Nurturing Life: the Ministry of Healing in the Congregation
by Kirsten Peachey (July / August 2002 • Volume 18 • Number 4)
Healing plays a great part in the story of Jesus. That story continues today through a variety of congregational models
At the core of every major faith tradition stands an explicit commitment to be with the sick, the poor, the alienated, the marginal, the wounded, and the dying. The commitments are very old, but the implications are ever new. (from Gary Gunderson, Interfaith Health Program, Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia.)
Stan has liver cancer. He was diagnosed two weeks ago and is still reeling from the news. How could this happen? What will the future hold? Will he die? How will his wife and three young children go on if he's not there? Will he be in pain? Can he trust his doctor to know what the right treatment options are? Does God care about him?
Marie is 65 and about to retire. She is quite overweight and is worried that after she retires, she'll gain even more weight. She loved her job and she wants more out of life than having coffee with friends or going to the church senior's group meetings. But she's not sure her body will hold up for travel or lots of activities. What is God calling her to do at this new stage in her life? How can she get her weight under control and feel more healthy so she's ready to do what God has in store for her?
Deborah runs a daycare from her home. Her program has been successful, but finances are tight and she can't afford health insurance for herself. Last month, she was admitted to the hospital and diagnosed with diabetes after passing out in the grocery store. She has started receiving bills for her hospitalization, doctor appointments, and medications and has no way to pay them. She doesn't know how she's going to make it.
Megan, a 15-year-old whose parents just divorced, is struggling to cope. She's been wondering about all the talk at church about God's love. God certainly didn't answer her prayers for her parents to stay together. She smoked pot with her friends over the weekend. It sure felt good to forget about her problems for a little while. Who cared anyway?
Sound familiar? Every pastor knows Stan, Marie, Deborah, and Megan. People dealing with transitions, challenges, and heartbreaks make up the churches we serve. Their dilemmas are the ones that keep us up at night in prayer and consternation, wondering how we can help — that is, how the church can be a place of hope for them.
A Ministry of Healing
The Christian tradition is built around theologies, rituals, and practices that help people find the spiritual strength to live whole, abundant lives in the midst of the realities of life and that call the community of faith to support and care for those in need. This is the ministry of healing that the church lives out every day.
The role of the church as an agent of healing is certainly in keeping with the story of faith that leads us. Our Scriptures are filled with accounts of how God's healing, saving grace brings new life. Jesus' ministry was primarily one of healing. Jesus said, "I have come that they might have life, and have it abundantly" (John 10:10, NRSV). Many gospel narratives show Jesus healing by touching someone, casting out a demon, restoring a leper to his community — bringing abundant life in many dimensions.
The apostles carried on this ministry. One of the functions of the elders was to heal by the laying on of hands. By some scholarly accounts, the early church grew and thrived because of its hospitality to the ill and marginalized.
Until the rise of science deposed it in the Enlightenment, the church was the seat of authority on medicine and healing. Many of our present-day hospitals and health systems have their roots in the response of Christian communities to the call to heal the sick.
Churches have always had ministries of healing — support groups, lay visitors, food pantries, homeless shelters, jazzercise classes, advocacy, and social justice efforts. As churches embrace their identity as agents of healing, however, the ministries become more focused.
Some churches have parish nurses, either paid or volunteer, that direct the ministry of health in the congregation. Parish nursing has become a dynamic international phenomenon as these health professionals have harnessed the potential of the congregation to attend to people's health holistically. (See sidebar, "Parish Nursing: Combining Healthcare and Spiritual Support," at the end of this article)
Other churches utilize different models. Caring community programs are efforts that encourage members of the congregation to reach out to each other for support. These programs are important because they reduce isolation, build community, and develop the ministry skills of lay people. Stephen Ministries or other lay visitation ministries are examples of this kind of program.
A unique caring community model is the Lafiya program developed by the Association of Brethren Caregivers. In this model, congregation members learn effective listening skills and then share their life stories with each other in small groups. The stories that are shared lay the foundation for the programs of the church. For example, if grief is a significant theme for many of the participants, the congregation may decide to develop initiatives around loss and bereavement. Caring community ministries can be complex or quite simple. Either way, they are powerful instruments of healing.
