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Counselling in Community

Shalem’s Congregational Assistance Plan

Wednesday, January 28th was Bell’s Let’s Talk Day in Canada. And Canada certainly talked. Survival stories were shared on Facebook and Twitter. At the end of the day, 122,150,772 calls, tweets, texts and posts were shared from coast to coast about experiences with mental health. When athletes like Olympian Clara Hughes and national companies like Bell bring mental health to the forefront to help reduce stigma, people in Canada take notice.

But is talking enough? Hughes, Bell’s key spokesperson, also attributes her healing to caring medical help and a social support network. Dialogue and awareness are essential in addressing mental health, but professional help and the support of a loving community are also important. Shalem Mental Health Network in Hamilton, Ontario (shalemnetwork.org) emphasizes the importance of faith, hope and community to help those struggling with mental health issues, supporting both clients and churches through programs like the Congregational Assistance Plan (CAP). CAP provides counselling sessions to church members from local, professional Christian therapists.

“Churches are historically where people come in times of need as we are called by God to help one another,” explained Shalem Director of CAP Marg Smit-VandeZande. “We recognize that churches cannot deal with some of the complex issues alone.”  

A leap of faith
CAP began as a pilot project in 2006, when five Christian Reformed churches introduced this program to their congregations. The program was modelled after the Employee Assistance Program (EAP) offered in workplace benefit packages, offering six counselling sessions per household each year. As described by program developers, “the CAP was literally a leap of faith. It was unknown if in Canada the idea of EAP could translate into a similar idea but with a geographic church congregation as the foundation rather than an employee population. Although some initiatives had been attempted in the United States and though many clergy had long had access to their own EAPs, nothing like this was in existence in the country.”

For one pilot church, Rehoboth CRC in Bowmanville, Ontario, the use of CAP greatly exceeded their initial expectations. The pilot program was an overall success and the initial participating churches have chosen to continue in the program. Once Shalem was confident in its administration and calculation structure, CAP was offered as a permanent program to all churches in Ontario in 2009. In 2011, a school approached Shalem, which led to the development of CAPS, a Counselling Assistance Program for Students. Currently, four schools have enrolled in this program. Since its initiation, CAP has grown from serving five to 50 churches/schools as of 2015. In 2014, 965 individuals/households used these programs, with almost 2,500 counselling sessions. 

In removing barriers such as cost, disclosure and finding a suitable counsellor, clients can easily and quickly access quality counselling. CAP matches clients with a counsellor who specializes in the presenting issue. CAP has a brief solution focus, so six sessions are often sufficient. However, if there is need for additional support and the client cannot afford the fee, further funding can be arranged. One client who used CAP appreciated that the cost of seeing a therapist was taken care of by the church: “Without help financially, I wouldn’t have received the help to move on in my journey.”

Empowering churches for ministry
Each participating church receives a quarterly report of usage that provides non-identifying information, such as the number of clients and the presenting issues. This information not only indicates the amount of use but allows churches to be aware of needs in order to address them in prayer or as sermon themes. Churches can also pay for extra households, or “blank lines” that allow a church to offer the program to non-members that might be part of other church ministries such as Coffee Break women’s ministry or GEMS girls clubs: “It’s one way that we are able to respond by ministering to others outside our church with welcoming, enfolding measures,” said Pastor Ray Vanderkooij of Bethel Christian Reformed Church in Acton, Ontario.

Bethel, who enrolled with CAP four years ago, sees this program as a blessing to its congregation. It was an above-budget addition, but the church council felt it was an excellent way to address the challenge of members not receiving needed help because of fears of disclosure. A key feature of the CAP program is the confidentiality. It becomes the choice of the individual receiving the help whether or not to share their journey with their congregation.

Anonymity vs. stigma
As stigma is one of the greatest barriers for people seeking help, when a program like CAP promotes anonymity, does this reproduce the stigma attached to mental illness and prevent churches from living in community? CAP can be one way that a church helps its members, but it should not be the only ministry to those who struggle with mental health.
Vanderkooij believes that more people are getting the help they need because of the anonymity. He is aware of about half of those who turn to CAP, but others don’t disclose this. Often, once people are in a healthier place and able to talk about their struggles, they come to express their gratitude for this program. At Bethel, they have also encouraged community within their congregation by talking more about mental health during worship services and through sharing stories through testimonies.

In order to encourage community, churches need to work to reduce stigma and make the church a space in which individuals feel comfortable coming forward to seek emotional support from their congregation. Until the stigma surrounding mental health is erased, the most important goal of any community should be that those struggling with mental health issues receive help they need. 

“The anonymity of CAP is a very important aspect of the program,” Pastor Rita Klein-Geltink of Ancaster CRC affirmed. “Despite the efforts of people like Clara Hughes, the stigma surrounding mental health remains. That is no less true within the church. Through the work of our deacons, we have always encouraged our members to seek out professional help when the need arises, and we have been willing to support this financially, yet people often remain hesitant to share with their elders and deacons.”

Walking together
“Clients need that element of privacy. Not having the confidentiality can be a barrier to someone getting help,” Smit-VandeZande explained. She added that when a church has a program like CAP, they are letting members know that they support mental and emotional health as well as spiritual and physical health – a holistic approach to caring for each other. “The program works alongside churches, not separate. When churches promote CAP and mental health is talked about in a healthier way, the stigma is getting addressed.”

One person who received counselling through CAP expressed how grateful they were that their church provided this resource, as it demonstrated the church’s commitment to fully ministering to its members.

“It’s never a questioning of its value,” said Vanderkooij. “We recognize CAP as one of the ways that we, as a church community, walk together and bear each other’s burdens.”


  • Krista Dam-VandeKuyt

    Krista Dam-VandeKuyt lives in Jerseyville, Ont. with husband Rob and their children Ethan, Eliya and Zoë. They are members at Ancaster Christian Reformed Church.

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