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Ask Deborah: Health Care Missions Trips

Deborah Patterson knows health ministry. As the executive director of Northwest Parish Nurse Ministries and author of Health Ministries: A Primer for Clergy and Congregations, she works daily with parish nurses, pastors, and health professionals. In this feature, she answers your most pressing or perplexing questions on health ministry. Are you hitting a roadblock with a program in your church? Are you wondering where to start with health ministry? Do you feel like you need a new idea on a specific topic? Ask Deborah!

QUESTION: I would like to organize our health ministry to offer a healthcare mission trip outside the country, but I don’t know how to start.

ANSWER: You are in good company! A study of parish nurse vocations found that a common theme among those who were involved in health ministry was an interest in serving for a shorter or longer time in an international setting of need.

The best way to set up a health care mission trip is to partner with a group that has already had experience facilitating this type of work. When working through your church, the easiest place to start is through your denomination. For example, the General Board of Global Ministries of the United Methodist Church has health care volunteer opportunities on their website. They have been doing this for many years and can connect you with programs in other countries that need help. There are many others, such as the Catholic Medical Mission Board and the United Church of Christ/Disciples of Christ partnership.

Denominations may also have more informal ways to partner with sister institutions in other countries. Deborah Goldfeder is a registered nurse (and parish nurse) who also has a Master of Divinity degree. She, along with Rev. Susan Naylor (another RN who is an ordained deacon), are both Episcopalians who have had a passion to serve through their denomination in war-torn Sudan, a country that is grossly underserved in health care. They have made several trips to learn, to teach, and to serve through their denomination, working through their local diocese.

Of course, there are other groups with whom you can connect, such as Doctors Without Borders (the organization includes nurses and other health professionals). The Global Health Council may also be able to connect you with other organizations seeking volunteers.

One particularly good organization that can help groups with varying skills connect as needed in other countries is International Partners in Mission. This organization, based in Ohio, has offices in Europe, Latin America, Asia, and Africa. Founded by returning Lutheran missionaries who felt that mission should be a partnering rather than patronizing, this 35-year old organization can also accommodate those who are not health professionals in their mission efforts.

Another way to serve through foreign mission is to raise funds for an international cause that is badly needed. For example, Dr. Lewis Wall is a practicing Christian and an OG-GYB who specializes in surgery on older women at Washington University School of Medicine and Barnes Hospital in St. Louis, but who also serves in West Africa. He and his wife Helen have raised funds to build a hospital in Niger to help women of all ages who have had a birth trauma injury (fistula). You might have read about him in the New York Times column by Nicholas Kristoff a couple of years ago. Their hospital is now up and running, and here are ten ways to help provide these needed surgeries to women who are needlessly suffering.

P.S. Don’t forget that there are plenty of opportunities to serve the underserved in this country, as well. Volunteers in Medicine is a great place to get started if you want to explore this option more.

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Deborah Patterson is here for you and your church. To send in a question to Deborah, send an email and write "Ask Deborah" in the subject line. Please include your first name and location.