Down to Practicalities

Health ministry ideas you can use

by Deborah Patterson

Q: How should a church start a health ministry?
If your congregation is starting a health ministry, you are in good company! Growing numbers of churches are reclaiming the call they have not only to preach and to teach, but also to heal.

Faith communities started most of the hospitals, nursing schools, and medical schools around the world. The church, however, has been modest as it redefined its role in health care, overshadowed by the explosion of knowledge and technology in health care since the founding of those institutions.

For the last few decades, the healing ministry of congregations has often been limited to praying for and visiting the sick. There is nothing wrong with those activities, but a church can do much more! And health ministry can be life-transforming for those who participate when the load is shared. An active health ministry is a call to the body of Christ.

A good way to begin is to ask some questions about health ministry, such as the following:

  • How has the congregation historically participated in healing ministries?
  • What does Scripture say about health and healing? Was this just something for Jesus, or do we have a role?
  • What are the pressing health needs in the church? In the wider community?
  • What are the assets of the church? Are there health professionals, teachers, and other supporters available?
  • What kinds of health ministry would the church like to see? Programs for new parents, for individuals without access to health care, exercise programs, visitation programs?

Then, get started! Here are three ways to start:

  1. Launch a user-friendly, easy-to-implement exercise or wellness program. There are many faith-based models.
  2. Put a health tip in each bulletin or newsletter, or on a bulletin board at church, or on a bathroom wall. Most hospitals will provide blurbs, posters, or articles on many topics of interest. There are a host of national health organizations that will give you material (much is web-based).
  3. Call upon the experts in your congregation and community. Most hospitals and other health organizations have speakers’ bureaus and can send someone to speak with your church groups for a modest fee (or free). If you have a registered nurse who is willing to serve as a faith community nurse (either in a paid or unpaid position), encourage her or him to go take a Foundations in Faith Community Nursing course. This course presents the theory and practice of this nursing specialty. Part of the course includes information on getting started.

Don’t delay! The fields are white unto harvest, and God is calling you!

Q: We don’t have any health professionals in our small congregation of 150 people. Is there anything we can do to start a health ministry?

Of course there is! First of all, pull together a small health committee. Two heads are better than one, and five heads are better than two. Even a small church can have a health committee. And this health committee wouldn’t need to do everything related to promoting health in a congregation. It would simply focus on asking the question, “What in health is going on?” In other words, how is holistic health reflected in the activities of the church—preaching, announcements, Sunday school classes, church council meetings, Vacation Bible School, coffee hour, prayer time, and pastoral visitation? Make health a regular part of conversations.

Practically speaking, what else could be done within a small church?

  • Someone in the church might provide fruit and veggie snacks for a coffee hour or two and work with a committee to provide healthier offerings on an ongoing basis.
  • Work with those who are leading Vacation Bible School to add physical activities and healthy snacks to the program (with no sugary drinks).
  • Invite a local nutritionist to teach a healthy cooking class at the church for a fun activity on a cold winter’s evening.
  • Arrange for representatives from your local Area Agency on Aging to come and talk with folks in your congregation about services and resources available in the community.
  • Arrange for a physician from your local hospital to come and talk about a specific heath topic.
  • You could arrange for a whole series based on the national health observances, which you can find online.
  • Invite a chaplain from a local hospice care center to come and talk about advance directives and the difference between palliative care and hospice care.
  • Work with volunteers in your congregation to do safety checks in the homes of those who are elderly to help identify needs, such as for railings and grab bars. Make sure you are ready with a plan to meet the needs you identify, such as lining up a carpenter in your church who could install them.
  • Get everyone involved in a walking program.

Be creative to make ideas work for a congregation of your size. Experts in many communities will be glad to help when called upon. Everyone needs to play a role in health ministries.

Q: I’ve just begun my new role as a health minister. How do I get started?

Congratulations for your willingness to answer the call to care! I assume, since you have been called as a health minister, that you have the support of the clergy. I recommend you move quickly, if you haven’t done so already, to set up a health committee with whom you can work on health ministries in your congregation. Here are some important things to remember when starting your health ministry.

