Faith-Based Approaches for Promoting Health
The cutting edge of health and wholeness does not lie up some unexplored river,
over some academic horizon,
in some clever new management paradigm,
out amid some cosmic mystery.
The cutting edge is in between us,
among those who literally share our breath and water, our food and shelter.
The cutting edge of health ministries is not technical, but relational, how we care for each other.
There is no one way to do health ministry. Congregations take many different approaches. Here are some of the models that other congregations have used, just to give you an idea of the scope of health ministry. There is no limit, however, to what congregations can do as they assess the needs of the membership and of the community and uncover the resources and gifts available to address those needs. Come up with some new models! Contact us if you are interested in knowing more about any of these approaches.
The Health Cabinet model integrates health into the life of the faith community. It assumes that all of the activities of the congregation help to promote health–worship, religious education, youth group activities, lay visitation programs, prayer chains, social outreach and action initiatives, etc. The Health Cabinet pulls leaders from all the activities of congregations to plan for how health will be intentionally included in the life of the congregation. It is not a “provider” of health programs, but a partner with other committees and boards to ensure that the health focus is part of all areas of church life. Everyone is part of the healing movement.
Jill Westberg-McNamara. The Health Cabinet: How to Start a Wellness Committee in Your Church. 1997. Available through The International Parish Nurse Resource Center.
This approach starts with the idea that health is rooted in the quality of people’s relationships with one another. Mutual support programs find ways to build community and to facilitate congregational members deepening their relationships with each other. The assumption is that as people share together in meaningful ways about their life experience, those issues that impact a person’s overall well-being will be heard and addressed.
Some congregations see the community building approach as a way of laying a foundation for further programs around health and wellness. Others see it as an end in itself. Often it’s a place to start and things emerge from it that you can’t even imagine at the outset. People sharing their stories, reaching out to one another and exploring the implications for their lives is powerful. The important thing is to design something that will work well in your context and to be responsive to the unexpected.
Living Abundantly Ministries works out of a small group model that makes the connection between the health of our spirits, bodies, minds and community.
Faith Community Nursing (formerly Parish Nursing) is a health promotion, disease prevention role based on the care of the whole person and encompassing seven functions–integrator of faith and health, health educator, personal health counselor, referral agent, trainer of volunteers, developer of support groups, and health advocate. This nursing role is a professional model of health ministry using a registered professional nurse. The focus for the practice is the faith community and its ministry.
Lay Health Promoters (also known as Community Health Workers or Promotores de Salud) are members of a local congregation or community who are trained in basic health promotion skills. They provide information about health care, monitor those who are chronically ill and encourage healthy lifestyles among members of the congregation. They also serve as the “health care connection” between members of their congregation and health care services in the community. This is a practice of listening and teaching. Lay health promoters do not need to have any medical training or background. People who are natural helpers and who are respected by their fellow members are the kind of people who do well in this position.
Many congregations already have strong care and counseling programs. Examples of a program in this model among Christian churches would include Stephen Ministries and Befrienders or Eucharistic Ministers and Ministers of Care. The Jewish tradition of Bikur Cholim mandates visiting the sick and many synagogues have programs that offer this kind of care.
In this model, volunteers from the congregation are trained to provide supportive, spiritual care to those in the congregation who are shut-in, experiencing grief or loss, chronically ill, disabled, hospitalized, etc. The model empowers laity to carry out the ministry of the church of healing and comfort to those in need and to bring the symbols of the church to the hurting individual. These powerful ministries offer volunteers an opportunity to grow in their own faith and skills while providing a deep sense of caring and concern within the church.
In many congregations clergy and lay leaders practice the laying-on-of-hands or other prayer or liturgical services of healing. Most faiths have some kind of healing tradition that is part of their practice. In other congregations, interested members may receive training in various healing techniques—massage therapy, meditation, guided imagery, Reiki, healing touch, movement or art therapy, etc.—and offer healing sessions for members of the congregation and community.
Check with your pastor or religious leader or with your denominational office to see what kinds of liturgies are consistent with your faith tradition.
Some projects work through coalitions of congregations and community organizations that come together around particular needs. The group may choose to serve the whole community, or just focus on a specific health topic, such as the terminally ill, older adults, people with HIV/AIDS, families with children with disabilities, people with chronic illness, etc.
Coalition approaches can look very different depending on the particular mix of partners. Some may utilize volunteers to provide a set of services such as transportation, yard work, home repair, child care, meal preparation, etc. Others may become politically active and work for legislative change or to change the way in which services are provided. Some may focus on community-wide education events, health fairs, or other health promotion activities.
Many departments of public health around the country have already identified the faith community as an important partner in health promotion and are actively working with churches, mosques, synagogues and temples to eliminate health disparities. However, congregations need to take care to go beyond simply holding health fairs or opening their space for programs. Congregations can also take leadership in shaping initiatives that are faith-based and that engage the congregation in ministry.
Some congregations choose to actually provide health services in their building. Or they may come together with other congregations to create a health clinic in their neighborhood or in another community that has health needs.