While ministering in the flesh, Jesus made a point of healing and restoring people to their rightful place in their communities.
Parishes in the Jefferson City diocese are discovering an effective way to help Him continue that mission: Parish Health Ministry, carried out by Faith Community Nurses, also known as parish nurses.
Parish Health Ministry is a process for parishes to integrate the physical, emotional and spiritual wellbeing of individuals and the parish as a whole.
Parish nurses promote health and help prevent disease by tending to the whole person.
“People’s spiritual and physical needs are so intertwined. Our goal is to make sure both are being attended to,” said Georgia Anderson, one of four parish nurses at Our Lady of Lourdes parish in Columbia.
Each parish nurse is a registered nurse who is trained and certified in the mission and proper protocols of Parish Health Ministry.
“Parish nurses are an integral part of the ministerial staff of a parish,” said Lucy Brenner, parish nurse for Assumption parish in Morrison, and a longtime advocate for faith-based community nursing.
“I like to think of the parish nurse as the registered nurse consultant to each household in the parish,” said Mrs. Brenner.
Building a network
About 20 parishes in this diocese currently have certified parish nurses.
Some are volunteers, some are paid.
Each is required to abide by the American Nursing Association’s Standards of Practice.
Each undergoes five days of intensive training in order to receive certification.
Catholic Charities of Central and Northern Missouri (CCCNMO) provides for the training and ongoing formation of parish nurses and the promotion of Parish Health Ministry throughout the diocese.
The nurses meet four times a year and stay in close contact with each other, sharing solutions to problems and keeping abreast of the latest developments.
“So if you are a parish nurse, you’re not hanging out on your own. You have a whole network of nurses you can call on,” said Alice Kuehn, parish nurse for St. Peter parish in Jefferson City.
Mrs. Brenner, Mrs. Kuehn and Mrs. Anderson recently discussed how Parish Health Ministry has evolved and grown in this diocese, and what the future may hold for it.
They envision a network of healthcare professionals who are recognized as an integral part of the ministerial staffs of parishes throughout the diocese.
Each parish’s needs are unique. Some are geographically vast and sparsely populated. Others have higher concentrations of people in smaller areas.
There are differences in median age and income, distance from a hospital and regular access to a doctor.
“So what it boils down to is: what do the people in the parish need?” said Mrs. Kuehn.
Bridging the gap
Promoting wellness and drawing people out of isolation is especially important in smaller, rural communities, particularly ones that aren’t close to hospitals or a concentration of healthcare specialists.
Many of the most vulnerable people are elderly and are of modest means.
Some live far from family members and have no one to visit them at home or help implement care directives after they’ve been discharged from a hospital.
“Older people are our biggest clientele,” said Mrs. Anderson. “But we are there in the parish to help anyone who needs any kind of health support.”
Mrs. Brenner noted that as people live longer, the demand for care will increase.
Much of it will need to be given at home.
“The Baby Boomers are getting older, and we do not have enough agencies or caregivers,” she said. “Even if we had more nursing homes, we don’t have enough nurses and nurse helpers to take care of the people in them.”
Parishes will need to be part of the solution, she said.
Each parish nurse has seven areas of ministry: integrator of faith and health; health educator; personal health counselor; referral agent; coordinator of volunteers; developer of support groups; and health advocate.
As an integrator of faith and health, the parish nurse promotes higher levels of wellness by improving spiritual health as well as physical health.
As a health educator, the parish nurse provides opportunities for the people of the parish to learn about health topics and issues, individually and in groups.
For example, some parish nurses write weekly columns on health-related topics for their parish bulletins.
As a health counselor, the parish nurse emphasizes an early response to health concerns while encouraging healthy lifestyle changes.
As a health advocate, the parish nurse helps connect individuals with community agencies and works with the parish to advocate for needed services.
As a volunteer coordinator, the parish nurse recruits, prepares and oversees parish volunteers to help people in need.
Parish nurses begin with the understanding that all persons are sacred and must be treated with compassion, respect and dignity.
The vision statement for Parish Health Ministry asserts that “sharing in Christ’s ministry of healing, all people shall have access to a holistic lifestyle.”
“Holistic” means treating all parts in an integrated fashion, rather than separately.
It’s never dull or routine.
Mrs. Kuehn keeps office hours in the St. Peter Parish Life Center, writes a weekly column on health and wellness for the parish bulletin, and visits people who are homebound or in need of advice.
“Whenever I do a visit, we pray together and thank God that you’re okay and it’s a beautiful day,” she said.
She emphasizes to people who are suffering that because they are members of the Body of Christ, the whole parish shares their pain.
“But we’re also tuned into things like, ‘Do you have a support system? Are you okay with your medicine? Is someone changing your bandages?’” she said.
Mrs. Brenner said that whenever a parish nurse visits someone who is sick or elderly, the whole family tends to benefit from the conversations the nurse initiates.
“We share our beliefs, we talk about what’s happening in our bodies and how we relate to those changes and incorporate them into our routine,” she said.
“We also try to help people stay as active and as engaged with the world around them as possible,” she said.
Mrs. Brenner noted that parish nurses can point people who have specific health needs toward specific agencies and resources.
“We can help them figure out what’s out there and what they’re eligible for,” she said.
Mrs. Anderson noted that parish nurses can also go to the hospital with a parishioner and be placed on his or her list of people who are authorized to talk to a doctor.
“It’s a connection with someone from the Church to be there with them when they are at their most vulnerable — to help them understand what the doctor is saying, to be an advocate for them,” she said.
Many of the people who benefit from parish nurses are elderly, but not all. Some are younger people recovering from injuries or becoming acclimated to having a child with special needs.
Parish nurses don’t just minister to Catholics.
“We’re all God’s people,” said Mrs. Brenner. “So when a parishioner has a neighbor who needs something, I don’t hesitate.”
With people who are elderly, proper spiritual care often includes helping them talk about death and dying.
“It’s important that I share my philosophy on dying and listen carefully to their philosophy,” she said. “It’s wonderful how we develop a trusting relationship as I see them over time.”
She added that as concerns come up, parish nurses can bring the parishioner’s family into the conversation.
An ideal ministry
Mrs. Kuehn said there can never be too many parish nurses.
It’s especially difficult to recruit and retain younger nurses who are working full- or part-time while raising families.
She said it would be easier if parishes could find ways to put parish nurses on the payroll, so they wouldn’t have to work as hard at their other jobs, giving them more time to serve.
Mrs. Brenner writes a grant request for Osage County parish nurses. She believes parish nursing is an ideal ministry for a registered nurse who wants to focus on people’s spiritual needs.
“It couldn’t be a better fit,” she said. “You are a part of the parish. They know you. You know them and they call on you.”
For more information about Faith Community Nursing, contact Lucy Brenner at (573) 294-6675 or Georgia Anderson at (573) 808-6074.