Hope, Faith, and Love

The Role of Spirituality in Healing

Hope, Faith, and Love

According to Dr. Meryl Willert, Ranch children fall into one of three categories when it comes to religion and spirituality. How we work with them depends on where they are in that spiritual journey.

“It is our role to introduce children who don’t have a spiritual background to a God who loves them, to repair or restore connections for children who are angry at God, and to strengthen and develop the beliefs of those who come to us with already-established beliefs,” Willert said.

Our belief at the Ranch that faith helps children heal is supported by mountains of research. An article in Forbes magazine says there is ample reason to believe that faith in a higher power is associated with health. The Forbes article cited researchers at the Mayo Clinic who concluded, “Most studies have shown that religious involvement and spirituality are associated with better health outcomes and less anxiety, depression, and suicide.”

Duke University researcher, Harold G. Koenig, shared similar findings in a review of research published in ISRN Psychiatry. Koenig studied the correlation between spirituality and health and found that religion/spirituality influence mental health in many ways.

“Religion provides resources for coping with stress that may reduce the likelihood that stress will result in emotional disorders such as depression, anxiety disorder, suicide, and substance abuse. Religious coping resources include powerful cognitions (strongly held beliefs) that give meaning to difficult life circumstances and provide a sense of purpose,” wrote Koenig.

Other Ranch professionals have their own thoughts about spirituality and religion; and believe they play an important role in healing.

Tim Gienger, Clinical Director, Dakota Boys and Girls Ranch, says, “Spirituality and behavioral health have a long history of being inter-related. The foundational pieces of spirituality—like hope, faith, and love—absolutely have a place in healing from a behavioral health disorder.”


The Christian faith promotes a sense of hope.

“The whole act of going to church and being religious is the hope to be a better person, the hope for helping others, the hope for eternity, the hope for love, the hope for blessings,” says Dr. Wayne Martinsen, Psychiatrist and Medical Director at the Ranch. “A lot of our kids are devoid of hope.”

In a similar vein, Martinsen says Christianity tells us we can be reborn. “You can be a different person after the drugs. You can be reborn from the humiliation of your trauma.”

Hope is an important part of healing because kids need to know things can be better than their current or past situation.

It is typical for children to come to the Ranch with the attitude and belief that nothing can change for them—they are products of their past and nothing they do will change that. As we surround our kids with compassion and love and God’s healing presence, they begin to have hope. And with hope, everything changes. They start realizing they can decide how they want to live their lives. They learn that they aren’t defined by the worst they’ve done or experienced.


Faith is the complete trust that God will do what He has promised. Gienger says faith is important in treatment because kids need to trust that our help is putting them on a path of healing.

Spirituality helps our kids feel connected to humanity and makes life more meaningful.

“If you have a strong faith, you don’t have to worry so much because you know God is there for you and will protect you,” Willert says. “You might go through some rough stuff, but you’ll be protected.”

A central component of the Christian faith is forgiveness, which is a very powerful concept for Ranch kids.

“Our kids have been seriously hurt, emotionally and physically, and there are a lot of pieces to letting go of that suffering,” Martinsen says. “We can work on forgiveness in therapy, but the final piece in my mind is forgiveness through faith. At the core of my Christian faith is the awareness that I can be washed free from sin if I ask for forgiveness. I don’t have to hold onto my own miserable pain with an endless sense of guilt and self-recrimination.”

“Jesus also implores us to forgive the people who have hurt us. For our kids to forgive the people who have inflicted pain on them is not easy—faith gives them a different way to think about that.”

Faith and forgiveness are strong tools for healing from the trauma our children have experienced. They may not leave us with a fully-defined faith, but we often hear from past residents that we planted seeds of faith that grew and matured as they got older.

One former resident says after leaving the Ranch it took him a few years to remember the lessons he learned at the Ranch.

“At 20 years old I went to God in prayer and said, ‘If you are real, let me know, and I will serve you.’”

The Ranch set the stage for his faith and he now says, “Trusting God provides a sense of purpose and security that cannot be shaken.”


"And now these three remain: faith, hope, and love. But the greatest of these is love.” —1 Corinthians 13:13

“Everybody gets loved here,” says Martinsen. “It doesn’t matter who you are, where you come from, or what you do.” Being loved, no matter what, is a pretty incredible concept for kids at the Ranch who’ve grown up in situations where they had to “earn” love. They learn at the Ranch that they are loved for who they are, not what they do.

Former resident, Kacie, says, “I put Ranch staff through the ringer, and they didn’t quit. They never responded in a negative way. They didn’t send me away.”

Willert says we do a good job of surrounding kids with love and support while they are at the Ranch. “It’s tough for some of them to leave,” he says, “because they’ve had more support here than they’ve ever had in their lives.”

That’s why it’s so important they also learn that God loves them completely and unconditionally.

“Oftentimes, kids can lean on their love of God to help get them through tough times throughout their life,” Gienger says.

Which is exactly what Kacie experienced, “I learned about the Bible at the Ranch, and it gave me a lot of strength. When I was alone and feeling scared, I could turn to my Bible for comfort. That was really empowering.”

Our Christian Foundation

Healthcare and care for children is deeply rooted in religion, with religious organizations building many of the first hospitals. In fact, Dakota Boys and Girls Ranch began as a ministry of several congregations of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod. According to the article in Forbes, the link between healthcare and religion has weakened in favor of strict clinical practices and medical protocols.

As the world has changed, some organizations have relegated their Christian heritage to a footnote—believing that associating themselves with Christianity is harmful to their reputation. The Ranch has done exactly the opposite. As Ranch leaders and board members have talked about our mission and how we want to present our ministry to the world, it has become very clear that our foundation of Christianity is part of who we are and not something we want to hide.

“By engaging with our Christian heritage and bringing it to the forefront of who we are, we are offering our clients help that reaches far beyond themselves,” says Chaplain Rick Jones, Dakota Boys and Girls Ranch. “The message of Christianity is one of a loving and merciful God who has given absolutely everything to save us, forgive us, and redeem us. Bringing this powerful message into our care makes all difference.”

At the Ranch, we are proud of our Christian heritage and are confident it helps our children find lasting healing.

This article was originally published in Ranch Voice: Spring 2021.

Read more stories like this and explore other issues of Ranch Voice here.

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