Mark Holmen, senior pastor of The Log Church in Crosslake, Minnesota, was working at his desk when his administrative assistant came through the door. She said, “There’s a man on the phone that won’t provide his name, but he wants to talk to you about your message on Sunday.” Mark anticipated the worst. Oh boy, what did I do wrong? he thought.
When he got on the call, the man said, “Okay, Pastor Mark, you don’t know me. I’m only going to give you my first name and not my last name. My name is Dave. I want to talk to you about the message you gave about mental health.”
Here we go. Buckle up.
Mark never intended to be the senior pastor of The Log Church. He served many years as a pastor in Ventura, California before launching a full-time ministry called Faith at Home, a program focused on helping churches develop a discipleship strategy for families.
Mark had roots in Minnesota, though: his parents lived in Crosslake and they vacationed there. When he inherited his parents’ home and his daughter decided to attend the University of Minnesota to pursue nursing, he and his family moved to Crosslake in 2014. A year and a half later, The Log Church asked Mark to become their interim pastor.
"I would only do it if I would not be considered for the senior pastor,” Mark said. “I needed to continue to do Faith at Home at the same time. But, after doing the interim, I fell in love with [the community] and I could see God was working.” When they called him to be their senior pastor, Mark accepted.
Crosslake sits in the northern part of Crow Wing County (roughly two-and-a-half hours from the Twin Cities area) wedged in-between highway 371 and highway 6 and nestled against Cross Lake, the seventh-largest lake in the county. Small rural cities and towns are scattered across the county, Brainerd being the largest.
The Log Church is exactly what you might expect in northern Minnesota—a church building literally constructed with logs cut down from the Crosslake area. While by no means a large church, they average around 200 members in attendance. They also serve a community with a constantly fluctuating population due to seasonal residents and vacationers during the summer months. On average, they reach roughly 450 people each Sunday in the summer.
When Mark became their senior pastor, he wanted The Log Church to make a difference in the community. Mark had no idea this would lead the church on a path toward the topic of mental health.
Would anyone care?
When Mark was a pastor in southern California, he was convicted by guest speaker Reggie McNeal, author of The Present Future. McNeal asked: “If God came down and pulled your church out of the community, would anyone in the community care?"
This message convicted Mark and he carried it with him in ministry ever since. While on a call with leaders at The Log Church, he asked them what they could do to make a difference in the community. To find out, they sent a survey to the congregation, asking them about needs in the community. To Mark’s surprise, the survey said 60% of the congregation wanted mental health services.
According to a 2018 survey by Crow Wing Energized, a grassroots movement focused on improving the health and wellness of Crow Wing County, 1 in 4 adults (28.4%) in Crow Wing County are impacted by a diagnosed mental illness. Most mental health services are located roughly 40 minutes south in Brainerd, and access to mental health services is limited, making patients wait months before being seen by a professional. The Crosslake area and beyond needed more care in closer proximity.
Eager to start immediately, Mark wanted to host mental health groups at The Log Church, but he admittedly didn’t know much about mental health. So, he attended informational meetings held by Crow Wing Energized to become more informed.
The people running the meetings were surprised a pastor came at all: “I was the only one representing a church, and they're like, ‘What are you doing here?’”
It's okay to not be okay
Mark needed help. The undertaking of tackling the mental health issues in the community would require a team. That’s when Mark called on Jill Gibbs to join the team alongside Mark and his wife. Since 1999, Jill and her husband have been attending The Log Church, where Jill served in various capacities, but mostly in the children’s ministry. Self-described as “perfectionist and Type A,” Jill is married with three children, has a wonderful place to live and great friends. She never expected she would have a mental health crisis of her own. In 2009, she lost her appetite, felt lethargic and wanted to avoid interacting with people. Her personality changed completely.
“My doctor thought I could have a brain tumor, and I remember wishing it was that instead of a mental health issue,” Jill said.
The doctors diagnosed her with depression and for about a year she refused to take medication, believing that was like raising a white flag of surrender.
