A few years ago, I took an online course to receive a certificate in parish nursing from Concordia University-Wisconsin. A parish nurse “is a registered nurse (RN) specialist who encourages physical and spiritual health and wholeness by developing and leading programs within faith communities.” There is one model of parish nursing that is set forth in all the books that I have read on it, basically promoting doing a lot of activities within the congregation to help people become healthier. It’s a sort of prevention-based model.
At our former church, I did help form the “health cabinet” and the parish nursing program, based on this model. But the more that I and the “health cabinet” did to work toward the goal of physical health of our members, (blood pressure checks, flu shots, health fair, newsletter articles, blood drives, exercise classes), the more uncomfortable I became. Because church is not a community center, and really, church is not even particularly prevention-oriented. I wanted us always to remember that the primary purpose of church is Word and Sacrament ministry, to become spiritually healthy, not necessarily physically healthy. And I just couldn’t figure out how to integrate that parish nursing model with the pastor’s Word and Sacrament ministry, without distracting from it. If someone got their blood pressure under control but failed to receive forgiveness of sins, we have still failed as a church. So when we changed churches, I did not pursue parish nursing again, knowing that I did not yet have the answer to that question.
The church has long understood that we are touched by sin in a physical way beyond our control–because of original sin, we will get sick, our bodies will break down, and we will die. Sometimes we can prevent bringing certain diseases upon ourselves by the way we live. But, ultimately, we cannot prevent our own deaths. “…but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.” Genesis 2:17
Knowing that, I’m not interested in duplicating all the health tips and programs that you see everywhere now in our health-obsessed culture. I’m more interested in helping people deal with the inevitable physical effects of original sin. I don’t like telling people they can’t eat doughnuts on Sunday morning because they’re bad for them, and I’m not into aerobics. Maybe I was comfortable working in hospice because promoting the prevention-based model is probably not where my talents lie, though there is a place for prevention of disease. I’m just not sure that place is in the church.
So, several years later, I’ve started parish nursing again, more informally, yet more meaningfully to me, because it grew organically out of a desire of a couple of us to visit people. Then grew into a group of us (called the Mercy group) meeting every month to see our homebound, so that they all could get visited. I do that with them, making extra visits during the month to our neediest. I also try to keep track of who in the congregation is at risk, simply checking in with them every week or so. I don’t give out much medical advice, we have no exercise classes (though we do have a hiking club, but more just to have fun hiking than to promote health), and I haven’t taken anyone’s blood pressure so far. We’re just serving our people where they are.
Then, Pastor gave a sermon yesterday about one of the readings for the day celebrating St. Luke the Evangelist. In 2 Timothy 4:11, Paul writes, “Luke alone is with me.” As Pastor explained, Luke, a physician, stayed with Paul and cared for him in his final days before he was killed by the Romans. Luke made sure Paul was fed, clothed, and that he was not alone. And, like Luke, there are people in this world who stand strong and help people in the hard days. I thought back again to my time in hospice and how many wonderful nurses and doctors I met, and how many families I met who stood strong while watching their loved one dying.
And then I realized that this was my model for parish nursing, just as in hospice nursing: “We will be with you.” That’s mercy. We cannot prevent all disease, we cannot prevent death, but just as our Lord is such a gracious God, ” being rich in mercy” as Paul writes in Ephesians, we are a merciful church. I can’t prevent anyone at my church from becoming sick or dying, but we can make sure that they are not alone. We can walk with them. We can hold their hands and serve them until they go to heaven, and our Lord says to them, “Well done, good and faithful servant. Rest now.” It’s not sexy, it doesn’t look “busy” or involve paperwork, and there’s no Rick Warren-certified program on how to set up a parish nursing ministry based solely on the Lord’s mercy, but here it is. It doesn’t distract from Word and Sacrament; instead, it is a natural outgrowth of Word and Sacrament. May God continue to bless it in the days to come.