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Ask Deborah: Choir Members and Health Ministry

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: What about the people in choir? Is there some way to involve them in health ministry? They are already committed one evening a week, and on Sundays before services as well.

ANSWER: The choir members in your church are already involving you in their health ministry, and have been for as long as they have been singing with the choir. “What are you talking about,” you ask?

There seems to be good data that supports the positive health effects of singing, from increasing one’s lung capacity and oxygen exchange, to releasing endorphins that increase one’s well-being. (Whether a particular singer is capable of increasing someone else’s well-being is open to question, but we are called to “make a joyful noise,” so hopefully the rest of the choir will balance out the off-key bellower.) When you join the choir in singing the hymns, you too can experience this positive effect on your own health. Thanks to the faithful choir for leading the congregation in song!

In addition, there is data that shows that song can connect with folks who have difficulty with communication, such as people with autism or dementia, such as Alzheimer disease. Certainly, music therapists have experienced this on a daily basis, but one need not be a music therapist to provide the benefit of song. After seeing the positive response of people in residential care to song in 2002, Chreanne Montgomery-Smith, in West Berkshire, UK, founded “Singing for the Brain” and started weekly singing sessions for people with Alzheimer’s.

There is also good data that supports the positive health effects of being active in a community. Loneliness is a leading risk factor for illness, so the choir member who is expected to be somewhere one evening every week and then come back again every Sunday, both before and during services, is less likely to experience loneliness than someone who has no regular commitments. And a church choir is generally a place where all are welcomed, if not begged, to join.

Having said that, we all know the expression, “It ain’t over ’til the fat lady sings,” and it is clear that one can be dreadfully overweight or obese and still be a fine singer, even a major opera star. More and more, however, the outstanding singers of our day are people who take seriously the importance of keeping one’s whole body strong and healthy, not just one’s throat and lungs.

What to do? Here are seven ideas to get you started.

1. Invite a physician or nurse in your congregation to come talk with the choir about healthy practices that can improve their stamina and help them protect their voices.

2. Invite a visiting artist or music educator to talk with the choir about their own health practices as a role model.

3. Invite choir members to come to Sunday school or other children’s activities and lead vocal exercises for fun.

4. Invite the “vocal athletes” in your church to present a class to adult education or the women’s or men’s fellowship in which they demonstrate the physical aspects of singing (along with an invitation to join the choir).

5. Consider starting a “Singing for the Brain” type of program in your church for members and friends living with Alzheimer disease. Here is more information about that program:

6. Have choir members lead a “sing-along” movie night with a good musical, such as “Sound of Music,” as part of a youth “lock-in” or a family night.

7. Sponsor a “Talent Night” as a fundraiser for your health ministry program and invite choir members and other musical types to perform.

Unfortunately, as a former vocal major and church choir director myself, I can tell you from experience that the choir members are probably not going to be the first to sign up for health ministry programs. But if you can appeal to their diva egos and hypochondriacal sides (tongue in cheek, friends!) you can get them, too, involved in health ministries.

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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.