Congregational Health Promoters

The Church at Work in the World

by Kendra Hotz & Matthew Mathews

“Oh good,” the woman ahead of me in line said when she spied the tables at the front of the room laden with healthy and delicious foods “they’re going to feed us.” About 20 people gathered in a big meeting room at the Wellness campus of the Church Health Center. By 6 p.m. sharp, everyone had signed in, collected a big three-ring binder, made a name tag, and found a seat at one of the tables.

Most of us came straight from work—tired, hungry, and eager to learn. We had signed up for a class offered by the Church Health Center’s Faith Community Outreach, and we were there to become certified as Congregational Health Promoters. We agreed to meet for two hours every Tuesday evening for eight weeks. Every week speakers from the community came to share information with us and answer our questions. We heard from representatives from the Red Cross, the American Cancer Society, from registered dietitians, and from just about every other community organization related to health that we could imagine. Classes covered nutrition, diabetes, hypertension, how to take medications correctly, pre-natal and baby care, women’s health issues, sexually transmitted diseases, mental health, and how to start a health ministry. We learned, laughed, questioned, and ate together, and by the end of our eight-week sojourn there were 20 Christians newly equipped to bring change to their congregations.” — field observation notes

A careful reading of the creation stories in Genesis reveals that human beings are not souls encumbered with bodies. We are bodies. Our spiritual identity and our physical identity cannot be separated. They are interwoven with one another. We are dust made alive by the breath of God. Because the church is not called to minister to souls or to bodies, but to whole persons, the Church Health Center offers an eight-week class so that members of local congregations can come and be trained in some basic areas of health care. At the end of the eight-week program, participants are certified as Congregational Health Promoters. They are empowered to return to their congregations with information about nutrition and diabetes, the symptoms of a stroke, and eager to help members of their congregations connect with health care resources in the community.

The Congregational Health Promoters help to bridge that gap. Through the CHP program, the church will become intentional in creating ministries that encourage the redemption of the whole person. Sometimes these ministries will clearly be related to the bodies of congregation members: there will be exercise classes, nutrition education, the potluck will include fresh produce, there will be counseling available for those suffering addictions. Other times congregations will address health concerns in the broader community: the building will be open for twelve-step program meetings; the congregation will sponsor free health clinics and forums on community planning; there will be blood drives and educational events. Broadening the ministry of the church so that it addresses whole persons will thus involve cultivating not merely personal faith and private morality, but also a strong sense of citizenship and civic responsibility capable of shaping the kinds of neighborhoods we live in and the kinds of communities we become.

When CHPs return to their congregations, they are equipped with information and skills to begin new ministries, connected with a vast network of community resources to assist them in their work, and energized about the work that God is doing to renew humanity—body and soul. CHPs establish bulletin boards in their churches where they post newsletters, posters, and pamphlets about health. They organize health fairs where members of their congregations can have their cholesterol and blood glucose levels tested, and where volunteer health care providers will take their blood pressure and talk with members about their medications.

Some, like Cora Sue from Koinonia Church in Tennessee, establish walking ministries; others organize volunteers to relieve caregivers for Alzheimer’s patients. The CHPs reach into their congregations, and out into the neighborhoods in which those congregations are situated, and ask, “Where is God working to bring hope and healing now?” They often start small, with just a bulletin board and a health fair, but once they get engrossed, “here comes the story!” Nicole Gates is one of a number of perfectly ordinary Christians who has done extraordinary things with the training she received from the Church Health Center. Nicole currently serves as the coordinator for the Shelby County Infant Mortality Campaign. After her CHP training, where she learned about the appalling rate of infant mortality among the poor of Memphis, she joined forces with other women to start an infant mortality taskforce and a “Baby Safety Center.” That work led her to the county taskforce where she has received a national award for her work. Johnnie Hatten, a CHP who worked with Nicole on the infant mortality taskforce, now works with incarcerated teen girls. She encourages them to develop healthy self-love, habits that will promote good health, and to seek out health care rather than submit to fatalism.

Nicole, Johnnie, and Cora Sue are just three of the hundreds of women and men who have received CHP training. They are ordinary Christians from ordinary congregations who are doing the work of God. Their very ordinariness points us to an important theological truth. Ministry is not simply what happens when pastors preach and serve the sacraments. Ministry is the work of the whole body of Christ as it seeks to enact the call of the gospel to preach, teach, and heal. The CHPs insist that healing ministries are just that, ministries. They are part and parcel of the work of the church. While every congregation participates in the preaching, teaching, and healing work of the gospel, each congregation will do that differently, in a way that fits with its distinctive character.

The Church Health Center does not provide CHPs with a cookie-cutter approach to healing ministries. The program equips the CHPs with information and resources, and connects them to a vast network of others who care about health and healing. But staff at the Church Health Center also invites the CHPs to become partners in spreading the gospel of healing, and that requires them to use their intelligence and imagination to find ways to put those resources to work. Each promoter is embedded in a distinctive congregational setting, and each must seek out ways to promote health that are fitting to that context. Mary Chase-Ziolek, author of Health, Healing, and Wholeness: Engaging Congregations in Ministries of Health explains, “If healing ministries are to fully develop their potential to positively influence the health of individuals, they need to develop in a manner consistent with the culture of the congregations in which they are housed.” Cora Sue’s walking ministry makes perfect sense for her congregation, but may fall flat in your own. A healing ministry must grow organically from the values of a congregation if it is to take root and grow from a small seed into a mighty bush.

Congregational Health Promoter classes offer us a vision of what is possible as God’s reign grows in our midst. This biblical vision of shalom, the apocalyptic hopes for a world remade, inspires the students in CHP classes to envision redemption for their bodies and souls; it prompts them to count their steps, plant their seeds, celebrate new births, and dream of transformation for their congregations. That same vision promises them that the seeds growing in their midst will someday mature into a majestic tree. Their faith has given them eyes to see new growth in their neighborhoods, and they challenge us to ask, “Where is God at work in my community?”

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