklin, joined us for a day and half of programming led by the Rev. Canon Scott Slater, who guided the conversation on the possibility of a shared future using the Daring Way methodology of Brene Brown.  Many delegates remarked that they found the methodology useful in framing the conversation and enjoyed the time getting to know new people both from Western New York and our own diocese.

At the banquet, Paul and Lane Nelson, members of St. Mark’s in Erie, were honored with the Bishop’s Cross, which is given to those in the diocese who have contributed to the diocese over a significant number of years and in a variety of ways.  Also at the banquet, Bishop Sean was surprised with a video honoring his ten years as bishop, with contributions from people in the diocese, as well as outside the diocese including Presiding Bishop Michael Curry.

Elections were held for a variety of offices. The Rev. Jason Shank was newly elected to the Standing Committee, with Jack Malovich being re-elected to the lay seat on Standing Committee.  The Rev. Erin Betz Shank and Ed Palattella regained their seats on Diocesan Council and the Rev. Matthew Scott and Bob Guerrein regained theirs on the Constitution and Canons committee.

The 2018 budget and assessments, as well as the 2018 minimum stipends for clergy were passed as presented.

It was announced that convention next year will be held jointly with the Diocese of Western New York, regardless of any decisions made about a shared future.  Convention will be held October 26-27 at the Niagara Falls Convention Center in Niagara Falls, NY.

A huge thank you to our host committee of St. Mark’s, who did a fabulous job welcoming everyone to Erie and sharing a wonderful worship service with us.

All of the passed resolutions and materials from other presentations can be found on our website.

See you next year in Niagara Falls!

Resurrection Church Has A Home!

A lot has happened in the last few months! After much discernment and prayer, we as a launch team (in consultation with Bishop Sean and our Church Planting Coach Jim Griffith), decided that Resurrection Church would be planted in the former Church of the Redeemer building.  We felt that having a location would allow us to connect with the community and would give us a place to worship on a regular basis.  In order to get the building ready there was a lot of work we had to do.  We’ve spent the summer renovating the building and getting it ready for worship and to welcome new people into our new faith community.

Our hope and belief is that the creative and new things we are doing with the building will allow us to do new things, reach new people and give us our best chance to succeed.  We have spent the past year learning, praying and discerning what this new community of faith will be – the location was one of the unclear pieces of the puzzle.  We are grateful for the clarity we have received.

Here are some of the many things we have done so far: we installed a new parking lot, put up new vinyl siding, and re-painted the entrance and the large social hall.  We also took everything out of the sanctuary in order to install a new sound system, projector, new flooring and padded chairs, and installed a new sign out front.  Much of the work has already been completed, but there is more work to be done!  Look for more updates soon and please keep us in prayer as we continue the work of planting Resurrection Church-An Episcopal Congregation!

The Rev. Jason Shank is overseeing Resurrection Church, our church plant in Hermitage.