Spring 2017

Creating a Health Ministry Team

Orchestrating a proactive—rather than reactive—response to crises

by Cynthia Dainsberg

Mrs. J. collapses during the morning service. One of the youth group girls has been cutting. An estranged father, with chemical dependency issues, is threatening the staff. A congregant’s 5-year-old is battling Stage 4 brain cancer. A parishioner is air-lifted to a major city, three hours away, with a cardiac event. A woman is seeking help for her ever-increasing anxiety attacks.

These are only a few of the many health crises encountered in our relatively small congregation over the past few years. You probably have many of your own stories.

Were you prepared?

How can we better equip ourselves and our churches to deal with the complexities of ministering to people in a health crisis?

In case you were assuming differently, let me assure you: Pastors do not have to be experts in all of the complexities of health crises. Nor should they deal with these crises on their own. Inherent to God’s design is this truth: Just as the whole body of Christ is affected when one member is thrown into a health crisis, so the whole body is called to minister.

Creating a church plan

So how might your church create what I call a health ministry team? This is a group of believers, skilled in areas of health care, who work collaboratively for the health of individuals and of the congregation as a whole. (See “Church Health Ministry Checklist” for practical next steps.)

First, consider what often contributes to making church leaders less than effective in dealing with a health crisis.

Being proactive can make a big difference.

Do you unintentionally harbor a Lone Ranger mentality or lean toward micromanagement? This will keep you from relying on others’ gifts and skills. Have other priorities kept you from keeping a pulse on the overall health of your church? It’s easy to overlook an undercurrent of health needs that can swamp a congregation, but being proactive can make a big difference. Do you have limited personal experience in the art of caregiving? If so, you might let discomfort keep you from getting started.

Second, look at human resources already available within your congregation, to form the bulk of your health ministry team.

Who has education and experience in a care field, such as doctors, nurses, EMTs, therapists, counselors and dietitians? Ask about their skills, experiences, spiritual gifts and availability, and brainstorm how each might help in health crisis prevention and intervention. Team members might serve in ways ranging from hospital visitation teams and prevention educators, to prayer chain coordinators and on-site support during services (for example, do your ushers know how to respond to a medical emergency?).

An underutilized resource in many churches is that of a paid or volunteer Faith Community Nurse.1 An FCN (formerly known as a parish nurse) is a registered nurse certified to focus on holistic health (including care of a person’s spirit), while working to prevent or minimize illness within a faith community.

“We have the joy of connecting the person in need to the resources available through others in the church and/or in the community,” says Ginny McMillian, RN, FCN and member of New Hope (Minn.) EFC. “We intentionally involve others in the church in caring for each other. Above all else, we have the mindset of discipling anyone with whom we come into contact.”

Third, look to add external resources to your health ministry team, such as chaplains.

Chaplains serve in a variety of health-related fields: hospitals, nursing homes, the military, mental-health facilities and even sheriff/police departments. Although not all chaplains will hold the same religious beliefs, most will know well the “who’s-who and what’s-what” within their area of service.

Together, individuals both inside and outside your congregation make for a strong health ministry team.

That knowledge is especially helpful to pastors and others for whom entering a health-care facility is akin to entering a foreign country, with its own language, physicality and organizational hierarchy.

“A chaplain can help in navigating not only the health-care system but also complex bioethical issues, conflicts between family members and next-steps in care,” says Dr. Ken Botton, coordinator of chaplaincy studies and affiliate professor of pastoral theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.

Ken encourages pastors to not wait until a church member is hospitalized with serious concerns before stepping foot in the medical space. Contact nearby chaplains ahead of time to ask if they might be part of your extended care team.

Together, individuals both inside and outside your congregation make for a strong health ministry team. Ginny McMillan tells of the time a new church member was hospitalized while her husband was out of town on business:

“The hospital chaplain called the church to let them know of the situation. The FCN telephoned the hospitalized woman and got her permission to put her on the church prayer chain. Then one of the pastors visited the woman in the hospital.

“She was so impressed with the immediate response from the church staff that she called her out-of-town husband and said, ‘We really do have a church home now.’”

The ministry of proclamation and the ministry of presence

No matter your role in health ministry, we are all dependent on the Holy Spirit as we enter into these delicate, even sacred, situations. Just as a medical person would enter with a mindset to assess the physical needs of a patient, a health minister enters into the situation attuned to the leading of the Holy Spirit, seeking discernment.

Again, you are not called on to be the expert. You can rely on others whose experience and training gives them voice for specific questions that arise in medical situations. This offers even more opportunities for the synergy of the ministry of proclamation and the ministry of presence.

Ministering in health crises can lead to other unexpected opportunities.

“This gives the Great Comforter a way to become tangible and make human contact,” agrees Dr. Steve Greggo, chair of the Counseling Department at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.

“Presence is creating a sacred space of worship with others who are suffering or seeking wisdom. This space is not so much filled with words as it is with communion and the awareness of Christ.”

Ministering through health crisis situations can lead to other unexpected opportunities. “I have observed that people come to the church when they realize they can’t do their illness on their own anymore and come for prayer and support,” reports Mary VanDerWerf, RN, FCN and member of Revive Church (EFCA) in Brooklyn Park, Minnesota.

“I have also observed that as an FCN walks alongside them for months, they then want to be a part of ministering to others.”

The pastor will continue to have a pivotal role in visiting/ministering and keeping a pulse on the health of his congregants. But the pastor and other church leaders can now cast a vision for, and implement, a caring health ministry team.

With intentionality, humility and vision, you can move from a pastor-only response when crises hit, to a fuller response of your entire church body—the family ministering to the family.

1 EFCA churches in 13 states utilize Faith Community Nurses. To explore integrating FCNs as part of your church’s health ministry, check out some helpful FAQs online or contact Joanne Hall, FCN director at Elim Care Faith Community Nursing, (an EFCA-affiliated ministry). And check out the EFCA FCN Facebook page.

Cynthia Dainsberg, RN, FCN has been certified as an FCN since 1997. She currently serves at Calvary EFC in Walker, Minnesota, alongside her husband, who is the family pastor. Cynthia has personally been challenged with chronic diseases for almost 30 years. She is the author of Practical Care Tips for Those in the Lyme Fight: An interactive care handbook for those battling Lyme Disease and other chronic conditions (with special notes to caregivers). And she blogs at Encouragement for Lyme Fighters.