“I thought I must have been doing something wrong, like not reading my Bible enough,” Jill said, “All those lies the Enemy would have me believe.”
She finally sought medication and slowly came out of a dark place and found recovery. When Mark asked her to serve on the mental health ministry team, she was unsure that’s where God wanted her.
“To me, that felt like asking an alcoholic to work at a bar because I just recovered from a major crisis myself. But because I had been there, I could empathize,” Jill said. She agreed to help Mark, and they plotted a course forward.
As he learned more about mental health, Mark determined The Log Church needed to raise awareness and reduce stigma. People in the church and community kept their struggles and their pain to themselves out of fear of being rejected and shamed. The stigma isolated the community and paralyzed them from dealing with their mental health struggles. Reducing the stigma would act as the first stage in a three-pronged approach that The Log Church would adopt for their mental health strategy.
To tackle the stigma, they launched awareness forums where they introduced a mental health topic and invited a professional to talk about it. Each professional covered topics ranging from depression, bipolar, suicide, eating disorders and more. They'd host the forums right after church to encourage more people to go and would get around 25% of the church community to attend. All of it with the intended purpose of listening and learning about mental health and raising awareness to reduce judgment and stigma. After every forum, Mark left encouraged by the positive feedback. Things looked like they were going in the right direction.
Out of the awareness forums, they developed a saying in the church and a tagline in their mental health ministry: “It’s okay not to be okay.”
Forums, though, were just the tip of the iceberg. Mark knew if they wanted to address the deeper issues and help people, they needed the second phase—support groups. On Tuesday nights they offered a variety of support groups tackling topics ranging from grief to eating disorders to depression. Since Mark and his team weren’t professionals, they used a Christian mental health curriculum to guide the support group conversations.
The support groups helped provide a safe space for people to process their emotions and share their struggles and burdens. This safe space encouraged everyone to give understanding, learn from each other and to respect confidentiality while staying away from debates and quick fixes.
Despite the awareness forums to combat stigma, in the early days of the ministry it was hard to encourage people to come to the support groups. Jill struggled with this, especially in the women’s support groups. The stigma carried on.
“Women that had been married 30 years were telling their spouses they were going to a Bible study,” Jill said. “But we had people leaving feeling hope because they knew they weren’t alone.”
While stigma remained an issue, they saw considerable progress from when they started. Congregants became more open about what was going on in their lives, more people came to the support groups and shared how it positively impacted them and their families.
Still, awareness and support groups wouldn’t suffice to fully address and meet the needs of the community. The final step was to refer people to professionally trained counselors. To help with that, they started a relationship with a faith-based counseling center in Baxter, Minnesota and established scholarships to help pay for access to care. The problem: Baxter, like Brainerd, was a 40-minute drive from Crosslake. They needed something closer. So they set up a small office in the church for a counselor to come and see patients in Crosslake.
“And that was working great until the pandemic hit,” Mark said.
A new vision
Like most churches and ministries, the pandemic radically shifted how The Log Church approached their mental health ministry. The awareness forums and support groups shut down and a counselor no longer came to the church to see patients. The pandemic isolated people, removing the care they needed. In the interim, Mark and the team referred people to NAMI (National Alliance of Mental Illness), because they had online support groups.
During the pandemic, Mark and his team went into a concentrated time of prayer to see what God wanted them to do next. While in prayer and reflection, they felt God was calling them to something greater in their community.
“Our vision was: imagine if God could use us to put a counseling center here in town,” Mark said.
Feeling that was what God wanted them to do, they realized they couldn’t do it without the financial generosity of the church. To rally support, Mark challenged his congregation with a sermon on stewardship, generosity and giving to God. He presented six things God could do if people generously gave to the church. One of the things on the list was a faith-based, community counseling center for Crosslake.
“I left it at that,” he said.
