In a World full of hurt Parish Nurses help churches 'Win Some'

By Anita Ayers Henderlight

It was the mid-1980s. Across the globe Prince Harry was born and Indira Ghandi was assassinated. The Soviets were boycotting the summer Olympics in Los Angeles and "We Are The World" was being recorded by USA for Africa. AIDS appeared in headlines while Nintendo and New Coke were hitting store shelves.

Meanwhile in Chicago, Chaplain Granger Westberg at Lutheran General Hospital initiated the first parish nurse program. Six nurses in six local congregations – Roman Catholic, Lutheran, and United Methodist – began the quest to integrate faith and health. The nurses had a vision of a holistic ministry serving spirit, mind, and body.

Since that time, an estimated 2,000 or more parish nurses are currently practicing in Protestant, Catholic and Jewish congregations in some 40 states. While the job description varies from church to church, the overall mission remains the same. Parish nurses are health ministers. They are advocates for good health, promoting overall wellness and illness prevention. They help congregations understand the relationship between faith, lifestyle, attitudes, and well-being.

At Wellmont Bristol Regional Medical Center, Gary Metcalf, director of pastoral care, and Eric Deaton, vice president of finance and operations, summarized the parish nurse job description in the following way. They:

  • Visit church members in their homes, hospital, and nursing home

  • Help members identify health needs through surveys and interviews

  • Counsel members on health-related issues

  • Refer members to community resources and assist in obtaining services

  • Coordinate health education classes

  • Coordinate health screenings

  • Develop support groups within the church

Parish nurses are not to be considered substitutes for personal physicians, experts say. Rather, they bridge the gaps in helping individuals strengthen and maintain their connections with medical providers.

Here in Holston

Many churches throughout the Holston Conference have expanded their ministries to include a parish nurse. The parish nurse ministry at Mafair UMC in Kingsport, led by Joy Eastridge, is beginning its sixth year. A team of nurses provides care for the congregation at Burks UMC in Chattanooga District. Earlier this spring, nurse Cindy Showman at Sulphur Springs UMC in Johnson City District helped educate members about colon cancer and spider bites. The parish nurse at First Bristol UMC in Abingdon District, Sarah Morgan, recently organized blood pressure screenings and coordinated a Relay for Life team.

"Health care service as a form of authentic ministry is rooted in John Wesley," Bishop Ray Chamberlain recently noted. "In this country, Methodists were at the forefront of establishing hospitals as expressions of mercy and compassion. Through the growing parish nurse ministry in Holston churches," he added, "we are recovering our original mission of care for the body as well as the soul."

According to the conference's Outreach Advocacy Team, establishing a parish nurse program in all districts has become a priority. Karen Karnei, Wytheville District parish nurse and a member at St. Paul UMC, serves on the Outreach Advocacy Team. When asked what this health ministry has to do with our conference directive to "by all means win some," Karnei replied, "This is a mission. People are frazzled. They are coming to churches looking for help. Churches have an enormous responsibility to offer the kind of help and support needed."

Through one-on-one communication, or within small health-related support groups, people may feel comfortable enough to identify their needs to a parish nurse. Issues of body weight, illness, poor relationships, and family care-giving frustrations may be discussed more openly with a registered nurse on the listening end. In a world full of hurt, this ministry allows our churches to become vital, hospitable Christian congregations that are actively "winning some."

"Each church needs a minister who supports and incorporates a message of wholeness into the church's ministry," said Karnei. The Outreach Advocacy Team recommends establishing a Health and Wellness Committee and organizing a team of volunteer caregivers to support the ministry. The church should be willing to provide an office, telephone, computer, and basic medical provisions such as scales, blood pressure equipment, and reference books. In some cases, funds may be needed to support the program and salary of the nurse. In Karnei's case, the local community hospital has partnered with St. Paul UMC to support the ministry. The hospital pays her salary while the church provides her with office space and daily supplies.

When asked about the benefits of having a parish nurse on staff, the Rev. Fred Dearing responded, "Our nurse is a tremendous asset to this congregation."

Dearing, senior minister at State Street UMC in Bristol, Va., elaborated on how this specialized ministry helps people with life transitions; provides care before, during, and after hospital stays; helps relocate elderly people from private homes to assisted-living facilities or nursing homes; and assists pregnant women and newborns. Dearing's advice to congregations considering the addition of a parish nurse to the church staff: "If you don't have one, get one."

Henderlight is a freelance writer and Holston Conference coordinator of children's ministries.


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