Getting WISE with Ebenezer UCC

Ebenezer UCC HOPE walk team

It only takes a spark to get a fire going, the song says.

Turns out it takes just one person to spark an entire congregation to get WISE – Welcoming, Inclusive, Supportive and Engaged — for Mental Health, too. At least that was the experience at Ebenezer UCC in Sheboygan, where one lay member caught WISE fever after attending General Synod and never looked back.

Becoming WISE is “more of a shift to an openness than a radical change in the way you do things,” says the Rev. Lorri Steward, pastor of Ebenezer, the first Wisconsin Conference congregation to earn WISE designation. “As a congregation we are intentionally seeking to become a safe space for people struggling with mental health issues. Even if it’s not you suffering personally, it’s someone in your family.”

The result: Ebenezer has become a safe space for those struggling with mental health challenges and their loved ones, a place where it’s OK to acknowledge you’re not OK. Among other steps, the congregation has compiled resources that include a list of counselors who will see clients on a sliding fee scale, cemented a partnership with Mental Health America, and offered training on mental health-related topics.

Across the Wisconsin Conference, congregations are studying mental health and reflecting on the ways in which faith communities can be WISE, following a vote by delegates at the 2022 Annual Meeting that launched the Conference on the path to being designated a WISE Conference. WISE is an official designation offered through the UCC Mental Health Network to congregations, conferences and other faith communities and organizations.

Ebenezer UCC Mental Wellness Walk participants

Steward credits parishioner Sue Kaiser for getting Ebenezer on the road to WISE status. “Sue went to General Synod and came back on fire,” the pastor says.

The major difference made by WISE, according to Kaiser: “We were all stigma-oriented to mental health. The biggest thing I have seen is the willingness of people to talk about it.” Kaiser now visits other congregations to talk about WISE.

For the Wisconsin Conference to earn the WISE designation, at least 30 percent, or 64, of congregations must study the issue of mental health and submit a report confirming that they’ve done so. Deadline for congregations to submit a report is March 1, 2023.

What does it feel like to encounter a WISE congregation? Steward recalls a conversation with a visiting couple who attended worship during WISE Sunday last year: “After church, the wife came up with tears in her eyes and said, ‘I’ve never been in a church where it was OK to talk about mental health.’ She said, ‘Wow, I’ve never heard anyone in church say it’s OK not to be OK.’”

Ebenezer UCC sponsored a local mental health fair

The United Church of Christ Mental Health Network offers a wealth of information, including resources for WISE Certification:

Members of the Conference WISE Team are available to provide support, guidance and encouragement. If you have questions about WISE or would like to connect with someone on the WISE Team, please email Lisa Hart, associate conference minister for faith formation and justice ministries.


Sensory bottles station at the mental health fair

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