Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church, located in Naperville, Illinois, initiated a parish nurse program in May, 1985, creating a vital link between this faith community and a faith-based health care system. Naperville at that time was one of the fastest growing communities in the state of Illinois and Our Saviour’s was growing into a large congregation. The pastors and leadership were dedicated to maintaining a personal, pastoral, caring touch for this growing congregation. This dedication led to the financing of a half-time parish nurse to participate in the development of Lutheran General Hospital’s parish nurse program. Lutheran General is ELCA affiliated, and is now a part of Advocate Health Care. The late Rev. Granger Westberg, an ELCA pastor, developed the vision of the parish nurse program.
The focus of parish nurse practice is the faith community. The parish nurse works in collaboration with the pastoral staff and congregation to see the church as a source of health and healing. The parish nurse links the needs of the whole person with the resources of the church, the hospital, and the community. In addition, this nursing role serves the congregation, neighborhood, and community by bringing an assertive approach to wellness, wholeness, and prevention.
Having a nurse on staff in a congregation provides a unique forum for health promotion and disease prevention as well as care for the ill. Members of a church, knowing that a nurse is available on an informal basis, can discuss a health concern with her before it becomes a chronic or serious condition.
The parish nurse is a member of the church staff team, working with members of the congregation through seven primary functions: 1) integration of faith and healing, 2) health education, 3) personal heath counseling, 4) offer of referrals and resources for healthcare, 5) coordination of volunteers, 6) facilitation of support groups, and 7) health care advocacy.
The parish nurse strives to establish a relationship with each individual that is personal, confidential, consistent, and continuous. Access to healthcare has become increasingly complex and constrained by cost and payment mechanisms. Understanding the complexities of health care, having the information necessary to make informed choices, and having access to needed or desired treatment are all challenges which only heighten the emotional and spiritual stresses of a demanding environment.
In the changing climate of health care, the parish nurse assists parishioners with their health needs, offering support in areas of grief recovery, chronic illness, caring for aging parents, and parenting issues. The ecumenical makeup of the program with denominations such as the ELCA, LC-MS, Roman Catholic, Presbyterian, Methodist, Baptist, United Church of Christ, and Jewish congregations adds to the richness of the program.
The growth of parish nursing resulted in programs in almost all areas of the U.S. as well as in Canada, South Korea, and Australia. Their International Parish Nurse Resource Center, 205 Touhy Ave., Suite 104, Park Ridge, Illinois 60068 (800-556-5368), provides information, consultation, and education, in addition to publication of a newsletter and resource catalogue.
I am proud of how parish nursing has grown and believe the reason that it has grown so quickly is that it works so well. People feel the love and care of their faith community and don’t’ feel so alone in dealing with health concerns when there is help available in their church. As parish nurse, I participate in the creation of a climate in which people feel comfortable to come forward with their concerns by listening, observing, being accessible and assisting in an appropriate manner. I’m not just a “nice lady in the church” but a professional nurse on the church staff, ready to assist people.
Our Saviour’s has a pastoral care team made up of the pastors, seminary intern if there is one, parish nurse, and the professional counselor on staff. The team meets every Monday morning to discuss the needs and organize the care needed in the coming week. This team approach is very helpful in meeting the needs of the congregation and encouraging healthy team functioning.
My role as parish nurse at Our Saviour’s is varied, dealing with different ages and situations. The position evolves differently in each church, according to its context, and according to the congregation’s needs.
The educational role takes me into the church school classes for a six-week class on human sexuality for fifth graders, helping them to see themselves as a gift from God, worthy of the highest value, and needing to accept the responsibilities of keeping themselves safe and healthy. It seems that the young people can be comfortable with this class since I am “the church nurse” and they can ask questions and discuss their feelings about this topic.
I also do a substance abuse awareness class starting with the third grade, to discuss what mood-altering drugs are and their effects on the body. I use teen volunteers to assist me with this class. They share their personal experiences on healthy choices they have made and how they deal with peer pressures in this area. We provide information to parents about these classes and invite them to attend or preview the information I use.
The support the church can give during difficult times is so very important. We had a group of women dealing with different types of cancer so we formed a “Cancer Survivors Support Group” that I facilitate which meets two times a month. We gather together to pray, practice different forms of relaxation, and share what is helpful, including concerns centered around their health issues. We also have a grief recovery support group which the staff counselor and I co-facilitate. It provides an opportunity to be with others who are going through loss in order to share the feelings that are a part of grief. We use prayer, scripture, and talking about loss as tools to learn from each other.
During home and nursing home visits, I provide the frail and elderly the caring presence of someone representing their church community, and I counsel families and patients on available resources.
Parish nurses make a lot of connections. Some are between parishioners who have been living with chronic illness and others newly diagnosed with the same illness who need support and reassurance and may be angry and asking questions like, “Why me God?” At times I have connected a parishioner who has recently retired with parishioners who need help with transportation to dialysis or therapy treatments. These connections are very beneficial and meaningful to both parties within a congregation. Sometimes young people can be introduced to someone who needs help with home maintenance, and a true intergenerational friendship develops.
I receive many requests for referrals and resources pertaining to caring for aging parents by families with teenagers or young adult children who need help with alternative housing and care for their parents. This “sandwich” generation is a reality, and the responsibility of care-giving can be overwhelming. I am there as someone who can walk with them in this dilemma and remind them of the limitations they have as they try to “make everything perfect.” I have experience as a geriatric nurse and have been caregiver for my own mother, which has given me insight in these situations.
The church has a long history of providing assistance to parishioners in time of need. The parish nurse adds to this the qualifications of a health-care professional (in my case, connected with a quality, faith-based health care institution) who can perhaps be more deliberate and more effective in the helping process.
There are many stories from my 14 years of parish nursing. I recall the mother from the community who had heard I was at Our Savior’s who had her 23 year-old son come home to die of AIDS. She hadn’t shared this with her friends or her pastor. She had not told her 80-year old mother, thinking this would kill her. We talked about this, and I encouraged her to let these important people in her life help care for him and her. I followed up the following week, and she told me her mother said she knew her grandson was gay from the time he was 15, and she was waiting and wanting to be included in loving and caring for her grandson and her daughter in this sad time. Her pastor and friends also proved ready to help. A short time later I saw her son’s obituary in the local paper, declaring openly that he died of AIDS. I called to express my sympathy and she said she put that in the paper to encourage other families who might be going through a similar situation to not try to hide this loss of a loved one but to gain support from each other.
One Sunday, two sisters, age ninety and ninety-one, attended our worship service, and I greeted them during coffee hour. We developed a ministry to these two dear “Danish Lutherans” as they called themselves. I involved parishioners in providing transportation to worship (they had planned to walk to church), doctors’ appointments, and attending our monthly senior lunches. We became their family since they had never married, and each person who ministered to them received the gift of purpose and meaning from this relationship. Later we gathered together at their funerals, remembering two special people in our lives.
After working as a parish nurse for over a decade I still enjoy my work and am grateful for this opportunity to passionately connect my nursing skills with my personal faith.
Holstrom, S., “Perspectives on a Suburban Parish Nursing Practice” in Parish Nursing, Promoting Whole Person Health Within Faith Communitiesby A. Solari-Twadell & N. A. McDermott. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, 1999.