Parish Nursing: Care for the Sick, Healing for the Community. (Cover Story)

By Malcolm, Teresa | National Catholic Reporter, June 7, 2002 | Go to article overview

Parish Nursing: Care for the Sick, Healing for the Community. (Cover Story)


Malcolm, Teresa, National Catholic Reporter


The work of a parish's health ministry can be likened to peeling an onion, says one leader in the movement. The outer layers of the onion are the statistics of the leading causes of death in the United States--such as heart disease, cancer, murder. Peel that off, and you find behaviors linked to the causes: smoking, overeating, drug abuse, violence.

"But you don't stop there," said Sharon Stanton, president of the Health Ministries Association, "because people do those things to cope. You peel down to the core roots of why people are emotionally, mentally and spiritually sick. You find powerlessness, lack of information, joblessness, economic despair, emotional despair, broken relationships, broken families, disconnected families, lack of forgiveness, a broken relationship with the environment. You're getting at the root causes and healing people from within--getting to the heart and helping them grow.

"It's so much more than just praying for someone after surgery and helping them heal faster," she said. "It's about helping communities heal themselves."

At the forefront of this work are parish nurses, whose numbers have been growing in congregations--Protestant and Catholic, as well as other faiths--for almost 20 years.

A specialty practice recognized by the American Nurses Association, parish nursing takes so many forms that it is as layered as an onion itself. Nurses work as volunteers, part-time and full-time at a parish. Someone who volunteers to take blood pressure screenings once a month might be called a parish nurse, but in the ministry's fullest expression, nurses can be spending their days visiting homes and hospitals in the community, assuring that disadvantaged clients--whether parishioners or community members--receive needed services; or they may organize health fairs, seminars and support groups, educating the community about health issues and their connection to faith.

What they do not do is provide clinical services--hands-on intervention like giving shots or drawing blood. The term that could be applied to all parish nurses is health promoter, focusing on care of the whole person--physical, psychological, social and spiritual--with the spiritual dimension considered central.

"As God's people, we have a responsibility of stewardship of his gift of life," said Jeanne Nist, a registered nurse and manager of the Holy Cross Parish Nursing Program in Silver Spring, Md. "It's very empowering for people to understand what they can do ... to be a part of health and wellness, and not just seek crisis intervention."

The connection between faith and health is not a new one. Catholic orders of nuns founded to care for the sick and the evangelical deaconess movement of the 19th century were forebears of parish nurses. More important, the work of health ministry can be traced to Christianity's roots.

Paying attention, as Jesus did

"Obviously, Jesus spent a lot of time responding to sick people--healing them, touching them, paying attention to them," said Fr. Ed McLaughlin, pastor of the Orland Park, Ill., church of St. Michael, which counts parish nursing among its many ministries. "If we're going to continue his work, we're going to have to do that."

The modern concept of parish nursing gained prominence through the Rev. Granger Westberg, a Lutheran minister who in the mid-1980s worked with Lutheran General HealthSystem in Park Ridge, Ill., to hire six nurses to work with six area congregations, including two Roman Catholic parishes. In 1986, the National Parish Nurse Resource Center (later to be renamed "International") was formed. The center was affiliated with Lutheran General HealthSystem and, following a merger, Advocate Health Care in Park Ridge, until last fall, when it moved to St. Louis under the auspices of Deaconess Parish Nurse Ministries. The Deaconess organization is affiliated with the United Church of Christ. …

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