The lay health promoter concept was developed in communities where health resources are scarce, though it is valuable in any context. People identified as respected community connectors are trained in basic health information, health promotion tactics, and resourcing skills. They work with their peers to educate, make referrals, and encourage healthy behaviors.
This model is a bit more intensive and requires strong leadership and organization. Partnership with other congregations or with a health care system can also be a helpful piece to this program.
Rather than starting a new committee or initiative, some churches develop a health cabinet. The health cabinet is an umbrella group made up of representatives from the other committees or ministries of the congregation. This group surveys the activities of the faith community and looks at how health and wellness themes or issues can be integrated into what is going on.
For instance, the health cabinet might assist the worship committee in planning a healing service or help the care and nurture committee develop a weight-loss support group. This is a good way to integrate the health ministry into the life of the church and to engage people who are not health professionals in the work.
A health ministry might be very specialized. Some congregations identify a particular population, like older adults or disabled children, and build a program around the needs of people in that group. This model can be particularly effective when there are significant gaps in service in the community or when there are people with personal experiences or expertise in the area. Often this kind of program isn't limited to the congregation but becomes a ministry to the wider community.
Some congregations work at health issues from a social action perspective. In such a congregation, the health ministry might take on a local industry that is polluting the environment, organize against gang violence in the neighborhood, or lobby Congress about universal health care.
While many of the models described above may not seem like they are health related, studies are showing that positive relationships, practice of faith rituals, church attendance, belief in the sacredness of the body, forgiveness, and many other attributes connected with faith communities actually have significant physical benefits. The love we express for each other, the way in which we hold each other accountable, the joy we feel, the prayers we lift for each other, the faith that we are cared for by a loving God — these things all impact our bodies as well as our souls.
Nurturing Abundant Life
Congregations have great power to nurture abundant life. The church can help Stan wrestle with questions about suffering and death. The church can be a place where Marie's spiritual life can be engaged around her eating habits and that can help her explore her questions of calling and meaning. The church can be an advocate for Deborah and provide material and emotional support. The church can demonstrate God's love for Megan and model ways to deal with difficult life experiences.
Churches do this work all the time. What distinguishes a health ministry is that it makes explicit the belief that these initiatives are instruments of God's healing power in our lives, not simply good things to do. A health ministry grows out of a reflective process by the entire faith community that asks itself what healing means according to their faith tradition and scriptural sources and builds on existing programs and resources to make those commitments reality.
A health ministry doesn't have to look a certain way. But a health ministry should lay claim to the bold idea that the church can impact people's health — mind, body, spirit, relationships. The church is an agent in making real the abundant life to which Jesus calls us.
Faith/Health Web Resources
For more information, visit the following web pages:
1. Advocate Community Ministry at www.advocatehealth.com . Click on About Advocate/Faith at Advocate.
2. Interfaith Health Program at www.ihpnet.org
3. Health Ministries Association at www.healthministriesassociation.org
4. International Parish Nurse Resource Center at www.parishnurses.org
Kirsten Peachey is director of the Advocate Community Ministry, of Advocate Healthcare, Park Ridge, Illinois, and pastor in the United Church of Christ. Advocate Healthcare is a ministry of both the ELCA and the UCC.
Health and Wellness Survey Measures Rostered Leaders' Health Concerns
If, as the United Nation's World Health Organization suggests, health means the ability to achieve our potential and to respond positively to the challenges of the environment, how healthy are our pastors and church leaders?
We have a better understanding, thanks to the results of the Summex survey, a recent survey of our ordained ministers and rostered lay leaders. The survey's results suggest an opportunity for improvement. Did you know, for example, that at least 50 percent of our health status is the result of lifestyle behaviors?
The ELCA is focusing on health and wellness and will be a church that encourages, supports, and motivates rostered leaders to grow in their "faith hardiness." This hardiness reflects the spiritual, physical, emotional, intellectual, interpersonal, and vocational health needed for robust leaders in service to God.
