Congregational Health Ministries: Biblical in Spirit

I have two passions:
       my nursing career
              and my faith…
—Susan Jungman, RN

Health ministries based in congregations are expanding rapidly in the United States today. They may be the fastest-growing form of local mission within The United Methodist Church. Each is highly contextual and defined by needs and resources in its own locale. These programs range from health education programs to multifaceted systems with specialized personnel. Some are ecumenical or interfaith in scope. All begin with the awareness that health and wholeness—their common goals—involve body, mind, and spirit.

“The congregations are of all sizes and in every part of the country,” notes Patricia Magyar, a nurse and educator who is executive secretary of health ministries at UMCOR Health, a part of the United Methodist General Board of Global Ministries. “Some congregations focus primarily on the health of members, while others also respond to needs within the larger community.”

The “parish nurse” is a popular type of congregation-based health ministry. Free clinics serving economically disadvantaged neighborhoods are fewer than nurses in number but steadily increasing. Either a parish nurse or a clinic may be independent or related to area health networks. Careful planning and skilled management are essential in launching and sustaining these ministries. “It takes hard work to get a parish nurse program or a free public clinic off the ground and to keep it running,” says Magyar. “But the reward is enormous in terms of life enrichment for all involved—sponsors and participants. This work is truly biblical, emulating the spirit and actions of Jesus.”

All health services and outreach-based ministries in congregations are almost wholly dependent upon the commitment and competence of lay volunteers. This is itself a healthy movement in mission.


“I have two passions: my nursing career and my faith,” says Susan Jungman, RN, reflecting the sentiment of most parish nurses—who, by definition, are registered nurses. A decade ago, Jungman’s passions coalesced at Broadway United Methodist Church in Council Bluffs, Iowa.  She and a group of other nurses spearheaded Broadway UMC’s impressive congregation and community health ministry, which emerged publicly after two years of planning. Broadway, a church of more than 1,000 members, became the first congregation to affiliate with the Alegent Health and Faith Community Network—an area coalition that now has 46 church and community sites. Jungman, a professor of nursing for 25 years, retired from teaching a few months ago, but she and another nurse continue to be part-time employees of the church, working alongside volunteer nurses. The work includes services to a nearby Hispanic congregation and volunteer mission trips to Central America. A grant from the Iowa Annual Conference helped to get the Broadway health ministry underway.
The ministry at Broadway UMC is individual- and family-centered, and it has expanded to include Bible study and spiritual enrichment for the nurses in the network. The origins of the parish nurse movement are traced to the work of the Rev. Dr. Granger E. Westberg, a Lutheran pastor and hospital chaplain. In the early 1980s, he began to link health services and faith communities. Beginning in Park Ridge, Illinois, he showed the physical and spiritual value of having nurses available through churches. (He would later teach in both theological seminaries and medical schools.) In 1985, the International Parish Nurse Resource Center was set up in Chicago. In 2002, it was moved to Washington University in St Louis, Missouri—a major training center for parish nurses. Sometimes called “faith community nurses,” parish nurses represent, to some degree, a contemporary adaptation of the much older “parish deaconess” office. There are roughly 12,000 parish nurses in the United States today, according to the international center.

We have identified 675 parish nurses working through United Methodist congregations, and that is probably only half the real number,” said Sharon T. Hilton, registered nurse and consultant to the congregation-based health work of Global Ministries. “These nurses,” she adds, “are in every state, and many are in rural as well as urban and suburban communities.” Parish nurses seem most numerous in the Midwest, the region that gave birth to the ministry.

Over the last decade, as Hilton and others explain, the parish nursing movement has established standards and set guidelines for training. The range of health and education services is well summarized on the website of St. Matthew United Methodist Church in Midwest City, Oklahoma:

• Health promotion, including screenings for various conditions; a site for community health services; private consultation; prevention classes and materials; and training of volunteers.
• Referral and advocacy; contacting health service providers; guiding persons to community resources; and meeting with families to plan caregiving.
• Visitation, such as home, hospital, and nursing-home calls; phone contact to provide counseling and family support; bereavement visits by nurse and/or clergy.
• Interpreting the relationship between faith and health, including crisis counseling; use of Scripture, prayer, and devotional material as aids to healing; and incorporating spiritual values into health education.

Variations on this outline are many. Blacksburg UMC in Blacksburg, Virginia, and Lamar UMC in Lamar, Missouri, have “lending closets” that offer health-related equipment, such as walkers and wheelchairs. Parish nursing may be linked to Stephen’s Ministries or other kinds of one-on-one lay ministries addressing spiritual and physical needs. Health fairs often complement the nursing ministries.

Caregiving is a characteristic feature of both parish nursing and less formal congregation-based health ministries. Courses on caregiving are common, as are programs of respite for family members who bear heavy responsibility for loved ones who are terminally ill or disabled. An August issue of the newsletter of Gray UMC, in the Holston Conference of eastern Tennessee, announced two forthcoming classes on caregiving. The parish nurse, a member of the church staff, also defined what it means to be a caregiver and highlighted caregivers’ own needs and rights.

