Counselor to the Amish

April 13th, 2012

As do many counselors, Lois (Bechtel) Shank Gerber ’66 lives for the times when she sees glimmers of hope and change in her clients. When a suicidal woman once told her that, for the first time, she felt peace and freedom in her life after working with Gerber, it made all the hard work that they’d done together worth it.

Gerber’s path to counseling work, though, was anything but typical. After majoring in home economics education at Eastern Mennonite College and teaching school for three years, she spent nearly a decade at home with her three young children. When her first husband, Henry Shank ’66, became disabled, Gerber began working again.

After his death in 1983, Gerber supported the family working for Choice Books in Ohio. Several years later, encouraged by a friend, she enrolled in a graduate counseling program at the University of Akron. Gerber took one class per semester, plus worked full-time and kept up with her children as they went through high school and into college. In 1993, one semester shy of Akron’s six-year deadline, Gerber graduated with a master’s degree in counseling and embarked on her new career.

“I always enjoyed relating to people [and] listening to their stories,” said Gerber, on her decision to switch career tracks. “When I began counseling I felt like I had come home. I was where I wanted to be.”

After 10 years of practice in Ohio – most of them spent at a practice in New Philadelphia – Gerber moved in 2003 to Lititz, Pa., where her second husband, Lowell Gerber, had accepted a new job offer. Soon she was invited to join Upward Call Counseling Services, a Christian counseling practice with a focus on the Amish and other Plain communities.

Now working mostly with women clients from Plain groups, Gerber sees clients facing the same range of issues as in the wider world: depression, anxiety, problems in relationships, suicidal thoughts. While the stigma of mental illness – and seeking treatment for it – is decreasing among the Amish and conservative Mennonite groups, a specific challenge Gerber faces is the lingering perception that mental health problems are signs of spiritual weakness.

“I really focus on God’s unconditional love [when that’s an issue],” said Gerber. “I don’t always feel confident. I send lots of prayers up as I work, but it is very fulfilling.”

Gerber is also sometimes challenged by clients who come to her with preconceived ideas about mental health gleaned from self-help books. They want quick, tidy diagnoses and a few simple, easy steps to recovery. But life is complicated, Gerber tells them, and things can take a while to work out – as demonstrated by her own winding path to counseling.

— Andrew Jenner