July 4, 2014

Growing trend of parish health ministry seeks to promote wellness of body, mind and soul

A banner hangs in a resource room at a recent parish nursing retreat. Parish nursing, also known as health ministry, is a growing trend in parishes of central and southern Indiana. (Photo by Natalie Hoefer)

A banner hangs in a resource room at a recent parish nursing retreat. Parish nursing, also known as health ministry, is a growing trend in parishes of central and southern Indiana. (Photo by Natalie Hoefer)

By Natalie Hoefer

This past Lent, the parishioners of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Parish in New Albany made a long journey—sort of.

In one-mile increments, they “stepped” their way to Jerusalem, then back to New Albany, then back again to Jerusalem.

“Our goal was to log 2,000 miles,” said Michele Steggeman, a registered nurse in the parish. “We ended up logging 20,385 miles.”

The “Walk to Jerusalem” is just one example of programs being implemented across the archdiocese by a growing trend in parishes—health ministry.

It’s a ministry that strives to improve the whole person—body, mind and soul—of Catholics in central and southern Indiana.

‘Healing … the whole person’

The faith-based health ministry movement, also known as faith community nursing or parish nursing, began in the United States in the 1980s.

The movement spread through many faiths, both Christian and non-Christian.

“The Catholics are a little behind in this because we’ve had such good care from the sisters,” said Joni LeBeau, archdiocesan coordinator of health ministries and a registered nurse. “But we’re catching up.”

She described health ministry as being “concerned with the health of parishioners—their spiritual, emotional and physical health.

“We add a spiritual component to health so people understand that you can’t be healthy bodily if you’re not healthy emotionally and spiritually.

“We’re a resource for priests and parishioners. We are there to teach, assess, collaborate with the different ministries, and to promote this holistic approach to health. Education is a really big part of faith community nursing.”

Parish nurses or those involved in parish health ministry are not performing hands-on healthcare. Rather, LeBeau said, “Being in faith community nursing is knowing where your resources are or knowing how to find out where they are.” (Related story: Parish nurses and health ministers share ideas, network at retreat)

Focus is based on parish’s needs

One of the attributes of parish health ministry, said LeBeau, is that “every parish nursing ministry is different.

“You control what is done. There is no ‘you have to do this, and you have to do that.’

“It serves the needs of the parish, and those on the health ministry team decide what they’re going to do and where the focus will be, based on their parish’s unique needs. Maybe it’s helping seniors in one parish and school in another, or something completely different.”

And those involved in health ministry don’t have to conduct separate programs, she said.

“Health ministry touches across all the ministries. I like to think of it as an extra blanket of care and concern that we insert into the different ministries, whether it’s the family dealing with someone slowly dying, the grief you have to deal with in dealing with someone with Alzheimer’s, or the care that we’re showing a young family that needs support.”

Registered nurse Jan Erlenbaugh Gaddis agrees. She has been a part-time parish nurse at Holy Cross Parish in Indianapolis for 18 years. While most parish nurses are volunteers, Erlenbaugh Gaddis is paid by Franciscan St. Francis Health.

“I believe all parishes have health ministry, they just aren’t aware of it,” she said. “Because they are visiting the sick, doing Communion visits, helping reach out. [Health ministry is] taking what’s already happening and bringing them together.”

Not a nurse? Not a problem

LeBeau estimates that there are about 50 parishes with a health ministry in the archdiocese. Some have a registered nurse who has completed a special Faith Community Nursing (FCN) program.

“To go through the FCN program, you have to be a licensed nurse, you have to have a letter from your pastor and you have to fill out an application,” LeBeau explained.

The short course is sponsored and often subsidized by several hospitals in and near the archdiocese, including St. Vincent Health and Franciscan St. Francis Health, both in Indianapolis, and Norton Health Care in Louisville.

“But whether or not [your parish has] a nurse, I encourage a health ministry,” LeBeau continued.

“Health ministry is anybody who is interested in health promotion in the parish. That could be a mother whose children are at home, or it could be a physical therapist, a health professional or just someone who is interested in health overall.

