Churches Help Hospitals Move Upstream

by Susan Martins Miller

The “Upstream Story” has become a fable of our times to describe the modern healthcare system. Various versions exist online or in speeches, but the gist is the same. A fisherman discovers a person drowning in the river and takes the person to shore, only to discover more and more people in trouble. He can’t possibly keep up. As he struggles to help before the river overtakes its victims, another person walks by on the shore. The fisherman calls out, “Why aren’t you helping me get people out of the water?” The walker replies, “I’m going upstream to find out why they’re falling in.”

Hospital systems are more and more interested in going upstream to keep people from falling into the river, and the medical community is discovering the potential of the faith community to keep people healthy. The result is an array of hospital-church partnerships. Exploring the challenges and successes can inform new efforts to yoke faith and health.

Churches No Longer Observe

In Gilbert, Arizona, Sharon Stanton coordinates the Center for Faith Health Ministries, which intentionally focuses on integrating the health system of Dignity Health hospitals with the local faith community. Working in Arizona since 2007, Stanton brings a long career in nursing and community health to the question of how hospitals can work effectively alongside churches with common goals. “This work of 20 years has been one of patience, prayer, and perseverance,” Stanton says. “The faith system has had to work its way back into the total healthcare system and not be just an outside observer and responder.”

Stanton works with over 20 congregations in formal covenanted partner relationships. She presents the opportunity to churches and then waits for them to take the next step. Only when the pastoral leadership is in full agreement does the partnership move forward. Most of the congregations have a faith community nurse who provides a bridge between the congregation and the hospital. This is especially helpful for patients entering or leaving the hospital. However, Stanton wants more from the Center for Faith Health Ministries, which also provides multi-faith retreats, seminars, workshops and ongoing training for health professionals, congregational health ministry teams and clergy. Her work involves end-of-life care, chronic disease management, whole-person health promotion, discharge and transition care, healing brokenness, elder care, and medical ethics consultation. The overall effort establishes the faith-health ministry in the context of the ancient faith tradition of compassionate care and a modern movement uniting faith and health.

“People in churches are very good people,” Stanton says. “They want to do good and serve. Sometimes they need to learn the difference between being a do- gooder and really doing good—raising consciousness about faith and health.”

Churches Make It Happen

In Colorado Springs, Colorado, the spiritual care office of Penrose-St. Francis Health Services laid a foundation by developing a survey tool that allows staff to administer a ten-minute survey in a congregation and provide instant electronic results of how worshipers answer questions about spiritual well-being. The goal was for this information to serve as a starting point for leaders to address the unique needs of each congregation. Community outreach coordinator Cynthia Wacker says, “We want to approach churches with the attitude that they are the expert in spirituality and work in a partnership that recognizes and respects what they do. Healthier churches will mean a healthier community.”

Recently the hospital added an additional staff person to the spiritual care office. They discovered that the spiritual well- being surveys were most effective in places where health ministry was already in place. Starting from scratch with the survey, Wacker says, was like giving leaders head knowledge with no way to take it down into the church. Congregations needed and wanted help to build faith and health programs in their settings. An additional staff person will be dedicated to following up with churches and helping them build programs. As the hospital goes deeper into churches, staff will also develop a framework for tracking results, both in programming and biometrics.

The ultimate goal is a consortium of faith communities who sign on as healthy congregations under the hospital’s Healthy Church Initiative. The consortium can then become a network to share resources and ideas among pastoral staff. Wacker says, “We have to recognize potential in churches to have a picture of whole health and that faith is integral in health. We can’t make that happen at the hospital. But churches can make that happen. They are the spiritual providers.”

Tyg Taylor, a Lutheran pastor whose church has been working with the hospital for more than seven years, says, “Our congregation now sees health ministry not as something ‘extra,’ but rather as an integrated part of our daily life together.”

Churches Connect the Community

The Center for Excellence in Faith and Health in Memphis, Tennessee, was a collective brainchild of Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare in response to community needs identified by pastors. What resulted is a laboratory for innovative practices on community-wide scales. Under this model, research goes beyond collecting clinical information to uncovering the assets in a particular community in order to bring changes not just for individuals but entire systems.

The Congregational Health Network, a signature program of the Center for Excellence, strives to build stronger bridges between local faith communities and the hospital. Harry Durbin, senior vice president for faith and health, says, “In its infancy, it was only a handful of congregations with a commitment to promote better health in the community.” The program has grown to include more than 500 congregations in Memphis. Navigators employed by the hospitals focus on continuity of care between hospitals and area congregations. Volunteer liaisons in congregations interact with navigators about particular situations. With these partnership pieces in place, the Congregational Health Network uses a covenant to undergird the links between congregations and hospitals. Durbin says, “We need both pastor and leadership to commit that good health outcomes are a priority for the church’s ministry. Without leadership, it doesn’t work.”

To individuals entering or leaving the hospital, the network is reassurance that other are looking out for their needs and they won’t fall through the cracks. However, the network is also an important facet of community research. It helps the hospital system know where the social and religious assets are within specific neighborhoods and the region as a whole. Based on this information, health leaders can build practical collaborations for improved health outcomes. “We focus on where the assets are and how we make best use of those,” Durbin says.

Beyond the Congregational Health Network, the Center for Excellence engages with clergy more generally as an avenue to address specific areas of health in the community and ally health work in the community. “We want to connect the community, not just take care of people in the community.” For instance, the hospital offers a hospice residency and education to make sure chaplains and clinicians work together in end-of-life situations. Clergy receive training to help them be healthy role models for their congregations.

Churches Lie Upstream

These three models of faith-health partnerships, and many others, arise from the reality that churches are upstream from hospitals. Congregations can identify people in danger of falling into the river by taking active roles in partnerships with healthcare systems.

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