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Michigan church uses referral panel to get mental health services to people in need

Westminster Presbyterian Church’s Mental Health Referral Panel ‘has had significant impact’ on both the congregation and the community of Grand Rapids

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Westminster Presbyterian Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan, is home to the Mental Health Referral Panel, which has served more than 130 members and friends. (Photo courtesy of Westminster Presbyterian Church)

LOUISVILLE — Westminster Presbyterian Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan, has developed a proven and comprehensive method to help members and friends receive quality mental health services when they need them the most.

The Rev. Lynette K. Sparks, the church’s new senior pastor and head of staff, said the church’s Mental Health Referral Panel “has had significant impact in our congregation and in the community.”

The Rev. Lynette Sparks is senior pastor and head of staff at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

The inspiration for the panel, which refers people to the best-qualified qualified mental health care and has a funding component, was inspired by the life and death of a baby boy in 2012. Born with severe birth defects, the boy survived only 19 days. When the boy’s father, a Westminster member, sought counseling after his son’s death, “his experience with the therapist was anything but healing,” Sparks said. “When he came to our pastoral staff to report his experience and asked for a good referral, the idea for the panel was born.”

“Our pastor at the time didn’t feel he had the expertise” to offer the parishioner counseling, said Philip Gibson, a church member and retired county mental health provider who helped form the Mental Health Referral Panel and has watched it grow. “We thought, ‘What would this look like if we have a panel of providers that pastors could refer to with confidence?”

The Barbara Molhoek-Callum McPheeters Fund for Mental and Spiritual Health was created to help underwrite the costs of therapeutic care for people who can’t afford it, whether or not they’re Westminster members living in the Grand Rapids community. After a church member died by suicide in 2010, her son provided the first gift for this fund.

To date, the Mental Health Referral Panel has connected 134 members and friends of the church with the mental health care they need, according to Gibson. More than $83,000 has been distributed to pay for services for people whose insurance won’t cover the services or who otherwise couldn’t afford them.

“Today the need for counseling is greater than it’s ever been,” Gibson said of the church, which has about 1,300 members. “We have youth struggling with gender issues, transgender issues. We want to make sure when pastors come across a need, they can refer the individual with confidence they will be treated well.”

The panel’s roster of approved providers has grown to nearly 25. Committee members, many of whom are themselves mental health professionals, interview prospective providers to determine if they’d be a good fit on the panel. It’s been a helpful process, Gibson said.

Philip Gibson, a member of Westminster Presbyterian Church and a retired county mental health provider, has been instrumental in strengthening the church’s Mental Health Referral Panel.

“We think we have a pretty good sense of each individual, whether they’re comfortable talking with someone about pretty traumatic issues,” Gibson said. “One issue we felt was important in terms of comfort level is people who might be struggling with gender orientation issues.”

“Westminster for many years has had an open door for the LGBTQ population,” Gibson said. “One person we interviewed, it was clear their perspective on being Christian and being gay was not in line with where we felt comfortable referring to that individual.”

Gibson called the panel “an amazing resource. Therapists have said they see the fund as being helpful, and the pastoral staff see it as a very necessary resource. Otherwise, they have to refer to therapists by reputation. With these therapists, we have vetted them, so they can refer with confidence.”

Gibson said he was talking with a Westminster Pastoral Care Team member about sharing the Mental Health Referral Panel’s story with the broader church. “She said, ‘I know it’s been absolutely wonderful for me. I can refer someone and know they are going to get great care,’” he said.

For the past few years, committee members and the therapists in the Grand Rapids community have had lunch from time to time. It’s been helpful, Gibson said, to hear their concerns and the issues that come up. “Every therapist who can access services for their client says this is amazing,” Gibson said. “They wish other churches had this.”

Westminster Presbyterian Church’s Pastoral Care Team has a 45-page booklet explaining how the Mental Health Referral Panel works. The booklet includes tips on “How to know when to seek help,” “Finding a therapist” and “Assessing effectiveness.” Read the booklet here.

Find information on the Presbyterian Mission Agency’s Mental Health Ministry here.


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