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Health Ministry on the Ground: Q&A with Susan Friedl Health Ministry on the Ground: Q&A with Susan Friedl

The Rev. Susan Friedl is the Project Staff for the National Council of Churches Health Task Force. The National Council of Churches is the national ecumenical agency with 35 member churches (denominations) representing over 44 million people in 105,000 local congregations in the United States. The Health Task Force has three primary foci: building a health ministry network, emergency preparedness and conversation around health care policy reform. The Rev. Friedl talked with Church Health Reader about the grounding for health ministry and the work of the Health Task Force.

John Shorb: What call do Christians and churches have to address health and wellness issues?

Susan Friedl: When you read the Gospels, healing is central in Jesus’ ministry. There are 42 accounts of Jesus providing healing in the New Testament – many more stories than of Jesus teaching or preaching. The call to the church is to bear witness to the stories of people suffering, to the hope for a more just way of living, and to the teaching of scripture as the ground work for addressing social injustice. We are called to increase an awareness of the needs around us – needs of the body and the spirit.

How can churches begin to respond to this call?

Churches need to develop leadership around health ministry issues, especially lay leadership. So many people in our congregations are already involved in health services. These people can help when people have a question on where to go when they need services. Leadership comes in many forms.

Also, disparities and inequities exist in our society. There are real issues that need to be addressed by the church. The church leadership has the responsibility to keep these issues raised before the congregations.

Could you give an example of how you see this at the local level?

One day when I was taking pastoral calls, a woman from our community called our church for help. She had severe diabetes and no medical insurance, so she could not afford her medications. She was looking for help to buy food – she needed food that could help her control her diabetes. The food banks don’t specialize in food for people with chronic medial conditions. They do not have fresh produce or whole grains. Most of it is starch based – which is not good for diabetics. This woman could not afford her rent, her car payment, her bills and the type of food and medicine she needed to control her diabetes. It was a heart breaking telephone call to take. In the particular church I am serving, we do not have an emergency fund to help people in these situations. This person fell into an abyss even with all the safety nets in our society. So we have to keep telling these stories.

Also, there is a cry in the United States for some type of health reform, but there is no consensus on what that reform would look like. If churches are already talking about these issues, people will be more informed when a health reform proposal is on the table. The Health Task Force is tying to get that conversation going at the grass roots level.

When did the Health Task Force come together?

The Health Task Force came as a result of a congregational health ministry survey report in 2007. It is the largest study of congregational health ministries that has ever been published. It asked churches what they are doing in health ministry and how it came life in their local congregation and community. Over 6,000 congregations responded, representing about 2.5 million people. We got a good sense of how congregations are interfacing with health issues in their communities. We found out what types of services are being provided – how the conversation is going and who is being served. The NCC studied the implications of the report and made some recommendations – one being the Health Task Force.

Could you talk about the findings of the study?

The study showed that churches of all sizes do participate in health ministries. Health ministry was defined as any compassionate care activity that spoke to and was formed by the congregations’ mission – not just to members of the congregation but also to the local community. Seventy percent of the congregations were involved in some type of direct health service – counseling, 12-step programs, health screening events, parish nursing, helping people get medical care through clinics or navigate healthcare systems, exercise and nutrition programs or support groups and 65% of the congregations do health education. Some congregations address end-of-life issues and offer exercise classes.

We also found out over 50% of congregations offer events around health. It may be blood pressure screening, a health fair or a blood drive. It does not take a large congregation with a health minister or a staff person focused on health ministry – it only takes a congregation that has an awareness of the needs of people’s bodies and spirits. Any congregation of any size has the skills to address at least one issue.

What are the next steps with the survey information?

The survey gave us an overall, a snapshot. We are working now to gather specific information. One of our interns is working to find out who the contact people are, what types of services they provide, how they get their funding and what type of advocacy they do. This is an ongoing effort of the Health Task Force to put best practices forward. We want to spotlight those congregations and tell their stories. When people can read about the activity of a small urban church or a large suburban congregation, it makes it seem more possible.

Are there any specific Bible passages that you go back to around healing or health issues?

One of my favorite passages is the story of the woman that bled for 12 years. Her faith was so great. She believed all she had to do was touch Jesus’ robe, and she would be healed. We have a tradition of hope that if we work toward healing, that promise – that reconciliation – of a better way will be attained. This is how I see our healthcare system moving toward a place in our society where needs are met. That is a type of peace and hope where people do not have to make choices between medication or heat or water. The theological grounding here is this: the promise of people living fully human lives as God intended in creation.

John Shorb is the Editor of Church Health Reader.

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