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Need help navigating an emotional crisis but would rather not call your elder? Several Christian Reformed congregations in Ontario, Michigan, and Iowa have been making access to free and confidential mental health care available to their members by enrollment in a Congregation Assistance Plan or Church Assistance Program (CAP) provided through Shalem Mental Health Network and Pine Rest Christian Mental Health Services.

The congregation-wide plans differ slightly, but the basics of CAP in both cases is the same: churches enroll for a set annual fee based on membership size; members of enrolled churches can then access a limited number of professional counseling sessions for a variety of different needs for free.

“We feel that CAP is a vital ministry that a church can provide to its members, adherents, and community,” said Mark Vander Vennen, Shalem’s executive director and a member of Grace CRC in Cobourg, Ont. “These needs are important for a church community to acknowledge and address as part of its mission to serve others in the name of the gospel.”

Shalem has been offering CAP for more than 10 years, since Rehoboth CRC in Bowmanville and Grace CRC in Toronto, Ont., participated in the first pilot projects in 2006. Now 54 Christian Reformed churches in that province participate, as well as churches from five other denominations. Pine Rest, with clinics throughout Michigan and in two Iowa cities, has been offering its similar enrollment programs for churches since the 1980s. About half of its 50 CAP partners are from the Christian Reformed denomination.

A significant aspect of CAP is that congregants can contact the providing network themselves without the need of a referral, so barriers to help are low. Churches pay for the enrolment fee in different ways: some budgeting the full amount, some taking designated second offerings for the program throughout the year, and, at Jubilee Fellowship CRC in St. Catharines, Ont., having the deacons subsidize the budgeted amount through its benevolence fund.

Rev. Ronald Kool, a pastor at Hillside Community Church, a Christian Reformed congregation enrolled in CAP for 10 years, said “The program ‘normalizes’ getting help for mental and behavioral issues people are facing. If you walk around our church, you’ll see 8 to 10 small posters describing help that CAP offers for various issues. At our new members classes I tell people that our family has used the CAP program several times—it’s okay to need help.” Kool is currently serving on the Pine Rest board, in his fifth year of two three-year terms.

A church enrolled in CAP has access to more than counseling for its members. Shalem and Pine Rest offer training and workshops for leaders and church members on various topics. Rita VanderGaast, office administrator at Rehoboth CRC, attended one of these conferences last spring. She said she has seen the learning she gained there contribute to identifying the need for help in at least two people in her circles. “Many people are affected by mental illness in some capacity, whether it is a family member or a friend,” VanderGaast said. “I would encourage more people to attend the conferences [the health networks] host; especially pertaining to mental illness.”

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