The Summex survey, sponsored by AAL/Lutheran Brotherhood, suggests that the top issues of our church leaders that need to be addressed are stress, overweight, physical inactivity, and nutrition (increasing fruits and vegetables and decreasing fats.) Analysis of health claims data from the Board of Pensions indicates some concern about the rate of depression and heart disease.
The ELCA and the Board of Pensions will be working on plans to educate, motivate, and create incentives for healthy behaviors. Faith-hardy leaders will be healthier and happier and the result will be healthier and happier congregations.
For the details of this survey and other health research, look for the full report, "Ministerial Health and Wellness," in print and online. Contact the ELCA Distribution Center to order at 800-328-4648 (ISBN order # 6-0001-6535-8).
Health and wellness information can be found online at www.elca.org/dm/health and soon at www.healthylutherans.org.
Gwen Wagstrom Halaas is project director, Ministerial Health and Wellness Program in the ELCA. She is also a medical doctor. She and her family live in Racine, Wisconsin.
Parish Nursing: Combining Healthcare and Spiritual Support
Parish nursing is a specialty practice and professional model of health ministry distinguished by the following beliefs:
(1) The parish nurse role reclaims the historic roots of health and healing found in many religious traditions. Parish nurses live out the work of monks, nuns, deacons and deaconesses, church nurses, traditional healers, and the nursing profession itself.
(2) The spiritual dimension is central to parish nursing practice. Personal spiritual formation is essential for the parish nurse. The practice holds that all persons are sacred and must be treated with respect and dignity. Compelled by these beliefs, the parish nurse serves, advocating with compassion, mercy, and justice. The parish nurse assists and supports individuals, families, and communities in becoming more active partners in the stewardship of personal and communal health resources.
(3) The parish nurse understands health to be a dynamic process, which embodies the spiritual, psychological, physical, and social dimensions of the person. Spiritual health is central to well being and influences a person's entire being. A sense of well being can exist in the presence of disease, and healing can exist in the absence of cure.
(4) The focus of practice is the faith community and its ministry. The parish nurse, in collaboration with the pastoral staff and congregants, participates in the ongoing transformation of the faith community into a source of health and healing. Through partnership with other community health resources, parish nursing fosters new and creative responses to health and wellness concerns.
For more on parish nursing, see P.A. Solari-Twadell, M.A. McDermott, & R. Matheus, eds., Parish Nursing Education: Preparation for Parish Nurses and Parish Nurse Managers/Coordinators: Promoting Congregational Health, Healing and Wholeness for the Twenty-First Century (Park Ridge, IL: International Parish Nurse Resource Center, 2000).
Social Statement's Initial Draft on Health Available for Responses
"Health, Healing, and Health Care: First Draft of a Social Statement" is the first installment of a social statement authorized by the 1999 ELCA Churchwide Assembly. A final draft will be presented to the Churchwide Assembly for action in 2003.
The 1999 Assembly directed the statement to address four areas: biblical and theological foundations for the church's ministry in health and health care; access to health care and equity in care in the United States; the work of the church's social ministry organizations; and the role of congregational health ministries in the church's ministry.
The first draft also gives a vision of health care, addresses the responsibilities of individuals for their own health, and takes up criteria of ethical guidance for making both personal and corporate decisions about health and health care.
The ELCA has held a series of hearings with various synods about the draft. The results of those hearings, and other responses to the draft through September 1 of this year, will inform the writing of the final draft.
Both English and Spanish-language versions are available online at: /dcs/healthcare/html .
To order a single copy, call the Division for Church in Society at 800-638-3522 (ext. 2996). For multiple copies, call Augsburg Fortress at 800-328-4648 (order no. 6-0001-6275-8, $0.25 each).
A Spanish translation, "Salud, Sanación, y Cuidado de la Salud," is also available. Call the Division for Church in Society at 800-638-3522 (ext. 2996) to order a single copy. Callers can make multiple copies through photocopy reproduction, as long as each copy includes a copyright note.
Ronald W. Duty, a pastor in the ELCA, is assistant director for studies in the Division for Church and Society of the ELCA, Chicago, Illinois.