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Mental health chaplain trains clergy, congregations on companionship

Based on his ministry of companionship through the Seattle’s Mental Health Chaplaincy since 1987, the Rev. Craig Rennebohm plans to train clergy, pastoral counselors, congregations and mental health workers to work together respond to people suffering mental illness, substance abuse, trauma and children’s mental health issues.

Craig Rennebohm
The Rev. Craig Rennebohm

“Mental health ministry is integral to a healthy congregation’s life,” he said. “We all are vulnerable, need tenderness and understanding.  As we attend to mental health issues and care for each other as neighbors, we are healthier as individuals, congregations and communities,” he said.

Rennebohm is forming Faith Group Mental Health Training Cooperatives in various counties.  Pathways to Promise, a national, interfaith, mental health organization, is funding this project, working with local clergy and congregations interested in training and collaboration with community mental health providers.

He is offering day-long training programs with a morning session on Mental Health 101 to help clergy discern their role in mental health healing, recovery and wellness.  The afternoon session for congregations is on Building a Mental Health Team in a Local Congregation.

In Spokane, he will lead a session on "Spirituality and Mental Health" from 1 to 3 p.m., Monday, Oct. 25 for clergy and from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. for lay people at All Saints Lutheran Church, 314 S. Spruce.

In Chehalis, 51 clergy and 20 congregational leaders from Cowlitz County came on Sept. 9.  On Sept. 13, sessions were held in Olympia for Thurston County clergy and congregations.

Rennebohm is also setting up groups to organize trainings in South King County, Snohomish County, and Ellensburg for Central Washington.

He also plans future sessions to equip local trainers and to train people for congregational companionship ministry, mental health first aid and mental health issues related to children, substance abuse, trauma and aging.

Rennebohm said trauma affects veterans, abuse victims, immigrants, people with dementia and people suffering from “the destructive forces of history and society—slavery, racism, inequality and sexism.”

Through companion ministries of presence with those who suffer, he said, people learn the real stories of people, “unvarnished by media or by social-political myths so they can become informed citizens.”

After studies at Carlton College and Chicago Theological Seminary, he served five years as “minister to the community” at a Lowell, Mass., UCC church in a low-income neighborhood.  As chaplain to the juvenile court, he realized mental health issues begin early.

In 1975, he came to Seattle as pastor of Pilgrim UCC, a dying congregation with about 18 at worship.  From selling the parsonage, they had two years of salary.  Rennebohm turned the church’s focus to one of mission to the neighborhood of seniors, low-income families, single mothers, heroin dealers and group homes. 

As the neighborhood “gentrified,” drawing higher-income families, the church drew them.  He challenged members to welcome everyone.

Pilgrim developed a day drop-in for homeless, an emergency shelter, a meal program and a clothing bank.  It became base for service groups.  Sunday mornings, 150 to 200 came to celebrate the diverse community.

“As the congregation did mission and became a base of compassion and care, it grew,” said Rennebohm, who saw that his role was teaching laity to equip them for a ministry of outreach to the community.

He led a course to equip laity to be colleagues in mission, education, worship and fellowship.

In 1987, he earned a doctor of ministry degree from Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley in pastoral care with people suffering mental illness.  In his clinical pastoral education at the Bay Area County Hospital psychiatric unit, he saw that spirituality and faith had an impact on patients.

“When people lose the capacity to hope, think and imagine, the brain becomes stuck in negative feelings and thoughts,” Rennebohm said.  “It shuts down its capacity for prayer, studying Scripture and pastoral conversations.”

As he explored how to minister to such people, he focused on the power of a ministry of presence, being a companion with a person who is suffering, being in a relationship of support, healing and recovery in the context of a congregation.

“Mental health comes as neighborhoods create a fabric of care,” said Rennebohm.

Returning to Seattle, he started the Mental Health Chaplaincy with the Church Council of Greater Seattle.  The goals were to 1) do outreach on the streets with homeless, mentally ill and marginalized people; 2) serve as a chaplain on the inpatient unit at Harborview, following people from the street to stability with housing in the community; 3) train and equip local congregations to be centers of welcome and support for people released from hospitals to keep them off the streets, and 4) provide an accessible, effective mental health system.

Based at Prospect UCC, the chaplaincy worked with Plymouth Congregational UCC as “a downtown lab” for companionship training and models. 

Plymouth started the House of Healing, where four volunteer companions live with sisters or brothers released from Harborview, so people don’t return to shelters or the streets.

Residents live there four to six months to regain strength before moving to permanent housing in one of two shared-living houses or two small apartment buildings. 

Volunteer chaplains visit residents regularly.

Rennebohm became associate pastor at Prospect UCC to be the chaplain of the ecumenical outreach, as a model of specialized ministry.

At Prospect, 12 members serve a community lunch to 250 to 300 homeless, low-income neighbors on Tuesdays and Fridays.  Volunteers move from behind the serving counter to greet people in line, share meals with them, listen to their stories, provide support and encouragement, and link them to resources.

“At Prospect and Plymouth, companions have had a profound transformation in their faith as they share their journey, walking side-by-side as neighbors with people on the margins,” he said.  “Companions become champions for change, from greeting a stranger at the front door to sharing in creating housing and services.

“We begin with people where they are and where we are.  We proceed as neighbors, not professionals,” he said.

The heart of pastoral care through companionship is to listen to hear stories as a person is able to tell them, even if they are confused by their mental state.  We listen for language of faith and the movement of the spirit.  Where is it possible for them to find hope, strength and gifts?  Where has love touched their lives?  We do not bring God to a person.  The Spirit is already at work. 

“In the process of companioning, we are also companioned, and together walk with God in inexplicable moments and remarkable ways,” he said.

Rennebohm shares some stories of companioning in his book, Souls in the Hand of a Tender God, published in 2008 by Beacon.

“In the most hopeless situations with people suffering complex illnesses and issues, God is present and heals anywhere any time,” he said.

For information, call 206-622-2472 or email

Copyright Pacific Northwest Conference News © September-October 2010





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