Be sure to take time to talk about the theological underpinnings for what you are doing with the clergy and your health committee. Dust and Breath: Faith, Health, and Why the Church Should Care about Both is a great resource for learning more.

  • Expand this conversation to the entire congregation through formats such as special luncheons, adult education classes, small groups, and ministry teams. A brief presentation will get the conversation going and demonstrate that health ministry is for everyone, not just a committee.
  • Keep the health ministry visible through a bulletin board you update regularly. There are lots of good, free materials available from the CDC, NIH and other governmental agencies.
  • Another way to have great visibility for your ministry is to put a health tip in your church bulletin. You can find great congregational health information in a variety of places, including your denominational health ministry programs, or through a faith community nurse.
  • Don’t forget your church newsletter! You can also find newsletter articles that can be reprinted from sources such as the National Women’s Health Resource Center, if you credit the source.
  • Partner with local health care professionals to provide services to your congregation. For example, many hospitals and other health organizations have speaker services and will be glad to provide speakers on a wide range of topics.
  • Advertise your programs to the community. Your local newspaper may offer free calendar listings.
  • Partner with health ministers in other congregations. See if there is a parish nurse network or other organization working with health ministry with which you can get involved.

Finally, stay in regular communication with your health committee and the clergy of your congregation by documenting what you are doing so that you can report your activity on a regular basis.

A brief presentation will get the conversation going and demonstrate that health ministry is for everyone, not just a committee.

Q: I want to move my congregation beyond taking blood pressure once a month. What are some good ways to go a little deeper into health ministry?

First of all, good for you for taking blood pressures! According to the National Institutes of Health, about 32 percent of US adults over age 20 have hypertension (that’s close to 100 million people) and many don’t know it. The American Society of Hypertension has a free patient education booklet on the topic that you can download online. Another wonderful resource, My Life Check, is available free online through the American Heart Association. 

Also, taking blood pressure is a great way to have visibility around health ministry in a congregation, particularly when it is a regular event. People know that they can go on that day to that place and find someone who will check their blood pressure, and who will listen to them. Being listened to is as important as any other part of this intervention.

Having said that, why not expand your congregation’s health ministry from there? One way would be to plan a “Healthy Tasting” with small samples of healthy foods that a health committee could make and set out in little cups. Include a handout about the foods, and share the recipes and some of the information in the church bulletin, newsletter or e-mail updates.

Another idea would be to have a pharmacist come over for a “brown bag lunch.” Folks bring along the medications they are on in a lunch bag, and the pharmacist privately reviews them and answers questions. While this happens, serve a healthy lunch that the youth group could sponsor to raise money for a mission trip.

Do a survey of the congregation and find out what is on their minds. Would they like a walking program, a weight-loss class, a caregiver support group? Then do a little research into these areas. There are faith-based programs and community programs to support any of these initiatives and many of them are available through denominational offices and national health organizations.

And make your health ministry programming fun! See if local businesses would be willing to give you small giveaways as incentives and participation prizes. This ministry shouldn’t raise your blood pressure!

Q: What are your top ten ways that a congregation can improve the health of its members and community?