“Even if you have a parish nurse, a good parish nurse can’t do her job well if she doesn’t have supporting help.”

Patty Arthur, a registered nurse who serves as a parish nurse at St. Joseph Parish in Indianapolis, agrees.

“There’s no health care background required for volunteers,” she said. “We don’t do hands on nursing of any kind. We focus on spirituality by being practicing Catholics with a devout devotional life, being a presence to people that have need of us.”

‘Meet them where they are’

When it comes to addressing the whole-health needs of their parish, most health ministry leaders interviewed by The Criterion recommend starting with a parish health assessment or survey.

“People get burned out because you don’t give them what they need,” said Steggeman. “That’s why assessment is so important.

“What I have found in ministering is that people are so busy, you have to meet them where they are. We had classes like a dietician, a chef, Jazzercise. But very few people came. Everyone’s time is at a premium.”

But with the “Walk to Jerusalem” program, Steggeman said, “people could do this on their own at home with whatever time they had.”

Steggeman and her team instituted the program to promote a healthy, active lifestyle.

“I see obesity as being the basis of a large portion of our health care problems,” she said.

She described the Lenten program as an “exercise of mind, body and spirit” started by St. John Providence Health System in Michigan.

“They have a book, a bible study,” Steggeman explained. “Then you walk and register your miles. So ‘one mile’ could be walking one mile or 20 minutes of exercise. For those who weren’t able to walk, praying for 20 minutes was a mile, saying the Divine Mercy Chaplet or Stations of the Cross was a mile.

“It was a smashing success for our 1,200 family parish. The school was so excited, they got involved, too.”

Steggeman and her health ministry team have cast a broad net in meeting the holistic health needs of the parish. They conduct blood pressure screenings one Sunday a month after Mass—again, meeting the parishioners where they are.

They have a prayer blanket ministry, “where our quilters quilt small blankets that are prayed over at the altar. How special is that for the ill or an infant, where everyone prays over them?”

They implemented a “Home Grown Goodness” program, where people with an overabundance of vegetables from their gardens share the surplus with parishioners.

Their health ministry also held a fundraiser, raising $1,800 to purchase an automatic external defibrillator for the parish.

Tapping into existing ministries

Other parishes in the archdiocese that have a health ministry meet parishioners’ needs by offering everything from garden walks to flu shots to CPR training. Some publish information in their weekly church bulletin, while others have developed a newsletter or invite speakers to talk on various topics.

Several also tap into existing ministries.

Arthur of St. Joseph Parish said, “We work with our Communion ministers as far as identifying people in need of some kind of assistance at home, maybe going to the grocery store, doing light housework or just needing companionship.”

Erlenbaugh Gaddis of Holy Cross said she considers those who volunteer with the Society of St. Vincent de Paul to be performing health ministry functions.

“St. Vincent de Paul has always been very dynamic at Holy Cross, where they’re being health ministers in going out and meeting those needs and praying with people,” said Erlenbaugh Gaddis.

Concepts like tapping into existing ministries and ideas like a prayer shawl ministry were shared at the archdiocesan Parish Nurse Retreat held on June 13 at St. Agnes Parish in Nashville. Such sharing provided inspiration and direction to many who attended the retreat with plans to start a health ministry in their parish. (See related article)

Being ‘hands and feet of the Lord’

LeBeau commented on the growing trend of health ministry in the parishes of central and southern Indiana.

“I think the movement for faith community nursing is showing it to be a more professional role.”

She views the expansion of health ministry falling together “as most things do in God’s work.

“I really feel like it’s a great opportunity for nurses and people who are interested in this [ministry] to be able to touch people where they are, to be able to reach out. It’s like the hands and feet of the Lord—who is going to be that if it’s not the people interested in people’s health and well-being?”

And that, said LeBeau, is the rewarding part.

“There’s nothing quite like feeling like God has touched a person through you.”

(For information on starting a parish health ministry, contact Joni LeBeau at 317-236-1475 or 800-382-9836 ext. 1475, or by email at jlebeau@archindy.org.)

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