The Alegent Health and Faith Community Network of southwestern Iowa and eastern Nebraska is one type of parish/community nursing collaborative. Alegent is a faith-based health system, with Ronette L. Sailors as its network coordinator. “Alegent strengthens the congregation and community programs,” Sailors says. “It saves money, increases health education resources, and shares ideas.” Sue Jungman of Broadway UMC, an Alegent participant, notes that she first learned of the Prayer Shawl Ministry at a network meeting. “This has been wonderful for many older women in the church,” Jungman affirms. “One woman has knitted or crocheted 50 shawls for the elderly or receiving blankets for the newborn. She is 95 years old.”

Another kind of network links United Methodist parish nurses within annual conferences, such as in the Illinois Great Rivers Annual Conference. Last August, about 30 parish nurses gathered in Springfield for a retreat. They considered how to increase and support the number of parish nurses and other congregation-based health ministries as part of the annual conference’s greater emphasis on health. The Wisconsin Annual Conference has at least 24 parish nurses, according to an online database.


In 1995, the Green Street United Methodist Church in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, was down to a dozen members and facing almost certain closure. In a last-ditch effort, the congregation decided to reach out to its ethnically and economically changing community. Initial steps—a clothing closet and a narcotics anonymous program—were not dramatic but effective. Then a physician in the congregation made a bold suggestion: What about a free health clinic?

The Health Ministry and its weekly clinic became a significant part of the Shalom Project of Green Street Church—today a vibrant ethnically, socially, and economically diverse congregation of 350 members.  The clinic is open every Wednesday night except in summer, when services are reduced. It began with one volunteer doctor, a nurse, and 10 patients. At present, there are five to seven medical providers per week, plus nurses, professional health educators, and 30 volunteers who assist with intake and other clerical duties, according to Eileen Ayuso, the Shalom Project’s director.

“Our congregation is made up of people who care and want to serve,” Ayuso says, pointing out the need for language interpreters. “The clinic is only one of eight Shalom programs that include an anti-racism team, food and clothing, a kid’s café and afterschool care, and a weekly welcome center and community supper.”

Doctors who volunteer at the clinic are shielded by a “Good Samaritan law.” The clinic also has a North Carolina pharmacy license, enabling it to supply free prescription drugs when a physician or licensed pharmacist is present. Other clinics provided by United Methodist churches include ones in New Orleans, Louisiana; Worcester, Massachusetts; Matthews, North Carolina; and Wichita, Kansas.

Congregations of all sizes engage in health ministries that do not involve nurses or health clinics. St. Luke’s UMC, a large-member congregation in suburban Orlando, Florida, facilitates a large number of health education programs and health support groups, according to the Rev. David Stephens. “We also have a counseling center that offers reduced-cost and scholarship services,” he says. St. Luke’s church helps to recruit volunteers for Shepherd’s Hope, a free ecumenical clinic on Orlando’s west side.

Making church facilities accessible to persons with mobility problems or handicapping conditions can be a form of health ministry, as can providing space for public and community-based clinics. Each autumn, an increasing number of churches host health department clinics to provide flu vaccines.

Three reasons for the growth of congregation-based health ministries stand out.

• One reason is the aging of The United Methodist Church’s membership —a fact that highlights the need for health care and caregiving. The concern for the health of church members naturally extends into the larger community.
• Another reason is the increased focus on the large number of individuals and families in the United States that lack health insurance and, consequently, access to quality health care.
• The third reason (a point made by Sharon Hilton) is that only within the last decade have theological seminaries begun to include health as a theme in the training of clergy. Having been taught about the interaction between physical and spiritual health, pastors welcome the work of the laity in organizing and conducting health ministries.

The impact and value of health ministries finds resonance in the prayer hymn, “O Christ, the Healer.” The last stanza reads:

Grant that we all, made one in faith,
in your community
may find the wholeness that,
enriching us,
shall reach the whole of humankind.

Elliott Wright is a longtime journalist and consultant to the General Board of Global Ministries.

For additional information on congregational health ministries, including parish nursing, consult these websites:

• Congregation Health
• International Parish Nurse
Resource Center

A Free Pharmacy in Ohio

Opened in February 2010, the Charitable Pharmacy of Central Ohio is a ministry of the West Ohio United Methodist Annual Conference, in collaboration with local health providers. Located at the Livingston UMC in Columbus, Ohio, the pharmacy served more than 600 in its first six months, filling more than 5,800 prescriptions with a value of $470,000. The facility has five paid workers, including one provided by the State of Ohio, and two pharmacy students. Mariellyn Dunlap, a United Methodist Church and Community Worker, reports that one of the greatest challenges is finding enough volunteers to sort the medications donated each week by corporations and institutions.

“As the economy continues in decline, more and more of the recently unemployed are coming to our pharmacy,” says Dunlap. “Some have never before faced the need for such social services, and it is difficult for them to ask for help. We try to make the process as welcoming as we can. Our busiest day this year was right after Labor Day, when we served 56 people. Even Medicare and Medicaid recipients often can’t afford high prescription co-payments on their limited incomes."

This article originally appeared in the November 2010 issue of New World Outlook, the Mission Magazine of the United Methodist Church and is reprinted with their permission.


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