  1. Encourage folks to spend time with each other and make sure no one in the congregation or community suffers from what the World Health Organization says causes the highest risk for illness: loneliness.
  2. Urge everyone to eat 9–13 servings of fruits and vegetables each day, and be sure to incorporate multiple fruit and vegetable options into church meals. According to the Harvard School of Public Health, “The latest dietary guidelines call for five to thirteen servings of fruits and vegetables a day…, depending on one’s caloric intake. For a person who needs 2,000 calories a day to maintain weight and health, this translates into nine servings, or 4½ cups per day.” Further, “compared with those in the lowest category of fruit and vegetable intake (less than 1.5 servings a day), those who averaged 8 or more servings a day were 30 percent less likely to have had a heart attack or stroke.”
  3. Encourage everyone to exercise 30 minutes a day. For those who are ready for a more ambitious challenge, aim for ten thousand steps a day. (Just Google 10,000 Steps and see what you find. Amazing!)
  4. Ask the congregation to stop serving foods with sugar, and encourage people to cut back on sugar-sweetened drinks and foods. Help them understand that too much sugar contributes to long-term health issues such as childhood and adult obesity, diabetes or dental health.
  5. Educate everyone on the risk factors for, and warning signs of, heart attacks and strokes. Educating people about these things can save lives, since so few people really know.
  6. Invite folks to support each other as they seek to change health practices, such as forming a walking group. Group support certainly has helped people deal with other challenging health issues, such as drug and alcohol abuse.
  7. Support individuals and families living with mental illness by accepting them, providing education about mental illness to the congregation and community, and helping to provide access to quality mental health services. Working with the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill or Pathways to Promise are good ways to start.
  8. Facilitate access to affordable housing for seniors, people with disabilities, and low-income families.
  9. Find ways to protect the health of the environment by planting trees and plants, driving cars that don’t use gas, supporting public transportation, and biking or walking.
  10. Buy an Automated External Defibrillator (AED) and make sure folks learn how to use it. The data shows that using an AED when needed can help save lives. The American Heart Association has a course locater that uses your zip code to help you find courses in your area. These are offered through a wide variety of organizations, including hospitals, community colleges, and fire/rescue training organizations. Go online and search for “heartsaver AED classes.”

Q: It seems like having a health committee is more work than it is worth, as I end up doing most of the work as the health minister. Can you please give me one good reason why I should have a health committee?

I will give you 10 reasons, because if there is anything that a health minister needs, it is a health committee. But even more, your congregation needs a health committee.

Here are my Top 10 reasons:

  1. The church is called to preach, teach, and heal. Probably the church has a pastoral relations committee, or a worship planning committee, that supports preaching and worship. Your church also probably has a Christian education committee that undergirds the teachers, curricula, and educational programs. Your church also needs a health committee or health team to support the gospel call to heal (and much healing ministry is probably already happening).
  2. Health ministry is a ministry of the congregation, not just of one person. You might have a wonderful choir director in your church, but without the choir, you won’t really have much of a music ministry. The same is true for health ministry. The health committee is the “choir” for the work of healing in the church.
  3. Having a committee working on a task creates buy-in for the implementation of a program. There is nothing worse than throwing a party and having nobody come. So throw open the doors and invite them to come in from the highways and the byways to the banquet of health ministry. It’s a feast!
  4. Many hands make light work. If you help people identify work that is meaningful to them, they will want to do it. Work together to help them select tasks that would give them purpose. For example, someone may love art and be willing to do a monthly bulletin board or posters. Someone else may love cooking and be willing to stock a few frozen meals in the church freezer for you to share with folks who need help during recovery from illness or surgery. Someone else may love to chat and be willing to drive someone to a doctor’s appointment. You do health ministry because it is meaningful to you. Be sure that your committee has the same opportunity.
  5. You don’t have to meet every month. A health committee that meets quarterly can be just as effective (or more effective) than a health committee that meets monthly and gets burned out.
  6. No one has to serve on the committee forever. Be sure to set up a plan for people to serve only for a year or two at a time, so that they can go off the committee without having to resign if their interests have changed. People are usually more willing to serve for shorter stints than for years on end.
  7. When the pastoral leadership changes, you will want stakeholders in the congregation to understand the importance of this ministry and why it needs to continue. This is a very important reason.
  8. Having a committee gives more visibility to a program that can often be invisible due to the private nature of many health concerns. You may be working very hard, but no one else may know it. Make sure your health committee knows it, along with the pastoral leaders, and the congregation’s governing board. Document and share the aggregate data (not any private health information).
  9. Committee members (not you) can suggest to the congregation that they need to pay a faith community nurse, or to set up a memorial fund where gifts can be given to support health ministry initiatives. And when there is a budget line item, there is additional visibility for the program.
  10. It’s a lot more fun to play on a team than it is to play alone. Jesus chose 12 disciples, not just one, so that they would work together, and he sent them out two by two. Health ministry can be hard work, and you need others to travel the road with you.

So go ahead, and choose five to seven folks of different ages, genders, and vocational backgrounds, and start meeting quarterly. Equip the saints to do this work with you, and this ministry will be blessed!

Illustration by Terri Scott

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