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Faith community nurses help heal body, mind and soul

Sharon Hatchman
Sharon Hatchman

Faith community nurses help heal body, mind and soul

By Tita Parham

Traumatic brain injury, concussions, sexual assault — Sharon Hachtman has seen it all, but not in a hospital or a clinic.

Hachtman, a faith community nurse, serves in a unique setting: a domestic violence shelter.

Thousands of faith community nurses from all denominations work in churches and communities across the United States, said Patricia Magyar, executive secretary of U.S. health for the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR). The United Methodist Church has more than 1,000 such nurses.

Education, spiritual care, nurture

Faith community nursing is a ministry that is encouraged and supported by the Center for Health, a ministry of the General Board of Pension and Health Benefits, and UMCOR Global Health.

"The greatest benefit of [faith community] nursing is the ability of the nurse ... to provide educational principles, along with spiritual care and nurturing, during times of need," Magyar said. "This is a role that no other in the church is able to provide, bringing ... together health and healing of the mind and body through spiritual care."

Members of church staffs, faith community nurses also work in local health and human service organizations. They are paid or volunteer, part or full time, but all must be licensed nurses and follow the American Nurses Association and the Health Ministry Association's "Scope and Standards of Faith Community Nursing Practice."

Faith community nurses do not provide direct patient care, but they do visit church members at home or in the hospital, provide counseling on health-related issues, coordinate wellness fairs and provide health screenings.

Hachtman helps women take control of their lives.

A registered nurse and United Methodist deaconess, Hachtman serves at Turning Point of Lehigh Valley, a domestic violence shelter in Pennsylvania.

Working as a shelter volunteer, she felt called to full-time ministry with the women. She approached the director about developing a wellness program. Hired two years ago, today she offers group and individual sessions for the shelter's clients. UMCOR Health has provided seed money grants from its congregational health budget.

"I consider my work to largely be that of triage," Hachtman said. She assesses the health needs of the women and their children and offers resources and referrals to health service providers and education on health issues.

Hachtman said the women have experienced a range of physical abuses. They also report emotional and verbal abuse and what Hachtman calls coercion tactics — not being allowed to get birth control pills or finding pills missing because their partners have hidden them.

"I look at wellness as a wholistic component," she said. "I'm not looking at just physical health, (but) how are they paying prices emotionally, spiritually, relationally, even in the environments they're now placed?"

What is frightening, she said, is "the degree that a perpetrator will go to control a woman."

A nurse volunteer takes blood pressures during a Welcome Table event organized by Givens LifeMinistries at Mills River near Asheville, N.C.
A nurse volunteer takes blood pressures during a Welcome Table event organized by Givens LifeMinistries at Mills River near Asheville, N.C.

Empowerment is key

Empowering women to move beyond that control — so they can get a job, make medical appointments and choose birth control that is best for them — is the center's goal, Hachtman noted.

"We realize these women have not been allowed to make decisions," she said. "It's a learning experience for them and a healthy step for them to realize they can do these things on their own."

Hachtman said it has also been a learning experience for her, and she wants to share that knowledge across the denomination.

She wants to help develop a solidified approach, she said, "to get more of a grassroots effort going to engage our local congregations and our clergy in having domestic violence advocates so we can become informed responders."

That is what Cheryl Wallen is doing — engaging churches to be advocates of health for their communities.

Health and wellness outreach

Wallen is executive director of Givens LifeMinistries, an outreach and wellness ministry of Givens Estate, a United Methodist retirement community in Asheville, N.C.

Although she provides several programs for the retirement center's residents, most of her work is helping churches of all denominations in 13 counties develop health and wellness outreach programs. Of the 134 United Methodist churches in the Blue Ridge District of the Western North Carolina Conference, Wallen has worked with about 63 percent.

Wallen helps organize health screenings, annual community health fairs, presentations on health topics and weekly, monthly or quarterly wellness programs.

"Once their outreach program is launched, LifeMinistries steps back, but remains a committed prayer and resource partner," Wallen said. "My main role is to advocate for the church, individuals and community and provide leadership as a faith community nurse."

LifeMinistries collaborates with six subsidized-housing communities and the Council on Aging to provide free wellness services. A local hospital provides wellness vehicles and health-care professionals to provide screenings and education.

LifeMinistries also has two volunteer nurses, one a faith community nurse, but Wallen said she could use four more volunteer nurses to help churches meet broader wellness needs, including hunger and housing issues.

Faith community nurse Cheryl Wallen conducts a cholesterol screening during an event organized by Givens LifeMinistries.
Faith community nurse Cheryl Wallen conducts a cholesterol screening during an event organized by Givens LifeMinistries.

Making connections

A LifeMinistries program called Welcome Table is helping churches address those issues. Neighborhood churches of different denominations provide a hot, nutritious meal to their community each week, while volunteer nurses offer blood-pressure screenings and connections to emergency food, housing, utilities and primary care.

Wallen said the ministry has expanded from one to 11 Welcome Tables in the past 12 years and serves more than 73,000 meals annually.

Another component is MY Meds Medication Assistance Ministry, which began in a small, rural church in 2001. It provides medications to uninsured individuals suffering from chronic illnesses, Wallen said. The average yearly income of clients is $12,765; the cost of their medications is $9,500.

MY Meds works with the Office of Rural Health, doctors, health departments and pharmacies to offer the medicines free. Grants and donations from churches and individuals also support the outreach. To date, the ministry has provided medications valued at $10.5 million, Wallen said.

Helping people obtain medications reduces their financial stress. "But, more importantly," Wallen said, "we are loving and caring for our neighbors by keeping them employed, out of the hospital, better able to manage their illness and enjoying improved quality of life."

Wallen said all of the outreach ministries are a "win-win" for the church and community.

"So many people struggle with accessibility issues related to wellness and being whole. Churches can break down those barriers by becoming portals of access to healing ministries," she said. "This ministry improves the quality of life for so many and extends hope to diverse populations of people who face diverse spiritual health and wellness issues."

At the same time, Wallen said, service to the community revitalizes churches.

Like Hachtman in Pennsylvania, Wallen feels blessed by the work she does.

"Faith community nursing is a calling to the best nursing job in the world," she said.

Tita Parham is a freelance writer, editor and communications consultant based in Apopka, Fla.

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