Parish Nursing – A Growing Ministry of the Church

Post a Comment » Written on February 10th, 2009     
Filed under: News
By Gustav Skogens

MINNEAPOLIS, MN (February 10, 2009) – After spending weeks by her dying mother’s bed, Mary Gardeen of the First Covenant Church felt called to become a nurse.

Her mother suffered from cancer, but even though she died at age 44, “I found her strength in her living faith in Christ,” Gardeen says. “Nursing to me was always a calling, a way to serve Christ.”

She earned her nursing degree fin 1972 from Gustavus Adolphus College in Saint Peter, Minnesota. Feeling God calling her to foreign missions, she then served more than 20 years doing medical mission work in Ecuador together with her husband. “We always conceived of our missionary ministry as ministering for people’s whole person – both physically and spiritually,” she recalls.

After returning to the U.S. in 2000, she sought to continue this kind of practice. She came across parish nursing and found it inspiring. After completing her Basic Parish Nurse Preparation Course at Concordia College Moorhead, in 2001 she began her parish nurse ministry at First Covenant together with Carolynn Lundgren.

Parish nursing began with the late Lutheran Pastor Granger Westberg’s vision. He wanted to combine the strengths of medicine and faith into a more complete healthcare approach, one that heals both body and soul. In 1984, he structured the early deaconess model of caring for the sick as a ministry of the church, transitioning it into its contemporary form of parish nursing.

He outlined seven primary roles of the parish nurse:
•    Integrator of faith and health
•    Health counselor
•    Health educator
•    Coordinator and educator of volunteers
•    Developer of support groups
•    Referral source and liaison to community resources
•    Health advocate

“Parish nursing is a ministry of promoting spiritual and physical health,” Gardeen says. “We serve Christ through nursing.” What started with six nurses working with six congregations in Park Ridge, Illinois, has now grown to an international movement with about 12,000 nurses working in the U.S.

The parish nurse functions as a connector between health and faith that concentrates more on relationship building than hands-on treatment. The focus is on wellness and preventative care.

Most parish nurses are volunteers. They are based in their local church and work closely with their congregation to promote both the physical and spiritual wellness of the members. Moreover, they help members cut health care costs.

In accordance with the sixth primary role, they also reach out to their community. For example, they arrange blood drives, diabetes awareness days, seminars on the risks of alcohol, or as in the case of First Covenant, cooperate with their local county hospital. There, the parish nurses give guidance and comfort to help patients and their families get through health crises. “We are highly savored,” she says. “The health care system really likes us.”

Gardeen remembers a very special day about a year ago. In the same day, she and Lundgren visited the oldest member of their congregation for the last time, but also saw the youngest member for the first time. The old woman had lived for more than a century and lay dying. She said she longed to be united with Jesus. The two parish nurses stayed with her, comforted her and prayed together with a family member for her safe and easy passing. She died the following day.

After saying their farewells, they drove across town to welcome a newborn into this world. Again, they prayed, but this time for all that is to come. Also, they gave the parents practical advice about diapering, nursing, parenting and siblings.

“If the last book was on the final page, this book was just opening with pages fresh and unbent,” Gardeen recalls in an article she wrote for Imprints, a publication of the Northwest Conference of the Evangelical Covenant Church. “We were grateful that our hands and heart formed a kind of bridge that day, because of the parish nurse ministry of our church.”

It is the individual church that decides if they want to start a parish nurse ministry, and there are many reasons to consider doing it:
•    Churches are not only centers of worship, but also centers for volunteering and important social bonding.
•    In rural communities, there might be a lack of accessibility to health care. Nurses can act quickly and easily reach out to those in need.
•    The health care system has become so complex that people need guidance to find what services are available.
•    Assist elders and others special groups to understand and manage their special health needs.
•    People with struggling economy tend to cut back on dental and health care cost first. Parish nurses can provide complementary services they can no longer afford.
•    People want to become more aware and responsible of their own health status.
•    There’s rarely only one side to illness. The church can help individuals understand all factors – physical, emotional and spiritual, – behind their health problems.

According to Westberg’s book The Parish Nurse (1990), after deciding to start a parish nursing ministry, there are several steps the church should take to develop it properly. First and foremost, they should ensure everyone is updated with the program. The church leaders should learn all there is to know about congregational health models, keep a close dialogue with the pastor and minister, and then inform the congregation.

Thereafter, a health cabinet consisting of from four to seven persons should be formed who can identify the specific health needs of the congregation and function as a support team for the nurse or nurses. They should also connect with a local hospital or care agency.

The final step is to select a person with the proper qualifications to become a parish nurse and then ensure his or her continuous medical, scientific and ethics education.

To become a parish nurse, one must have several years of nursing experience, hold a current state license, complete a special basic training course, and reflect an understanding and commitment to the healing mission of Jesus.

Today, parish nurses are operating internationally in 14 countries, including Canada, the United Kingdom, Swaziland, Zimbabwe and New Zeland. The plan is to expand even more in the future.

Click here to learn more about parish nursing ministries.

(Editor’s note: Gustav Skogens is a North Park University student completing an internship with the Department of Communication.)

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