Photo: Julie spends some time with former residents and Friendship House Director Carlos Thompson (right)

Rev. Julie Myers was the first WTS student to graduate with a Graduate Certificate in Disability and Ministry (GCDM) alongside her Master of Divinity in 2017.

Three years earlier, she had been reluctant to begin seminary, turning in her application one day before the due date. At that time, she had just begun working at Benjamin’s Hope (a living community for adults with disabilities), but her church recognized her gifts of ministry and encouraged her to attend seminary.

At WTS she took as many Disability and Ministry courses as she could simply because they interested her. She was later surprised to realize she had enough credits to earn the GCDM. After graduation she was ordained and worked at Mars Hill Church in Grandville, MI as their special needs coordinator before eventually returning to work part-time at Benjamin’s Hope and at Western’s Friendship House while she completes a Master of Theology (Th.M.) degree.

The Ralph and Cheryl Schregardus Friendship House is the seminary housing where students live in apartment pods with young adults with cognitive disabilities (Friends) and learn from each other. As resident advisor, Julie does administrative work, schedules house events, attends meetings, and makes herself available for the Friends.

She moved into the Friendship House this past March, along with her two teenage children—the first family to live in the house since its formation in 2007.

“I love living in the Friendship House with my kids!” she says. “I am in the final stages of a divorce, and although it has been difficult, God has blessed us abundantly over and over again.”

Living among those with different challenges and gifts has been eye-opening and enriching for her children.

“They are learning to practice hospitality—and in a healthy way,” she says, keeping an open-door policy to the residents while learning how to set boundaries for self-care.

In 2016 Julie was diagnosed with an auto-immune disease called Sarcoidosis. “Essentially, it can attack any organ in your body and cause it to work against itself,” she explains. Previously in remission, the disease flared up at the end of the summer, right as classes were set to begin.

“The timing could not have been worse,” she says. “I don’t remember much about the first days in the hospital except for what the ER doctor said: ‘Ma’am, your calcium levels are higher than I have ever seen in my career… your blood is beginning to crystalize, and your kidneys and liver are beginning to shut down. We are trying the best we can to stabilize you.’ I heard what he was saying, and I knew it was serious, but I couldn’t focus on much. All I felt was an incredible sense of peace from God. He was there beside me, holding me, keeping me alive. I wasn’t afraid.”

Eventually she recovered enough to return home, but she has to take high doses of steroids and other medicine to keep the disease in check. The side effects are significant, but this is the only treatment for Sarcoidosis, as there is no cure.

Julie was worried about keeping up with schoolwork, but WTS staff and faculty have been very supportive. Her own work around disability and ministry reminds her to be kind to herself, listen to what her body needs, and set realistic expectations. She realizes she is now living into what she has studied so long.

For her Th.M. project, Julie is examining how people with cognitive disabilities experience and process grief and trauma. She is hopeful that her Th.M. coursework will give her the research and writing experience she’ll need to join Dr. Ben Conner’s Doctor of Ministry Disability and Ministry cohort next June.

Julie would like to continue living and working in the Friendship House until she completes both the Th.M. and D.Min. degrees. She wants to write about disability and ministry and hopes to teach in an undergraduate or seminary setting some day.

In regard to her own chronic illness, “I feel confident that God’s got this,” she says. “He is the Great Physician and healer. I will be forever grateful for the place I am in now, even though it may seem like my life is in turmoil (which it is!). This has brought my children closer to the Lord, and we are thankful for all of our blessings.”

In this episode, WTS professor of practical theology and director of the graduate certificate in disability and ministry, Dr. Ben Conner sits down with Shari Oosting to discuss his new book, “Disabling Mission, Enabling Witness: Exploring Missiology Through the Lens of Disability Studies.”

On Monday May 7, Zach, Megan, Amanda, Dan, Rob, and Seth walked across the stage at Dimnent Chapel to graduate as Founding Friends of the Ralph and Cheryl Schregardus Friendship House.

As the Friends took their seats, President Tim Brown’s voice cracked with emotion. “You have no idea how satisfying that was,” he said.

Former roommates are recognized at the Friendship House 10 Year Celebration.

Amanda’s family at the Friendship House 10 Year Celebration.

The following evening, WTS held a banquet to honor the Friends alongside their families, former roommates, and donors that made the Friendship House a reality. Professor John Swinton of University of Aberdeen, a leading theologian in disability and ministry, gave an address titled “Growing into Interdependence.” He shared his own university’s plan to launch a Friendship House in six month’s time.

In 2007, the Friendship House was created out of a need for housing options for young adults with cognitive disabilities and a desire for seminary students to learn from an often-marginalized population.

Dr. Jane Finn, professor of Education at Hope College, has been part of the conversation since the beginning. She and a team of experts helped to assess the Friends on their independent living skills before moving in. Over the past ten years, she has been studying the growth of the Friends using a measure called the Transition Planning Inventory (TPI).

According to Dr. Finn, many young adults with intellectual disabilities end up sitting in their rooms and watching television rather than developing the same social skills and friendships as their peers.

