Suggestions for how congregations can care for physical, spiritual health needs
By Jessica Klassen
Walking into the hospital room, I felt nervous and inadequate. While I had years of critical care expertise, this was my first opportunity to serve as the parish nurse of my new church home, offering spiritual care to a woman who had been a leader at this church longer than I had been alive. My nervousness turned to relief as she warmly welcomed me in among her family to listen, share and pray for healing.
It was less than a year earlier that God led our family to a new church, while at the same time opening my eyes to a new way to use my nursing skills for his kingdom. A hospital flyer introduced me to parish nursing, defined by the American Nurses Association as the “specialized practice of professional nursing that focuses on the intentional care of the spirit as part of the process of promoting wholistic health and preventing or minimizing illness in a faith community.”
Most of our churches are well prepared to strengthen our spiritual health. But not all churches are equipped to come alongside to help with physical health issues or to connect the relationship between our spiritual health and our physical health. That’s the passion of a parish nurse.
Think about your health goals for you and your family. You want to prevent illness and injury and to optimize your health and abilities. Now imagine someone in your congregation who shares these goals and works with you to achieve them.
Much like every church is different, a faith community nursing program will differ from church to church based on the needs of the congregation and the person filling the parish nursing role.
In my case, working in Critical Care,I often see people in “crisis mode,” facing seemingly impossible decisions for loved ones.Knowing that more than one-third of all people in this situation will suffer from post-traumatic stress symptoms, I yearn to help ease these stressful times.
So I arranged to have experts show church members how to plan ahead for difficult decisions that come with aging. We’ve learned about dementia, medication management, senior resources, advanced health care directives and funeral planning.Workshops like this provide a chance for reflecting, preparing and sharing testimonies.
By starting these discussions, planning for difficult times is brought into the open, and families won’t have to guess what to do when placed in the position of making decisions in a crisis.
Planning workshops takes time and organization. However, a parish nursing program can also start with something very simple. I started by taking blood pressures once a month after Sunday services. Why blood pressures? After all, you can check your blood pressure at almost any grocery store.
But it's not just about blood pressure. Something about taking the time to sit down with a nurse while having your blood pressure checked leads to sharing health concerns and struggles. I've learned about upcoming surgeries, been approached when a doctor’s recommendation wasn’t understood and have been asked to explain medical terminology in everyday language.In other words, through those simple blood pressure checks, I learn about the health needs of the church family and start forming ideas for how to meet them.
There are two key elements to a successful parish nursing program.
1. Support from the church leadership. When I felt called into parish nursing, I made an appointment to meet with my pastor to discuss if this was an opportunity for our church. After a few weeks of prayer, we felt that we should proceed.
I've been blessed with the support of the pastor, Elder Board and Shepherding Committee of my church. Like any ministry area, it's important that the parish nursing program be an integrated part of the church.
As any pastor will tell you, hospital visits occur regularly. As a parish nurse, I'm able to help share in this vital visitation ministry. After my pastor learned of a church member’s need for emergency surgery, he rushed to the hospital to pray with her. Knowing I was working that night, he sent me a text message sharing the situation. I was able to arrange my workload so that I could take a break and be with her as she woke from anesthesia in the recovery room. Her face filled with joy when the first person she saw was a member of her church family. I visited her several times over the next few days and then checked on her progress when we'd meet at church functions.
2. Networking with other parish nurses. I was introduced to parish nursing through Health Ministries Network of Bellingham, Wash. They offer educational opportunities for those interested in pursuing parish nursing and monthly networking meetings. Each month at least 20 nurses encourage each other, share ideas and learn from a variety of speakers.
It's important that a parish nurse doesn't replicate a working system in the community but spends time and effort sharing what resources are available and appropriate for the church family.Many of the nurses within networks like this are eager to work together for the health of all of our congregations, and some have training or expertise that you or your church's parish nurse might not.
Some nurses might worry that they won’t have time to devote to a health ministry, especially if they work full-time or have young families. Or they worry that they have too narrow a focus in their specialty area.
I can tell you that every parish nurse ministry is unique to the time and abilities that each nurse has to offer. Every specialty brings a different view and focus. Ideally we can team together and share our knowledge with both our colleagues and our churches. I see continual examples of 1 Peter 4:10: “Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms.”
Friends and family approach nurses for health advice. Are you being called to use your education and expertise within your church family in a more structured program? Do you know of nurses within your congregation that would be great in this role?
Parish nursing is a new idea for many nurses, pastors and congregations. I've seen firsthand what value it brings to our church. Whether you're a nurse, a pastor or an interested church member, I invite you to be in prayer about how a program like this might benefit your congregation and even your community outreach efforts.
Jessica Klassen, a full-time critical care nurse, partners with Pastor Tim Thiessen to provide holistic care to all attending Birch Bay Bible Community Church, Blaine, Wash.. She is the hospital liaison between Peace Health St. Joseph Medical Center and Health Ministries Network. Klassen is attending graduate school at Gonzaga University and anticipates becoming a family nurse practitioner in 2014. She and her husband, Mike, have been married 20 years and homeschool their two children.
If you have questions or are interested in talking with someone about starting or building a health ministry at your church, Klassen invites you to contact her at ParishNurse@birchbaychurch.com.