Healthier communities through parish nursing

Healthier communities through parish nursing

DeSchepper, Carol

A South Dakota System Finds Multiple Ways to Support Parish Nursing Programs

“Jesus said, ‘I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. I have come that they may have life and have it to the full. I am the Good Shepherd. The Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. “‘ (Jn 10:9-11)

This passage of Scripture serves as the foundation of a systemwide effort to develop parish nurse programs in a five-state region in the Midwest. Since June 1997 Avera Health facilities have supported or sponsored eight nurses who now serve in 10 churches in communities where the facilities are located. Avera leaders feel strongly that broader support of parish nurse programs is consistent with the system’s mission to “make a positive impact in the lives and health of persons and communities by providing quality services guided by Christian values.” In June 1997 the system’s four major facilities began to strategize on how they could introduce parish nursing in their communities. The system’s goal was to have a minimum of one parish nursing program in each regional community within one year.

The months that followed brought developments in four areas: system support of the effort, parish nurse ministries at the community level, partnerships with educational facilities in the region, and parish nursing in “nonsystem” communities.


System support began with the creation of a mission statement, a vision statement, and a model to focus program development efforts. The model places parishes and parish communities at the center of our efforts. Other integral components are the Avera Health Clinical Pastoral Education Program; the Faith in Action program in Sioux Falls (at Avera McKennan), which focuses on the development of church volunteers; and the four colleges and universities in each of the regional communities.

Initial efforts at the system level included developing support materials, such as a draft agreement that could be used to define the relationship between the healthcare institution and the parish, a common documentation system, educational materials, position descriptions for the parish nurse and the parish nurse coordinator, and an orientation program for parish nurses. The Avera Health parish nurse center director also began a networking group for parish nurses and program coordinators across the region.


Within a few weeks of the introduction of the idea, churches began to show interest in learning more about parish nursing and working with Avera Health facilities. Much time was spent educating parish leaders and members and local healthcare providers. Several program models emerged over time. One community sponsors a parish nursing coordinator who supports the development of volunteer parish nurse models in churches throughout the community. Two others fund half-time positions for a church to begin the program, with the understanding that the church will fund the position or find another funding source within two years. In a third community, the hospital funds one-quarter of a position; the remaining funding for the program comes from a grant provided by the Methodist Synod. One small rural hospital “gifted” a nurse back to its community by paying the nurse’s salary. She is working with two churches in this small town on a long-term strategy to develop a model that will make the program available to more churches. Currently there are eight Avera-sponsored nurses in 10 parishes, with a wide variety of models in place.


Collaboration with educational facilities began early in the planning process. Four church-affiliated colleges (two are Catholic, one is affiliated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, and one is Methodist) in communities with Avera regional facilities already used Avera Health facilities as clinical sites for nursing students.

Collaboration developed in different ways for each. Augustana College in Sioux Falls sponsored the core curriculum for parish nurses and the parish nurse coordinator’s course. Dakota Wesleyan University in Mitchell and Mt. Marty College in Yankton each sponsored a one-day educational event, providing continuing education for parish nurses and those who support them. The colleges and universities also work closely with the parish nurses and Avera Health staff to provide networking activities and collaborate on student experiences with parish nurses. Parish nurses teach community nursing and are mentors and preceptors to students.


Avera’s belief in the value of parish-based health ministry and its commitment to creating healthy communities led us to support parish nursing efforts beyond Avera Health facilities and communities. When resources were available to meet defined needs, we agreed to support others in developing programs in the region. We respond to calls from nurses interested in initiating parish nursing in their communities, from pastors in congregations that would like to start programs, and from nurses who are volunteers in their own congregations. Many of these callers have become part of our parish nursing networking group. We have helped strategize the beginnings of programs and participated in dialogue with formal and informal church leadership.


Spiritual support for the parish nurses is a priority. The demands of the parishes always exceed the nurses’ resources of time and emotional energy. Through a spiritual director at the Benedictine monastery in Yankton, Avera plans to sponsor a retreat for parish nurses and those who support their ministry. Some of the parish nurses seek counsel with personal spiritual directors to nurture and replenish their spirits.


The question that we face is, Where will Avera Health be led in this ministry in the months ahead? On many days the future seems insecure, with limited resources in healthcare facilities and competing priorities in churches and parish communities. Churches need resources for schools, youth ministries, transportation programs, programs for the elderly, and education. One of the strengths of parish nursing is that it can affect all those areas, for the ministry of a parish nurse crosses generations and socioeconomic boundaries and can respond to a variety of needs.

In addition, churches gain immensely from having a parish nurse on the ministry team. A parish nurse’s communication and education skills raise the awareness of church staff, giving them a redefined sense of calling and ministry to the whole person and the church community.

Can congregations afford parish nursing? After seeing the roles the Avera-supported nurses have played in the health of church communities (see Box, p. 57), I ask, Can the church afford not to have parish nurses? I realize that it is a rare church that has so much discretionary money available it does not need to weigh the merits of this program against other needs of the congregation. But I believe that a church that decides to develop a parish nurse program will find it to be an investment with huge payoffs. The church is one of the few institutions in society that can and does advocate for the marginalized, those who need care and, for a variety of reasons, are unable to access that care. The parish nurse brings individuals, families, and the larger parish community to greater wholeness and health.

For more information, contact Carol DeSchepper at 605-322-7306. Also see XTalk Ministry to Me,’ p. 14, for information on the Parish Nurse Forum on CHA’s Web site.

Ms. DeSchepper is vice president

for quality integration and director of the parish nurse center, Avera Health, Sioux Falls, SD.

Copyright Catholic Health Association of the United States Jul/Aug 1999

Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning Company. All rights Reserved