Sister Care Expands to [Compassion] Care in Portland

Men join women for seminar

Published: February 14th, 2012, by: Annette Brill Bergstresser of Mennonite Church USA.

By Joan Kropf

Some came because their wives wanted them to, others because they are in leadership positions and their congregations encouraged them to. But the underlying reason men participated in a [Compassion] Care seminar for the first time was the same reason women have been coming to Sister Care: to be better equipped for caring ministry.

So the harmony was four-part for the Jan. 20-21 seminar in Portland, Ore., with men adding their voices to the hymns and their insights to the discussions.

Participants at co-ed Member Care at Portland (Ore.) Mennonite Church. (Photo by Cathy Passmore)

“In every Sister Care I have led, invariably the question comes up, ‘What about the men?’” said Rhoda Keener, co-executive director of Mennonite Women USA. “It’s unusual that we opened this to men as our ministry is by and for women, but we had a direct invitation from Portland Mennonite Church. Most of the material is equally relevant to men because it calls everyone to personal growth, and we start with caring for ourselves, and using our own life story for understanding how God intervenes in lives to bring healing.”

The 78 participants, including 24 men, came from five churches. As John Gingerich of Zion Mennonite said, “I came because I care about the people in our congregation. All of this information is useful. Everything is for us all.”

His nephew, David Gingerich, is a new member of the Zion leadership team. He added with a smile, “My wife decided that of the two of us, it was me who had more to learn. She’s home with the kids.”
Pastor Rod Stafford of Portland Mennonite said he’d heard women talk about the practical things they learned at Sister Care. “A pastor can’t keep up with all the needs. I’m really interested in the church community learning these skills … and learning how to tell our stories in a redeeming way,” he said.

Keener, whose background is in teaching and mental health counseling, lives in Shippensburg, Pa. Her seminar co-leader, Carolyn Heggen, of Corvallis, Ore., is a psychotherapist and author who specializes in trauma recovery. They have led Sister Care seminars around the country and plan to take the program to India and Nepal this fall. The seminars are a ministry of Mennonite Women USA. More than 1,100 women have attended.

Heggen began the seminar by saying, “Because the seminar and written materials were designed for women, the manual uses feminine pronouns. While we will try to be inclusive in our speaking, I encourage you to use this opportunity to experience the exclusion that women have often faced when reading the Bible, singing hymns and hearing the spoken word. May this be an opportunity for you to grow in compassion and sensitivity.”

The leaders used Scripture, storytelling, small-group discussions and personal exercises to help participants explore four concepts: claiming our identity as God’s beloved, caring for self and others, the healing power of compassionate listening, and transforming loss and grief.

One of Keener’s personal stories seemed to touch on all four themes. In a seminary class exercise called “Naming Lies and Telling the Truth,” she volunteered to be the first to name a lie that had afflicted her life—that because she was female, she was not an equal in the church. After hearing her story, many of the other 20 students came to her one by one and told her a truth, followed by the class responding, “This is the truth.” A church leader told her, “You are my equal.” Another classmate said, “Even in your mother’s womb, you were created as a beautiful whole person. The person God made you to be.” Keener went home and wrote down each person’s words. “That exercise was pivotal in my healing,” she said. “That class became the church for me that day.”

That experience began with her willingness to be vulnerable. As Stephen Obold-Eshleman of Portland said during a break, “We often think of vulnerability as a weakness, but being able to show it really is a strength.”

Practical suggestions applied to both genders—for example, on finding balance in our lives. Heggen proposed that in our culture of righteous busy-ness, “No” can be a spiritual word. “We wear our exhaustion like a badge of honor and spirituality,” she said. “Finding balance doesn’t necessarily mean adding more things. It may mean eliminating some.”

The leaders also offered ideas for setting boundaries, enlarging the circle of care with community resources, and taking care of our physical, emotional and spiritual selves. They reminded their listeners that Jesus said, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” not “Love your neighbor and ignore your own needs.” “It’s not ‘selfish navel-gazing’ to examine our life’s story to look for places still in need of healing and to identify those times when God has touched us with mercy and grace,” Heggen said. “It’s dangerous to attempt to help others when we are ignoring our own unhealed wounds.”

Some memorable points were made with humor. Using volunteer helper Nancy Friesen, Keener gave a demonstration in listening—how not to, that is. Chuckles circulated through the room as Keener interrupted her friend, interjected her own stories, glanced at her watch and took a call on her cell phone.

The section on loss and grief began with 10 examples of different kinds of losses suffered by biblical characters. The participant who reported on 1 Samuel 1:1-8 noted that Hannah grieved her barrenness and that her husband Elkanah also grieved for her. Keener thanked the male respondent, saying, “We’ve never had that comment before, seeing it from the husband’s point of view.”

To show the power of helping someone reframe a painful story, Heggen told about a boy named Kumar whom she met in a refugee camp after the tsunami struck the Andaman Islands. Charged with caring for his partially paralyzed grandfather, he was out buying bread when the wave struck. When he recounted his terror amid the chaos and his inability to save his grandfather, he always said, “I’m a bad boy. I didn’t save my grandfather, and that was my job!” After hearing the same words three different times, she stopped him at that point in the story and said, “Kumar, I am just amazed. There you were in that dangerous place, afraid you were going to die, and you were thinking about someone else. You are an amazing boy!” The next time Heggen asked him to tell the story to a visitor, he didn’t say he was a bad boy but added with a smile on his face “ … and even though I thought I was going to die, I was looking for my grandpa.”

The final exercise of the seminar was to divide into groups by congregation and discuss ways to follow up. Ideas from around the country have included a one-night event for widows, a support circle for pastors’ wives, a seminar extension using the manual for further study, and offering opportunities for people to tell their stories.

A ritual of anointing with water—first, one’s own cheeks to symbolize our own brokenness and then the face or hands of a partner to symbolize Jesus’ healing, living water—concluded the seminar.

“This special invitation to welcome men into the seminar was a very good experience,” Keener said. “Any future [Compassion] Care seminars will need to be discerned by our board. We are aware that both women and men want to be empowered to better care for others in their congregations and communities.”

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