An Action Plan for Health
by Gwen Wagstrom Halaas (July / August 2004 — Volume 20, Number 4)
Commitment to good health starts with a personal action plan that is supported by families. The local congregation can step up and play a unique role, as it is well situated to understand and respond to community health issues.
Health and health care is the topic of conversation at the dinner table, at the office, in the boardrooms of businesses and health plans, in the media, and in the legislature. What does the church have to add to this discussion?
My personal and professional belief is that the answers to the complex issues and problems of fostering good health and providing quality health care for all will come from our communities. What better place to begin the discussion than within a community of faith where our values and ethics direct us to be stewards of our own health and of the health of our neighbors?
The ELCA Social Statement on health, healing, and health care, “Caring for Health: Our Shared Endeavor,” gives us a thoughtful and comprehensive foundation for the discussion. It is essential to understand the complexity of health and health services and the issues that impact health and access to health care in order to effect change. Change will come as a result of understanding the need for change and the development of a consensus on how to effect change. It will come from a shared conviction that health is a gift from God and that we are the stewards of the gift. Although most may agree that health care is a right and that access to health-care services should be available and affordable for all, consensus on how to make it happen has not been and will not be easy. We need to start with actions for which we have some reasonable degree of control and responsibility.
Personal Action Plan
The first action is to address personal health and wellness. It is too easy to turn our concern toward others and to express opinions on how to change behaviors, services, or policies without first addressing our own health issues. If, as research has shown, at least half of the factors that result in chronic diseases and early death are the result of personal lifestyle behaviors, addressing those behaviors gets us a long way toward addressing the need for medical services and the ultimate cost of health care. That means increasing our physical activity, eating nutritiously, getting adequate sleep, wearing seat belts and sunscreen, avoiding tobacco and abuse of alcohol and other drugs, avoiding risky sexual or other behaviors, nourishing supportive relationships, being active in our faith, and finding joy in life and satisfaction in our vocations.
Although this sounds like a solitary venture, research has also shown that we are most likely to be successful at changing behavior if we have social support. Conversations and education about health and healthy behavior and organizing ways to promote healthy behaviors among church members are good first steps for congregations.
If you are overweight, change your eating habits and increase your physical activity for life. Aim to lose 5 to 10 percent of your weight as a starting point. Make a practical plan for these lifestyle changes. Seek the information or the tools that will help you be successful. Recruit a friend or family member to join you. Tell others about your plan. Ask God for help. Pray for guidance and support. Make changes in the plan as you experience successes or frustrations.
|What better place to begin the discussion than within a community of faith where our values and ethics direct us to be stewards of our own health and of the health of our neighbors?|
If you are at a healthy weight, there may still be opportunities for improvement. Drink more water and eat more fruits and vegetables. Eat fewer saturated fats and more healthy fats. Downsize your portions. Increase your physical activity in length of time, intensity, or frequency. Learn a new activity or begin a group physical activity, and ask friends or family to join you.
If you are stressed or depressed, evaluate your current situation and make time to make changes. Improve your diet and increase your physical activity. Seek professional advice for a plan to improve your emotional health. Make time for family and friends to celebrate life. Make time for regular prayer and worship. If you smoke or abuse alcohol as a coping mechanism or as an addiction, seek help to quit those unhealthy behaviors. If you take risks by not wearing your seat belt or by riding motorcycles, bicycles, or other recreational vehicles without a helmet, reconsider the stewardship of your own health and the health-care resources that could be used to benefit others.
Form a relationship with a trusted health-care provider and be prepared to make informed decisions about your health care and the health care of your family members. Take the time to create an advance directive and to appoint a health-care agent who will make decisions about your medical care when you are unable. Making decisions now eases your mind and helps your family make decisions. It also avoids the suffering and cost of unwanted resuscitations or technological intervention prolonging life without quality.
When we have addressed our personal health and lifestyle behaviors, it is natural to turn toward family health. Make good health and balanced living priorities in family life. You may already have started buying healthier groceries and increasing physical activities that include the immediate family. Healthy lifestyles are formed and supported within the family structure. It is particularly important for children to observe their parents modeling healthy behaviors.
There may be challenges within your own family that relate to physical or emotional health. Taking on the challenges as a family helps to lighten the burden for any one individual. Make self-care and the care of the health of others in your family a way of living. Understanding the needs and being helpful to family members dealing with acute or chronic illness or who are dying is a gift. Plan for ongoing support for those family members who are ill or disabled.
Health and healing were significant parts of Jesus’ ministry, and that work should continue within the ministry and mission of the church. Affirm the importance of a healthy lifestyle for pastors, church staff, and congregational members. Make health a part of your congregation’s ministry through a parish nurse, a health and wellness committee, services of health and healing, health education, and community outreach to improve health. Evaluate and, if necessary, change the foods that are prepared and offered at committee meetings and congregational events. Incorporate physical activity into worship and congregational-life events. Pray for the health of others and in support of health-care workers. Establish a system of caregivers to address the specific needs of members with chronic or acute disease or health crises.
As an important member of the community, the church is well suited for understanding and responding to community health issues. Be knowledgeable about the health issues of the diverse populations of your community — whether related to gender, age, ethnic heritage, occupation, or socioeconomic status. Understand the impact of environmental damage, poverty, social isolation, discrimination, oppression, and violence on health and the Christian obligation to address these issues. Be aware of and active in addressing lack of access to safe places and affordable avenues for physical activity and affordable healthy foods.
In addition, support the financial and human resources needed to address mental-health needs and the needs of those who do not have access to affordable health-care services.
Understand the needs and the realities of your neighbors. Visit your neighbors and ask about their health needs — physical, emotional, social, intellectual, vocational, and spiritual. Support your community health clinics and others who address those needs. Have conversations with health-care providers and community leaders to understand the needs and realities of others in the community and to consider the role of the church and the possibilities for partnership.
Converse and partner with healthcare providers and community leaders to address health needs of the community. Invite the health-care providers in your congregation to discuss those needs and help develop strategies for responding to them. Host a meeting with other congregations, health-care leaders, social ministry organizations, and community leaders to prioritize health-care needs that could benefit from joint community efforts involving the churches.
Use the knowledge gained from being actively involved and informed to convene a community group to advocate effectively with informed proposals to address specific needs. Work together to address the appropriate use of and demand for medical technology in a way that uses resources to assure that the basic health needs of all are met and that health promotion and prevention are supported in proportion to cure and rescue.
Work against the cultural denial of death by making death and dying a natural part of the life cycle that should not be feared and that can be enhanced through palliative and hospice care. Encourage and support pastoral care and spiritual care as part of the health-care team and services. Support, encourage, and recruit individuals to continue their work in or prepare for roles in spiritual, social, and health-care services.
Health is a gift from God, and it is the work of the church to honor that gift through the support and practice of healing and the promotion and improvement of our health.
Gwen Wagstrom Halaas is a family physician and faculty member at the University of Minnesota and has served as director of Ministerial Health and Wellness for the ELCA through the Division for Ministry and the Board of Pensions. She is the author of The Right Road: Life Choices for Clergy. (Fortress Press, 2004, $16).