For the Friends at Friendship House, this has not been the case. Finn’s studies showed huge growth in the independence of the Friends, especially during the first 5 years. They were getting on the bus themselves, getting to their jobs, cleaning their own apartments, and enjoying social activities with others.

The Friends present along with Dr. Jane Finn (left) and Hope College students at the Michigan CEC Conference.

The Friends have proudly helped to present the findings both at Hope and at the Michigan CEC (Council for Exceptional Children) conference. There is significant interest because there are such limited housing options for young adults with disabilities.

“The Friends just steal the show,” says Finn, smiling.


Western’s Friendship House has inspired at least five similar but contextualized Friendship Houses, including one in Fayetteville, NC and others at Duke, Vanderbilt, George Fox University, and soon, the University of Aberdeen in Scotland.

“It’s unusual and original, and people from all over the world are watching,” says Professor Swinton. “The Spirit is at work in the midst of this, and there’s something really quite revolutionary beginning.”

The Friendship House has had a profound effect on WTS students, as well.

Rev. Dan DeVries lived in FH from 2012-2015 and was the Resident Advisor for two of those years. 

“I learned a lot about what it means to be present and to love,” he says.  “The Friends would stop by my room just to say hi and see how my day was going.  At first I found myself trying to hurry them along, but as I spent more time in the Friendship House, I realized that my homework could wait a bit.  I learned that to love well required me to be present to the situation in front of me.”

Now the lead pastor at Glen Lake Community Reformed Church, Dan feels as though he can be a stronger advocate for those on the margins.

“The Gospels tell us that one day Jesus ended up in a group of adults who wanted to argue about who was the greatest.  While all this was going on, Jesus noticed a child,” he says. “To those arguing, the child was not even on the radar, but to Jesus that child was at the center of his mind in that moment. As ministry leaders we have the chance bring people with disabilities who are often off the radar and bring them to the center.”

Recent graduate Abigail DeZeeuw says that her time at Friendship House encouraged her to do the Graduate Certificate in Disability and Ministry (GCDM) program alongside her M.Div.

“My time in the FH and in the GCDM program has given me a new lens for doing ministry,” she explains. “I’m always looking at ministry strategies or theologies and asking the questions:  ‘who’s being left out by this way of doing/thinking?’ and ‘what would need to change for everyone to belong here?’”


Deb Sterken addresses former roommates, friends, family, and donors at the Friendship House 10 Year Celebration.

The Friends’ parents love seeing how relationships with their children have inspired future ministry leaders. They also love seeing the ways their children have grown in ways they never thought possible.

“At graduation when the president said ‘you have no idea how satisfying that was to me,’ I was thinking—you’re the one who has no idea!” says Rob’s dad, Dr. Robert Sterken.

“All parents worry about their kids’ future…but when your child has a disability, that worry intensifies a thousand-fold,” Deb Sterken shares. “There’s a dark cloud of fear for what may lie ahead. Will there be happiness? Friendships? Love? Laughter? And of course, where will they live? The Friendship House has answered most of those questions.”

Beth Kragt’s daughter, Amanda, has learned to take responsibility for herself and has become “her own person.” When Amanda’s dad passed away a few years ago, her mom was incredibly touched by the way her roommates and the other Friends embraced her.

Dan’s mom, Laurie Mutschler, explains that their children now plan things for themselves rather than having everything programmed for them. Their communication skills, vocabularies, and articulation have greatly improved as well. Friendship House Resident Advisor Scott Van Ravenswaay shares this story:

“I accidentally scheduled another meeting during our weekly Friend time…and then later I found out that the Friends went ahead and ran it without me!”

The Friends have learned to live with different personalities and navigate conflict with roommates. They’ve also become engrained in the Holland community, through jobs and other activities. Seth and Megan attend Pillar Church, where Seth was baptized this year. Dan attends “lunch bunch” with some of the elderly members at his Methodist church every Sunday. Rob is so busy that his parents have a hard time nailing down dinner plans with him.

The Friendship House has allowed a sense of freedom for each of the Friends’ families. They don’t have to be worried about their child not being happy or having things to do. It makes their siblings proud of them too, shares Zach’s mom, Linda Aalderink.

At the beginning, the parents felt that all the Friends were “pulled up” by their non-disabled roommates. Now, they pull each other up.

Seth’s mom, Kathy Vander Broek, is acutely aware of what life is like for individuals with cognitive impairments who don’t live at Friendship House. “It’s just a void of life for so many, and our kids have normalcy.”

“It allows us to be normal,” adds Deb Sterken.

The original 6 Friends with their parents at the 10 Year Celebration.


The future for the original six Friends is bright. Dan and Rob will move in together to the Redbricks across the street, and Megan and Amanda will do the same. Seth and Zach will remain in the FH for one more year before transitioning.

While the first transition was scary for parents—going from childhood home to the Friendship House—there is more excitement the second time around.

“Rob is maturing like our other children, just at a really delayed rate,” Deb shares. “Just as our other kids wanted to have their own apartment or just be with one roommate, now the Friends want that, and it’s a normal progression.”

Their advice to the next group of Friendship House parents? “Breathe deep.” “it’s ok to let go,” and “don’t be afraid.”

