WESTMINSTER - The Shepherd's Staff, a cooperative ministry of Westminster area churches, will try to keep the wolves away from the door of the needy and those suffering a crisis in their lives, beginning next year.
The group will join other social ministry outlets around the county, such as the Northeast Social Action Program in Manchester/Hampstead, Caring and Sharing in Taneytown and the Enabling Social and Church Advocacy for People Enrichment program in Sykesville.
"There's really a pressing need in the community, so we said, 'Let's not drag our feet,' and our goal is to have it off the ground by January," said the Rev. Chris A. Wood of Westminster United Methodist Church.
Actually, the idea for a central ministry had been discussed for several years, but it took a challenge from the Rev. Michael Simmons to his church, St. Paul's United Church of Christ, to get proceedings started last spring.
"My colleagues and I had been discussing better ways of responding to crisis needs in the community and I challenged our congregation to start it," Simmons explained.
St. Paul's played host to the group's first meeting in May of about 40 clergy and lay people from eight churches, plus the Human Services Programs of Carroll County Inc. and city and county government officials.
Pleased with the initial response to the idea, the group immediately scheduled monthly meetings, decided upon a name and began incorporation proceedings.
At this point, the Shepherd's Staff is incorporated, has filed for tax-exempt status, appointed a steering committee to write its bylaws and raised money for its first year's working budget from the involved churches.
The next major step is to appoint a minister to coordinate the program from a central office, to be housed in space donated by HSP.
"The title 'minister' was chosen purposely because this is a ministry, not just another social service program, and we want to minister to the people's needs -- their emotional and social well-being, as well as the physical needs," Wood said.
As the one paid representative of the group, the minister, who may or may not be an ordained clergyman, will provide direct services to those in need, manage the day-to-day operations of the Shepherd's Staff office and train and coordinate volunteers and their activities.
Like other similar groups in the county, the Shepherd's Staff will try to "be there to pick up the people who fall through the cracks (of government social services programs)," Wood said.
But the organization also will be a coordinated effort on the part of the churches to respond to a need they see daily.
"What we're responding to is the needs of the people who are coming to our church, and the rest of the churches are seeing the same thing," Wood said. "We see at least one a day, sometimes more."
Additionally, the Shepherd's Staff will be there whenever a crisis occurs.
"We're hoping to be more efficient and more available, because crises don't happen only Monday through Friday 9 to 5," Simmons noted.
"People have needs every day and every night. I don't know how many times I've had people waiting out in the lounge for me to finish a Sunday sermon," he added.
To keep from duplicating services, the Shepherd's Staff will work closely with other social ministries who have offered their help, as well as HSP and the Department of Social Services.
"We will depend a lot on HSP and DSS for our initial referrals," Simmons said. "We will get some people direct at first, I'm sure, but HSP can help us in our screening process, and I've seen how they handle people in a very caring way."
Eventually, once the group gets started, they hope to set up a centralized record-keeping system so they will know who has been where for help before coming to the Shepherd's Staff.
Recruiting volunteers will be another challenge.
"One of my dreams is to develop a corps of volunteers to adopt a family or someone in need," Simmons said. "A lot of people we deal with have chronic crises -- one thing after another -- and they have limited coping skills and you don't resolve a problem by paying a bill or two."
Wood added that in that area "there's all kinds of possibilities once we get under way. There are so many human resources within the churches that are not being tapped."
Such an organization, of course, will take money. The churches have responded by having fund-raisers to establish an operating budget, which Shepherd's Staff leaders have estimated at $50,000 for the first year.
But much remains to be done. Besides St. Paul's UCC and Westminster UMC, the following churches are involved in the Shepherd's Staff: Grace Lutheran, St. John Roman Catholic, Westminster Church of the Brethren, St.
Benjamin's Lutheran, St. Paul's UMC, First Assembly of God, Westminster Church of Christ and Ascension Episcopal.
More churches are always welcome, as well as laity, government and other social and service organizations.
*For more information or to offer help to the Shepherd's Staff, call Wood at church, 848-8325, or Simmons at church, 848-5975.