This past October, CRC and RCA Disability Concerns worked with Hope Network, Pine Rest Christian Mental Health Services, and the Mental Health Foundation of West Michigan to bring together experts to share their knowledge, offer guidance, and give support to members in CRC and RCA churches who have been called to work with and support people living with mental-health challenges.

“At CRC and RCA Disability Concerns, we want to bring hope to churches that change can happen and [to emphasize] that we need to lean in to conversations on mental health,” explained Mark Stephenson, director of Disability Concerns for the Christian Reformed Church in North America, about the purpose of the conference.

“We want to equip our churches, our pastors, and our congregations with the tools to support people living with mental-health issues,” he said.

Over 75 people came together for the one-day conference, titled “Bearing Hope: Mental Health and the Church” and held at Hope Network Education Center in Grand Rapids, Mich.

Among them was Rev. Tim Holwerda, congregational care and outreach pastor at Friendship CRC in Byron Center, Mich. Holwerda explained that he is on the pastoral team for a congregation of almost 900 people. With a church of that size, he said, a structure needs to be in place to ensure connections are made and support is given where needed.

He was particularly impressed, he said, by the message given by Christy Buck, founder of Be Nice, a program that reaches into local schools to help students see how they can be part of the solution to mental-health issues related to bullying and youth suicide.

Buck has created a toolkit that can be brought to schools and churches to help them work with people living with mental-health issues. She uses the simple acronym NICE to serve as an easy reminder of the steps needed to make a positive impact on another person’s life – Notice, Invite, Challenge, and Empower.

Having listened to her conversation at the Bearing Hope conference, Holwerda said he now plans to have Christy speak to leaders in his church to better equip them to meet the needs of their congregation.

Another attendee at the conference was Freida Watson, a volunteer supporting the pastoral care team at Madison Square CRC in Grand Rapids, Mich., which is devoted to making this caring happen in their church and community.

Watson has served as a volunteer in local church communities for over 30 years in a variety of roles. Within all of those roles, she noted, “there is a need for training in the area of recognizing and supporting people living with mental-health challenges.”

One piece of information that stood out for her from the conference was the statistic that 1 in 5 people are living with a mental-health issue.

That number at first surprised Waton even though she has lived and worked in church communities for over 30 years, but she agrees that it runs true. She explained, “Churches need not only to be aware of the need to support these individuals but also to actively work to find the resources to properly support them.”

Watson said she laments that people leave the church to find support elsewhere when they do not find the support they are looking for within the church. She also noted that the Bearing Hope Conference underscored the value for programs and structures to be put in place by churches to care for people affected by mental-health challenges.

As Holwerda explained, “We have traditionally looked at crisis care in the church as being related to medical and financial needs, and we need to start looking at mental health being a part of this equation.”

The conference helped to underscore the fact that we need to continue to build our resources for churches and congregations in the area of mental-health awareness.

“We are called to embrace everyone in our congregation, and in order to do so, we need to create the proper supports for all members, including those journeying with mental-health challenges,” Holwerda concluded.