Church runs mental health outreach for all

Posted: Sunday, December 16, 2001

The holidays can be a "mixed bag of emotions," with depression rattling around at the bottom, and Seasonal Affective Disorder skating on top, says Stephen Leader Peg Warren of the Community Christian Counseling Center.

"In addition, people miss their loved ones who have died," Warren said. "There are so many images all over the place that pressure you. I miss my mom, and that's normal," she added. "But people who have divorced may have the message right in their face that they don't fit in."

For nine years, Chapel by the Lake has been ministering to all of Juneau - Presbyterian or not - in all seasons.

Its outreach takes the form of the Community Christian Counseling Center, located in the church basement. To provide privacy, a separate waiting area is provided for each interview room where clients are seen regardless of their spiritual or financial circumstances.

The counselors are Donna Eley, Mary Fitterer and Nils Diehle. Their own diversity reflects the clientele they attract.

Eley is the wife of David Eley, administrator of Chapel by the Lake. Fitterer attends St. Paul's Catholic Church. Diehle is a member of the nondenominational Eagle Wings Community Church.

"I am not part of the Chapel, but it feels comfortable working there," said Fitterer, who has a master's degree in social work. "It's a very hospitable environment."

"I like that we put 'Community' first (in the name of the center) because the message we want to send out is that we are for the community," said Donna Eley, who counsels about 35 sessions a month. " 'Christian' describes the religious faith of the therapists rather than the faith of our clients."

The counselors are trained professionals. After they have met clients and ascertained their needs, they often refer them to what's called a Stephen minister.

"Stephen was the first martyr," explained Stephen Leader Phillip Mitchell. "The Stephen Ministry recognizes that all of us go through times in our lives when we need somebody else there."

Each Stephen minister receives 50 hours of training in Christian care-giving skills, such as how to listen, Mitchell said. "We minister to people going through divorce, people with long-term illness or mental illness."

The Stephen minister "walks with the care receiver (client) through his period of trouble - which could be a month or as long as two years," Mitchell said. The ministers provide over 1,000 hours each year of friendship to Juneauites experiencing personal crises.

"We are not counselors," said Mitchell, a research analyst with the state Bureau of Vital Statistics. "We are there to act as a friend and to try to get the care receiver to come up with his own ways of solving his problems. We try not to be fixers or give advice."

The 22 Stephen ministers do not use their access to proselytize. They and the counselors are even circumspect about praying with clients. They pray only if the client requests it.

Chapel by the Lake has multiple outreaches, including serving at the Glory Hole downtown homeless shelter, David Eley said. "But if we have a niche, it's in the outreach of mental health."

He sees the cooperation among pastor, counselors and ministers as helping clients get care without being referred "in different directions."

Former Pastor Leon Thompson envisioned the counseling center. Current Pastor Steve Olmstead was "very thankful" to have it in place when he moved to Juneau a year and a half ago.

"We live in a culture that is very individualistic," Olmstead said. "A lot of people isolate themselves, which feeds loneliness. But because of the individuality, they feel they can't ask for help."

The counseling center is a nonprofit entity with its own board of directors. Fees for clients are on a sliding scale, with therapists guaranteed a minimal fee. Stephen ministers charge no fee.

As part of the counseling center's ministry, Chapel by the Lake holds a Longest Night Service.

"The theme really is light - the light that we hold out to others to penetrate even the darkest of darks," Mitchell said. This year's service begins at 7 p.m., Dec. 23, in the log chapel.

Chapel by the Lake will hold a special Longest Night Service at 1:30 p.m., Dec. 16, for the residents of Johnson Youth Center, a state juvenile jail.

"I have been very moved by being in the presence of people who can deal with their loss because faith is keeping them strong," Donna Eley said. "It means a lot to me."

Olmstead said he benefits from the service because he is not in charge: "It is a great gift to me just to go and be ministered to." He cited I Corinthians: "When one person cries, we all cry; and when one person rejoices, we all rejoice."

For details, call Dave Eley at 586-2685.

Ann Chandonnet can be reached at

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