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.

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

When: Wednesday, February 28, 1:00-2:00 pm

Where: Mulder Chapel at WTS

Join Western Theological Seminary as we continue the conversation about disability and ministry.  In November, Lennard Davis helped us to think through how disability is an aspect of diversity while at the same time questioning the usefulness of the concept of diversity.  This month, Sarah Barton, Th.D. candidate Duke Divinity School and finalist for the Nouwen Fellow position at WTS, will be joining us to help us consider how the practice of baptism challenges us to think differently about disability and discipleship.  ASL services and hearing loop technology will be available.

With the support of the Henry Luce Foundation, WTS has established a Nouwen Fellow program that brings scholars whose research focuses on some aspect of disability studies to join our faculty for a one or two year appointment.

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.

Introducing the work of Dr. Suzanne McDonald,

Professor of Historical and Systematic Theology

Dr. Suzanne McDonald has been studying and reflecting on the topic of dementia for 20 years. She has developed a two-part class for churches called “Dealing Faithfully with Dementia,” and this semester she began teaching a course for Western’s new Graduate Certificate in Disability and Ministry program entitled, “Ministry, Aging, and Dementia.”

Dr. McDonald first became interested in this topic in the late ‘90s when she was working for the Red Cross in Australia. Her boss, a retired army colonel, was not a Christian but began asking tough questions about God when his wife’s mind quickly deteriorated from dementia.

“What kind of a God do you believe in that could do this to my wife?” he would ask, or “Why is this happening?” and “Who is she and where has she gone?”

It was very hard to watch and got Suzanne thinking about what it would mean to walk well with someone going through this.

Her colonel friend, Walt, eventually did become a believer in Christ, in no small part because of how Suzanne and others surrounded him and his wife, Pearl, with love during that time. It was such a powerful experience for Suzanne that she went on to complete Clinical Pastoral Education in a dementia ward in England.

Her series, “Dealing Faithfully with Dementia,” is for congregations and pastors who want to be faithful to God and the Gospel, and also faithful to the very difficult realities of the disease, as they walk beside those with dementia and their caregivers.

It is important to give people space to lament and not move too quickly to oh, it’s all ok because of Jesus.

“Dementia can be devastating,” she says, “but we have in the scriptures and in our theology ways of talking about it that acknowledge the pain and also the presence and work of God in the midst of it all.”

Her series for churches looks at Holy Saturday (the day between Good Friday and Easter Sunday) as a theological space that mirrors dementia. The disciples did not know on that day that the story would end in Christ’s resurrection.

Those walking the dementia road can say that in Christ all will be well in the end, she explains, but for now there is no cure and in the later stages, there are only occasional glimpses of who the person is.

Dr. McDonald calls these “resurrection moments” when there’s a flash of remembrance.

She recalls a woman who had been married to her husband for 50 years but didn’t recognize him at all. Then one day, he came to see her all dressed up in a suit and wearing a very strong aftershave.

As soon as she smelled it, she sat bolt upright and said, “Harry! Where are you taking me tonight?”

Harry was ecstatic because she hadn’t recognized him in so long. He thought, “I’ve got it. I’ve got the trigger!” The next day he came dressed the same way…but she didn’t recognize him. He couldn’t stay long because he was crying so hard.

“It was a reminder that you can’t manufacture these things,” Dr. McDonald says. “If these resurrection moments come, they are a gift.”

In part two of the series, participants think about issues of personhood, image of God, and how they can walk with people in a pastoral sense. Suzanne emphasizes the importance of not just a person’s mind but their body as well.

She remembers Walt saying toward the end with Pearl, “When I look in her face, I still see the beautiful woman that I married.”

Dr. McDonald suggests two resources she has found helpful: 1) John Swinton’s Dementia: Living in the Memories of God, and 2) Benjamin Mast’s Second Forgetting: Remembering the Power of the Gospel During Alzheimer’s Disease. She also plans to do some writing on the topic herself.

“Know who in the congregation either has dementia or is caring for someone with dementia,” she suggests. “Especially be there to support the family at the various stages and learn better strategies to do that.”

What tends to happen is that when someone gets dementia and it starts to progress, they stop coming to church because they can’t remember names. It’s too awkward and embarrassing. At the same time, people in the congregation get uncomfortable as the disease progresses because they don’t know what to say or how to deal with it.

Dr. McDonald’s passion is to help people learn better ways to faithfully show the love of Christ to those with dementia and to their caregivers. She speaks multiple times per year at churches and is happy to accept invitations. These events are usually open to the public.

Contact Dr. McDonald about speaking at your church.