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Congregational nurses gaining Baptist foothold

ATLANTA (BP)–Imagine someone from the ministerial staff of
your church visiting a member who is homebound by illness or
injury. Now imagine that staff member not only giving words of encouragement, discussing activities of the church and offering a prayer, but testing the blood sugar level of the confined person, clarifying the use of prescribed medications and suggesting referrals for specialized medical care.

Welcome to the Congregational Nurse Program recently introduced by the Georgia Baptist Health Care System in partnership with local Baptist churches. The program takes the ministry of health care to churches and communities outside the walls of medical centers and physicians offices and is much broader in scope than just caring for the homebound.

While the program is new among Baptists and in the South, it has been slowly but steadily growing and effectively used among other denominations over the past few decades. Lutheran congregations have taken the lead in an innovative program they call “parish nurses.” Their national resource center estimates there are more than 2,500 church-based nurses in North America. Many other churches and synagogues have enlisted volunteers to help their congregations make health-care issues an important part of their overall ministries.

Congregational nurses are employees of the Georgia Baptist Health Care System. “Instead of being assigned to the fourth floor (of the hospital), they are assigned to a local church,” said Shirley Rawlins, coordinator of the Congregational Nurse Program (CNP) for the Georgia Baptist Health Care System and associate dean of the College of Nursing.

Registered nurse Nancy Jones became the first Georgia Baptist congregational nurse when she joined the staff of Peachtree Baptist Church in Atlanta this summer. To kick off the new program and demonstrate its effectiveness in outreach as well as pastoral care, the church sponsored a free health fair which drew neighbors who otherwise had no relationship to the church.

Peachtree pastor Perry Ginn sees the addition of a congregational nurse to their ministerial staff as a perfect fit. He describes Peachtree as “a church in transition with a diverse congregation.” The addition of a nurse along with health and wellness programs communicates to the community “that we care,” he said. Already, Ginn said, the church is making good contacts through the Congregational Nurse Program. He also sees the benefit of having a staff nurse to serve as a resource to the church’s weekday preschool program.

Jones was working at Georgia Baptist Medical Center when see saw a posted notice about the program. “I thought, ‘Lord, I guess this is the next door,'” she recalled from her initial impression. As a former missionary to Kenya for 20 years, Jones was attracted to a medical ministry with direct ties to a local congregation.

The 24-hour-per-week assignment reminds Jones more of her overseas ministry, in terms of function, than hospital-based nursing. The similarities include working out of a church setting, teaching preventative health and talking with people about their spiritual needs. More pointedly, it is in the “ministry of interruptions, people coming and going,” that Jones finds her work rewarding.

Though still developing, the church has initiated other programs beyond the health fair and visits to homebound persons. “We have a health and wellness committee in the church,” Ginn said, which works with Jones in providing nutrition and other health-related workshops, including a weekly blood pressure screening at the church. The committee also is planning a grief seminar using resources from the Georgia Baptist Health Care System. The nurse is also a key referral person to those needing additional medical care. Ginn said the church’s ministry is enhanced by providing “a knowledgeable person (regarding medical concerns) and not just the preacher.”

Financial support for the partnership between GBHCS and the local congregation is negotiated on an individual basis depending on the church’s ability to pay. The contract calls for a three-year commitment between the church and GBHCS. Churches are required to form a health and wellness committee to work with the nurse to develop ministry programs, provide a small office and include the nurse as part of the ministry staff.

The program is as appropriate for rural areas, “maybe more so,” as metropolitan communities, Rawlins explained. She envisions future expansion of the program statewide. In some cases, two or more neighboring congregations could share a congregational nurse on different days of the week.

Congregational nurses are especially needed and effective today, Rawlins explained, due to the radical changes in health-care delivery. “Many people have the idea that insurance will take care of you. We’re finding that is not the case,” she said. Another factor, she added, is that those receiving medical attention go home earlier than in the past. “Who’s looking out for them?” she asked.

Iris Shadrick became the second congregational nurse from Georgia Baptist when she joined the ministry team of Forest Park First Baptist Church on Oct. 1. She continues to work one day each week at the hospital but spends most of her time on the church field working closely with Paul Roberts, minister of music and senior adults. With “over 500 members over age 60,” Roberts welcomes the expertise of a registered nurse on the church staff. “It’s so good for me to go into the homes (of those confined by health problems) with Iris,” he said.

“I am an extender for the ministers,” said Shadrick, explaining that her ability to assist with medical-related issues frees other staff members to do the more pastoral tasks they are equipped to perform. “One of the purposes of the Congregational Nurse Program is to help people navigate the health care system,” said Shadrick, noting the issues of insurance and specialized care are ever-changing. “The fact that the whole Georgia Baptist Health Care System is behind me is helpful,” she said. Already she is working to bring specialists from the medical center to help with workshops and other church and community programs. “When I tell the doctors what I’m doing, they say, ‘That’s a great program,'” Shadrick added.

On her routine visits to homes, Shadrick often takes blood pressure checks and asks questions regarding medication. “I’m amazed how people love to have their blood pressure checked,” she said. “It’s a reassurance.”

Shadrick recalled being contacted by one church member who had just returned home following surgery. Her caretakers were at work and she needed help with her medication. “She said, ‘I’ve got four bottles of medicine here and am confused about which one to take when.’ I was able to go and sort out her medicine for her,” Shadrick said. “It didn’t cost her a thing … and it was a pleasant visit.”

“Many of our (elderly) people have no family,” said Forest Park pastor Wayne Edwards. He described Shadrick’s ministry as “sort of pastoral care with medical information.” As a result of this early success, he said the church is developing additional health-oriented programs, including a flu shot clinic, grief workshop and pre-natal and post-natal care classes. The church already has one of the largest First Place nutrition and fitness programs in the area.

Edwards compliments Shadrick for being a “team player” who greatly enhances the church’s ministry. His enthusiasm for the congregational nursing program is obvious. “I’m so excited about it I can hardly see straight,” he said.

From Shadrick’s perspective, the new ministry position is “the thing I’ve been getting ready for all my life … a good mix of my Baptist background and my nursing background.”

    About the Author

  • John D. Pierce