The next day he got the call from the man known simply as Dave. Dave said, “I want you to know, I go to your church when we’re up here [Crosslake], but you’re not our home church. My wife and I are getting up in age and a stage in life where we want to make a difference. Your message on mental health convicted me. My daughter and wife have struggled with mental health and they had access to counseling and support groups. Had they not had that, I don’t think they would have made it. It breaks my heart that people in Crosslake don’t have access to that. So we need a counseling center. What will it take? What do you need?”
“Okay, sir, I wasn’t really ready for that question,” Mark said. “I will tell you this, based on my experience from my previous church, we need a budget to hire a director of the counseling center and they’ll need at least three years before it becomes self-sustaining. So, we need three years of salary.”
“We can do that,” Dave said. “I want to remain anonymous, but it’s there and it’s committed.”
Mark hung up the phone and wept.
A building in town
Mark knew the counseling center would be more successful if it were in town rather than at the church building. He wanted a separate facility with a faithful, licensed and professional counselor leading the way. Yet, leasing an office building wouldn’t come cheap.
Two days after the call with Dave, a new couple from southern California attended a service and then set up an appointment to meet with Mark. In the meeting, they talked about southern California for a while before the man asked:
“Are you going to need an office for the mental health counseling center?”
“Yes, it would be much better if the facility was in town, serving the community,” Mark said.
“Well, I just bought the largest office building in town,” the man said. “Come over there with me and take a look at it.”
They went down to the office building and gave Mark a tour of the facility. They reached a vacant suite with five offices inside.
“I want to donate this office to the counseling center,” the man said. “Don’t worry about rent or utilities. If you have three years’ salary, I’ll give you the office for three years and we’ll see what happens after that.”
Hiring a director
While the counseling center wouldn’t be located in the church building, it would be a faith-based center, holding to the EFCA Statement of Faith with counselors that are steeped in the gospel. But to make that a reality, Mark needed to hire a ministry leader to become their Director of Mental Health Ministries, serving both on staff at the church and to lead the counseling center. The search didn’t take long. They found their director in Naomi Nelson, a local professional counselor.
Naomi never thought she would join a church staff. She had led various ministries and Bible studies as a volunteer, but she didn't think God was calling her to full-time ministry. She has a degree in professional counseling from Grand Canyon University and worked in the anti-human trafficking movement, helping at-risk youth in the Crow Wing County area. She also worked at a ranch doing equine therapy.
Over time, God planted seeds in her heart to be more involved in ministry. When she found out about what The Log Church was doing with mental health, she offered to be a resource for their team. Instead, they offered her a job.
Naomi will lead Northern Mental Health by creating a mental health collaborative, partnering with like-minded, faith-based mental health professionals and clinics and providing a variety of programs and services in tandem with The Log Church’s mental health ministry’s support groups and awareness forums. This summer, Northern Mental Health plans to offer a 10-week equine therapy program for kids ages six to seventeen at TrueNorth Ranch in Crosslake. She’s also organizing training programs to equip volunteers.
“People want to serve, but don't know how, or they don't feel like they are equipped. So, I'm excited to watch people experience what it's like to help with their gifts,” Naomi said.
Naomi is actively seeing patients and developing the road map with the church leadership team on the counseling center and network. They plan to officially open the counseling center sometime in the summer of 2022.
Mark sees all of this as a huge opportunity for gospel impact in the community. After making strides in mental health, The Log Church has grown a reputation for being the “mental health church” in the area. As a Bible-believing church that unashamedly and passionately preaches the gospel, Mark hopes people brought in through their mental health ministry will hear and receive the gospel for the first time. He’s already seen receptivity. With Noami taking the lead as director and the counseling center opening in the future, Mark envisions that will only expand more opportunities for the gospel to be heard and for lives to be impacted.
This heart of compassion and a desire to reach people with the gospel aligns with the idea of extending gospel ministries—seeing needs, creatively finding ways to engage people and intentionally sharing the gospel message with friends, neighbors and community members.
“We’re starting with just caring for people, loving them first, and as they come in and ask, ‘Where is this coming from?’ we can say we’d love to tell you about where this is coming from,” Mark said.
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