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Parish Nurses Connect Faith, Spirituality, and Health

From Interpreter Magazine

When nurse Linda Olley discovered she had a chronic illness in 1985, much of her life changed - including leaving her career in hospital management.

Nine years later she found her true calling at Baughman United Methodist Church in New Cumberland, Pa., when her pastor started a parish-nursing program. Now serving her twelfth year as the congregation’s nurse, Olley coordinates health ministries for the people in her church community. Referring to herself as a “wounded healer,” she said, “I hope that people are able to relate to me because I’m speaking as a nurse who lives with chronic pain everyday.”

Olley is among the growing number of parish nurses worldwide who promote healthy living, serve as a counselors and advocates, coordinate volunteers and care for ailing members of the church. The Rev. Granger Westberg, a Lutheran pastor, is considered the founder of parish nursing. The ministry began in 1984.

Parish nurses are registered nurses with at least three to five years of nursing experience who have completed additional training program and carry liability insurance, said the Rev. Marie King, a clinical educator at Centennial Medical Center in Nashville, Tenn.

Parish nursing “has its roots in our faith tradition and in scripture,” said Joy Conti, parish-nursing manager for Pittsburgh Mercy Health Systems. “It’s living out the promise made in baptisms to care for one another.”

“A parish nurse ministry helps the church to realize a connection of faith, spirituality and health,” said King. “The teachings of Jesus also instruct his disciples be in a ministry of preaching, teaching and healing. So it is the responsibility of the church to fulfill this ministry. The ministry of parish nursing combines knowledge of the body, with Christian motivations, to help individuals toward better health.”

While parish nurses are fully trained nurses, they are not allowed to give medical treatment to patients, such as bandaging or administering drugs. The treatment they provide is care and support to members of the congregation. Olley often coordinates transportation for those who cannot get to the doctor on their own. She listens as people process grief or the onset of a disease. Sometimes she identifies early symptoms and gives medical referrals.

“Parish nurses bridge the gap,” said Olley. “We identify problems early on and help [church members] get the help they need.”

Since becoming a parish nurse Olley has started writing poetry as part of her ministry. She has published two books, A Book of Inspirational Verse by a Parish Nurse and Steeple of Hope: A Book of Inspirational Poems. All proceeds benefit a health-ministry fund at Baughman. Conti said that many people experience isolation from family and the church. Parish nursing visits are a “time when you establish a relationship with people.”

“People tell nurses things they don’t tell others,” said Conti.

Parish nurses provide congregational health education. A parish nurse may visit Sunday school classes and teach children how to wash their hands or to cough without spreading germs. Often parish nurses coordinate health fairs or write columns in their church newsletters giving health tips or sharing new information about illness. Some parish nurses serve as volunteers, while others fill salaried positions on the church staff. Churches that do not have a registered nurse on staff or a volunteer nurse can still have health ministry programs. Conti helps those churches get support from other health ministry programs. She said health ministry “ideally involves the entire congregation.”

Parish nursing encompasses many responsibilities and looks different in each setting. King, who served as parish nurse for eight years in a 300-member urban congregation, said, “Every congregation has its own personality and needs. Each congregation or community should perform a needs assessment survey to determine the holistic health needs of their church community.”

Conti once advised a church to survey its teenagers as they planned health ministry for the teens. The leaders thought sex education would be most important to the young people, Conti said, but the teenagers expressed a need to work through their parents’ troubled relationships. The team planned a ministry that helped the teenagers and their parents.

Sheila Hallmann, a parish nurse at First United Methodist Church in Downers Grove, Ill., said her 2,000-member congregation is health-minded, having had a parish nurse ministry for 18 years. The church holds seasonal health dinners, hosts speakers and workshops, coordinates a flu shot program each fall and offers wellness retreats for women.

Hallmann recently helped church member Julie Stone when she suffered from a torn ACL. Stone’s doctor insisted that she did not need surgery because of her low activity level. Stone felt a great deal of pain, however, so she consulted Hallmann. Stone said Hallmann gave her invaluable advice, referring her to another doctor who gave better attention to her fracture.

“Sheila has a great rapport with members of the congregation, so everyone feels comfortable sharing their medical problems with her,” said Stone. “She even accompanies some of the older people to their doctor’s appointments so that she can be a second set of ears when they are given instructions.”

Hallmann assisted church member Archie Benfield when he had knee replacement surgery. Following the surgery, his wife Vivian Benfield called Hallmann to see how she could help them get the equipment they needed. Hallmann found a walker, a cane and other equipment immediately.

“Her door is always open and she is ready to listen and offer suggestions in a very reassuring manner,” said Vivian Benfield. “Only a parish nurse could fill this gap. We are blessed to have her in our church.” Enthused about her ministry, Conti said parish nursing aligns with the vision of John Wesley, founder of the Methodist movement. In his book Primitive Physick, Wesley lists some remedies for everyday ailments.

“Wesley encouraged developing support groups and visiting the sick. If he were alive today, he’d be the biggest proponent,” said Conti.

Parish nursing is often a solitary job, said Pat Truitt of Seattle, a member of the United Methodist committee on congregational health through the Board of Global Ministries along with Conti. The committee is working to create a network of United Methodist parish nurses.

“It’s a very holy, sacred type of position for a nurse where we’re entitled to be with people and speak about God,” said Hallmann.

Nurses may contact Truitt at to be a part of the network.

Copyright © Interpreter Magazine 2006, a publication of United Methodist Communications, Nashville, TN, Used with Permission.

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International Parish Nurse Resource Center

Australian Parish Nurse Resource Centre

Canadian Association for Parish Nursing Ministry

Health Ministry Association