The next iteration of Friendship House (which some are affectionately calling “Friendship House 2.0”) will have some major changes. The first change is that new FH Director Carlos Thompson will be living at Friendship House and serving on the faculty of WTS as a Nouwen Fellow for the next two years.  

According to Dr. Ben Conner, who directs the Graduate Certificate in Disability and Ministry, the new house will be more programmatic—Friends will now be called “Friendship House Fellows.” The program will run for six years (two cycles of M.Div. students) and the Fellows will receive a certificate upon their completion of the program.

The Fellows will have the opportunity to take one class at WTS every year, which will challenge WTS faculty to think about classroom design, accessibility, and pedagogy. Carlos Thompson will teach a seminary class called, “Living into Community:  Friendship House,” so that every student, regardless of whether they live in the house or not, can get to know the Fellows and learn about their lives.

WTS will begin processing applications for Friendship House Fellows in the fall of 2018, with the expectation to announce new Fellows in the spring of 2019. Interested parties can contact Rayetta Perez at 616.392.8555, x103 to be notified when the application opens. Dr. Finn and her team will once again assess candidates on a one-on-one basis.

The Friendship House has been Western’s grand experiment, and we are excited to carry the vision forward with fresh energy as we deepen our commitment and partnership to the Friends old and new.

The Friends: (L to R) Amanda Kragt, Rob Sterken, Megan Dalman, Dan Mutschler, Seth Vander Broek, and Zach Aalderink

In November of 2016, Western Theological Seminary was awarded a $425,000 grant from the Henry Luce Foundation. Established by Henry R. Luce, co-founder and editor-in-chief of Time Inc., the Luce Foundation offers grants in eight program areas including one whose focus is theology. WTS was among six institutions selected from a large field of competitors to receive an inaugural grant from the Luce Fund for Theological Education.

The seminary’s approved project—Enabling Theological Education: Preparing the Next Generation of Christian Leaders—Presence, Intention, and Dimension for Ministry to, with, and by People with Disabilities—will expand Western Theological Seminary’s pioneering work in disability and ministry.

The seminary’s efforts in disability and ministry began a decade ago with the addition of the Ralph & Cheryl Schregardus Friendship House, the on-campus residence where seminary students live with young adults from the community who have cognitive impairments. It has yielded such positive effects that interest grew to extend the impact of the Friendship House into the seminary curriculum.

In the fall of 2016, WTS launched a Graduate Certificate in Disability and Ministry (GCDM) program—the first of its kind in theological education. The GCDM provides students the knowledge and skills to lead congregations and ministries in ways that are attuned to and inclusive of the gifts and perspectives of people with disabilities.

Last May, the seminary also partnered with Hope College in serving as a co-host of the Summer Institute on Theology and Disability. The grant from the Henry Luce Foundation provides opportunity for the momentum around disability and ministry to grow.

Initial activity will focus on readying the seminary for future aspects of the project. An accessibility audit will determine what additions or changes are needed to our physical and educational environment so that we are hospitable to persons with disabilities. The audit will not only examine our physical classrooms but also review our learning management system and distance learning platforms. Once the support structures are in place, we can launch the key activities of the project.

In the fall of 2018, Western Theological Seminary will inaugurate an annual symposium and lectureship focused on disability and ministry. The two-day event will feature a keynote speaker and workshops for attendees.

Additionally, the seminary intends to spend a portion of the grant to hire visiting professors, preferably people with disabilities, to strengthen both faculty competency in disability studies and the GCDM program. WTS will also develop an adjunct professor base of instructors who have expertise in disability and ministry.

Western Theological Seminary’s Graduate Certificate in Disability and Ministry aids students in the art and practice of ministering to those with disabilities.Dr. Ben Conner, associate professor of Christian discipleship and director of the GCDM program, will assume leadership for the implementation of the grant. He is eager to move the seminary forward in its commitment to disability and ministry.

Conner, an experienced scholar and leader in theology and disability, believes this is a necessary and often-neglected ministry focus in both the seminary and the greater church. As he noted in the grant’s proposal, “People with disabilities are the largest minority group in the United States. It is an open group which most people enter against their will; a group that includes people from every class, ethnicity, and economic circumstance.”

WTS looks forward to the opportunities the Luce Foundation Grant will provide to expand this important ministry focus at the seminary.


News of Another Grant

Melissa Conner, director of the Ralph & Cheryl Schregardus Friendship House at WTS, also directs Renew Therapeutic Riding Center in Holland. The center provides equine assisted activities and therapies to children and adults with physical, cognitive and emotional disabilities. Four of the six friends living at Friendship House take lessons there.

Last December, Renew Therapeutic Riding Center was awarded $20,000 from the local Women Who Care group. The money will fund public school special education students to participate in activities at Renew.

WTS students enrolled in Dr. Ben Conner’s “Ministry and Margins” course take a field trip to Renew to observe lessons.

Also, several WTS students volunteer at Renew and one of them aspires to earn instructor certification.

Melissa’s work at Renew wonderfully complements the efforts of WTS in disability and ministry.