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The Church’s Call to Health Ministry The Church’s Call to Health Ministry

When Jesus saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; pray therefore the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.” Matthew 9:36-38

In a church I served, probably very much like the church you serve or attend, there were people who got sick. Sometimes they would need to go to the hospital. The hospital would take care of them for a few days, and then send them back home. Often the hospital would call me and ask if we had anyone in the church who could help at home.

We also had homebound members with health concerns. Sometimes people needed to move into nursing homes, and it was hard for their families to find the right place. Some folks had illnesses which were misdiagnosed, and advocating for another opinion got them the help they needed. A church community often has many health-related concerns. So when I was offered the opportunity to serve on the board of a large health system in St. Louis, I jumped at the chance. I thought, “Oh boy, here’s my chance to change how healthcare interacts with the church.”

I learned more about how hospitals are run and about some of the myriad regulations under which they operate. I learned more about the economic and social complexities of hospital administration. For example, I learned more about how health insurance works. I learned that some insurance companies pay the full charges on a hospital’s bill. But those companies providing that kind of indemnity insurance are now few and far between. Most companies pay a negotiated rate which is lower than the total bill. Often it is a great deal lower, sometimes by more than half. There are many other strategies some health insurance companies use to maximize their profits, too numerous and ever-changing to list here.

Needless to say, I learned a lot during my years on the health system board. There are few clear cut lines between good guys and bad guys in healthcare. And the current healthcare system we have is primarily an “illness care” system, if it can even be called a “system” at all.

There is an old eastern European parable that I heard some time ago. It goes something like this:

There was a man who had a dream. In that dream, he finds a priceless treasure buried under the bridge in Prague. So he travels to Prague, finds the bridge, and frantically begins to dig. As he is digging, a guard approaches, stops him, and asks him what he is doing. The man tells the guard of his curious dream. The guard laughs, and tells him that he, too has had a dream of treasure the night before. He had dreamed that he would find a fool digging for treasure under the bridge, but in reality the treasure was under his own house. So the man returns home and digs beneath his own stones. There he finds the dreamed-of treasure.

Not too long ago, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released some interesting figures. They had done research to learn what impact our health system has upon a person’s health status. What they learned was rather startling. They found that 50% of the factors impacting health are related to one’s lifestyle, 20% are related to one’s immediate environment, and 20% are related to genetics. That adds up to 90%. Only 10% of the factors impacting health are related to the healthcare delivery system. It is for this 10% that our nation spends 15% of its gross national product.

Research done by Drs. Ron and Janice Glaser of Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio uncovered something else interesting about illness. The Glasers found that the factor most likely to negatively affect the immune system was loneliness. Other studies have shown that people who participate in faith communities are less likely to abuse alcohol or drugs. Still other studies show that an active prayer life contributes to a healthier life. The “Nun Study” conducted by the National Institute on Aging showed higher mental functioning among elderly women religious than among the general elderly population.

Here’s the irony. I left the church to go into hospital work to try and fix the health system in my community, but in reality one could make a much larger impact on health and wellness through a congregation. Hospitals can’t fix loneliness. Churches can. Hospitals usually can’t keep in close contact with people long enough to change their personal health habits. Churches can. Hospitals can’t mentally, socially, emotionally and spiritually engage people on a regular basis for years. Churches can.

There is treasure right under our noses. Churches can bring lonely people back into community and heal their loneliness. Churches can help educate people about environmental health concerns. Churches in a community can band together and make it tough for kids to have access to cigarettes. They can impact housing codes and make certain that people live in safe housing. I know churches in rural communities often advocate for safe water, and many parishioners there grow healthy food for themselves and others.

Parishioners working together can make a community a healthier place to live. We certainly need hospitals for treatment of serious illnesses or injuries. Few would choose to live in a community without a good hospital. That is the reason that churches started most of the hospitals in this country. Faith communities started hospitals all around the world.

Today, the Church is reclaiming an important role in promoting health and wholeness. The Church has always believed that it had a part to play in spiritual health, but it also has a profound ability to influence physical and mental health. Those in the Church are called to heal the sick, bind up the brokenhearted, and proclaim the healing and life-transforming love of God.


The Rev. Dr. Deborah L. Patterson is the executive director of the International Parish Nurse Resource Center at Deaconess Parish Nurse Ministries, LLC in St. Louis, Missouri. Read her column, Ask Deborah>>

© 2005 by Deborah L. Patterson, reprinted with permission from Healing Words for Healing People: Prayers and Meditations for Parish Nurses and Other Health Professionals (Cleveland, OH: The Pilgrim Press, 2005.)

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