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Health care from the pews

Parish nurses take holistic approach to meet physical and spiritual needs

In a country like Canada where we have access to universal health care, it might seem redundant for a church to hire its own nurse. But more and more, churches across Canada are doing just that.

The reason, says Janice Buck, a parish nurse in Cobourg, Ontario and the national coordinator for Alliance Parish Nurse Ministries, is they fill a gap that hospitals can’t. “Parish nurses provide spiritual care combined with nursing expertise that people—and their families—so often need especially when they’re critically ill or at the end of life.”

Shirley Christo, parish RN in Brampton, Ontario and chair of the Parish Nursing Interest Group (PNIG) of the Registered Nurses Association of Ontario (RNAO), agrees. “Society is bereft of this dimension of healthcare. Florence Nightingale regarded nursing as a calling—inclusive of care of the mind body and spirit. This is in keeping with the full scope of nursing practice which is truly wholistic care.”

In fact Christo and PNIG are advocating for parish nurses to have a valid role in the healthcare system, particularly in facilitating healthy aging across the lifespan.

Parish nursing is something that has been practiced in the U.S. for about 30 years, and started trickling into churches in Canada in the early 1990s. About 14 years ago, Southview Baptist in Calgary hired their first parish nurse, Jayne Burnham. As the parish and its needs grew, a second part-time nurse, Nadine Hunt, was hired.

Hunt, who also works half-time in the community healthcare sector, believes she was asked to join the team not just for her nursing degree and experience, but because of her spiritual journey. “Jayne [Burnham] knew the personal things I’d gone through and that prayer and God’s help brought me out on the other side. Having that kind of life experience gives you an authenticity to help others, because everybody goes through something at some point.”

Hunt says the primary focus of her parish nursing position is not physical. In addition to hospital visits, which she shares with Burnham, she meets with people in challenging circumstances like marital break-up, anxiety, depression, infertility, dependent parents, and helping them access community resources.

Another task Hunt shares with Burnham is meeting with people in financial need—this seems to take up a large chunk of time as more and more people run into difficulties such as losing a job, are out of work for health related reasons, or find themselves newly single parents and in need help from the church’s benevolent fund. A big part of this task is to help people develop a plan toward more long-term solutions. Hunt also oversees the prayer chain making sure requests are updated.

Needless to say, it’s taken a load off the pastors. But the ministry has grown so much that the nurses needed help. Two years ago, Buckingham started a lay Care Team group. Four teams of 10 people each rotate responsibility for home visits, calling on or praying for shut-ins, those going through medical challenges or loss, giving people rides to the grocery store, or medical appointments.

Each person was hand-picked, Hunt says, “for their life experience and grounding in the Word of God, which provides the tools they need to really walk with people.”

Many parish nurses still work, either full or part time, outside the church, making them ideal patient advocates in navigating the medical system. They can also help patients understand what comes next in physical care, and then to help them work out the spiritual component that goes with it.

Because parish nurses move between the community and medical institutions, Christo sees a role for them to effect change within health care. As health ministries across the country are struggling to pare down out-of-control budgets while still delivering quality care and ministries come up with strategies aimed at greater cooperation between hospitals and the community sector, parish nurses are in an ideal position to contribute.

But as Christo points out, the ministry hesitates to “go there,” because of the misunderstandings about what spiritual care actually means in a secular society. While there is evidence for a link between spirituality and overall well-being, Christo says, the healthcare system hasn’t yet caught up.

For now, parish nurses must be content to provide that wholistic approach within their church setting. The medical system is “pretty good and offers a lot of resources,” Hunt says. But it can’t do what a Christian nurse can.

“We can walk with someone who is ill, we can pray with them, draw on Scripture for encouragement, strength and hope. I can’t change all their circumstances but I can point them to the Rock on which they can lean. I’m free to say that—in fact it’s expected—which means I’m freer to be more authentic to who I am.”

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