The latest Grove Pastoral booklet makes a surprising proposal: that local churches should consider employing a nursing professional as part of their staff as an integral part of their missional engagement with their local community. The author is Helen Wordsworth, who is the Founder Director of Parish Nursing Ministries UK, a charity set up in 2006 (based on a US predecessor) to promote this ministry.
Helen starts with her own observations and experience in this area:
Back in 1974, as a young nurse and health visitor with a passion for Christian mission, the gap between what we provided in UK churches and the health needs of the world outside was so clear to me that I wrote to the principal of a well-known theological college. I asked if he could consider helping ministerial students look at ways of connecting with the local community to address some of the mental and physical health needs of unsupported parents with young children and lonely older people. Little did I realize that I would be a student at that very college 15 years later, and that 27 years later I would be bringing my dual professional careers as ordained regional minister and community health nurse tutor together.
But she goes on to locate the question within a long-standing, biblical commitment of Christians to questions of healthcare.
‘When I first came to this church I couldn’t understand why they needed a health ministry. Now that I am moving to another area I will look for a church that has one.’ This was the statement of someone whose life had been touched by the actions of a nurse who was part of the ministry team. But why should a church concern itself with health? If state provision of care and health promotion is adequate, surely the church can be left to get on with its task of providing opportunities for worship, teaching, fellowship and promoting the gospel?
When Jesus met people, whether in or outside of the worshipping congregation, he showed concern about both their physical and spiritual needs. He often talked about spiritual aspects of health like forgiveness or faith. (A prime example of this would be the man who was brought down through the roof in front of Jesus in Mark 2.1–12.) And Jesus included the health needs of those on the margins of society as part of his ministry (Matt 8.1–3). He asked his disciples to do the same (Luke 9.2). The 72 others sent later were to take the first step by going out to the community, if welcomed to receive hospitality, and then engage in health interventions, telling people that the kingdom of God was near them (Luke 10.8–9).
He told the Parable of the Good Samaritan in response to the question, ‘Who is my neighbour?’ implying that those who love God should demonstrate his costly love and practical care for those who are sick or injured, despite the risk to themselves or the interruption of their plans. And in John 9 we find that he followed up someone who had been healed and attended to his continuing spiritual need.
After the ascension of Jesus, Peter and John, fresh with the inspiration of their master and the power of the Holy Spirit, stopped by a beggar in the street and ministered to him. The early church continued the ministry of healing prayer (Jas 5.14–15).
Helen then traces not only the Old Testament roots of this concern, not least in the notion of shalom, well being, but also the way this has been expressed in the history of Christian mission, including the example of Florence Nightingale. But what is the place of nursing and health care in a church’s mission?
Studies of biblical, missiological and historical sources led me to identify five key criteria that should be evident if a church was engaging in the kind of mission to which Jesus calls us.
- The release and deployment of all members who experience a sense of God’s call to ministries of various kinds;
- Involvement in activities that promote physical, mental, social and spiritual health;
- The extension of God’s reign, and the offer of his salvation amongst people that do not know him;
- Respect for the God-given gift of free will that offers choices to people of all backgrounds and faiths;
- The integration of evangelism and social engagement in such a way that both engaging with the world’s needs and proclaiming the word of God are part of the same task.
Based on these criteria I then looked at 15 churches that had commenced health ministry and compared them with 77 churches that had not. The differences were quite marked.
In the churches with health ministry there was more voluntary activity, co-ordination and support, thus enabling people to fulfil their calling to various ministries.
In the churches with health ministry, the range of interventions offered by the church in the community was more extensive, and the increase was seen not just in the field of physical interventions, but also in mental, social and spiritual categories.
In the churches with health ministry, significantly more time from both church staff and volunteers was spent with non-church attenders. Whilst this contact was not evangelism in its traditional form, they would offer to pray with people, talk about faith if a client so wished, and signpost as requested to places where people could find out more.
Respect for choice was not an easy criterion to measure, but in part it could be surmised from the fact that the participants worked in a non-partisan way with people of other faiths and denominations, that they made referrals to other faiths and denominations when so requested by the client, that care was not restricted to members of a particular church, and that health education activities were offered unconditionally to non-church groups.
So is health ministry missional? Undoubtedly yes, if the above criteria are accepted. And there are other missional elements to it: for example, it fulfils the Abrahamic covenant of God’s blessing on all peoples; it encompasses a strong advocacy role, promoting justice and care for the environment; and it raises the profile of the church in the community, as the early church’s activities did (Acts 2.47).
I asked ministers in the churches with health ministry whether they felt the mission activity of the church had increased since they had commenced the work. All 15 said yes, and eight of these were strongly in agreement.
The second half of the booklet explores the impact that health ministry can have, based on Helen’s research (as part of her doctoral studies on the impact of parish nursing on the mission of the church), measured in both quantitative and qualitative ways. It then sets out the implications for a local church, and how, practically, to go about establishing a health ministry using nursing expertise. Helen concludes:
So what does the appointment of a nurse to the ministry team bring to the mission of a local church? It offers a truly integral form of mission. It provides the church with a bridge into the lives of those who need the healing that Christ can bring, and it helps to bring the fullness of life that Jesus offers in John 10.10 to many more people. That alone makes it definitely worth replication. If it also encourages people to volunteer in helping others at a time of need, helps to combat lonelinesss, results in more time being spent with those who do not yet see the relevance of the gospel, improves public health and raises the profile of the church within the community, then it should become a natural element of any church’s mission.
You can order your copy of Nursing and the Mission of the Church from the Grove website for only £3.95, post free in the UK.
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