There’s no denying that hospitals play a central role in our communities’ health, but a healthcare system mostly interacts with community members as patients, treating their mental and physical needs. But caring for folks often means something a bit more, a social and spiritual care that hospital staff members are ill-equipped to address.
That’s where programs like Abundant Living are making a difference. The church-based wellness program at Baptist Easley hospital focuses on educating individuals and congregations about health, wellness and disease prevention “wholistically,” with an acute awareness of all parts of an individual’s health.
“A lot of times healthcare does great with physical needs and mental needs, but they are lacking in that spiritual component,” explains Christy Porter, Abundant Living program supervisor. “That's where churches can step in.”
The idea of focusing on congregational wellness stems from the parish nurse program first created by Rev. Dr. Granger Westberg, a Lutheran clergyman and professor, in the mid-1980s as a modern take on the historic role religious orders have taken on as healers. While rooted in that Judeo-Christian tradition, Westberg wanted his model to be available to other faiths as well. The idea prospered, eventually coalescing into a specialty nursing practice known as Faith Community Nursing (FCN), which was formally approved by the American Nurses Association in 2005. Geared toward preventive education within the context of a congregation, FCNs typically provide advice and training and are geared more toward referring people to community services and coordinating care rather than serving as a provider.
Baptist Easley began their version of the parish-nurse program based on Westberg’s work in the mid-1990s when a nursing leader, Cam Underhill, learned about the concept at a conference. She brought the idea back to hospital leadership, who quickly decided that it fit the mission and vision of where the organization was going. After securing a Duke Endowment grant to pilot the program, Baptist Easley began Abundant Living with just 10 churches, utilizing a congregation-centered volunteer model that was adaptable and expandable.
“Volunteers don't need to have a healthcare background, they can be lay individuals, anybody who has a passion for congregational physical, mental and spiritual wellness,” explains Porter, “because it does look at the whole person, mind, body and spirit.”
The blend of spiritual and healthcare work has a natural appeal for many of the program’s volunteers, who often see their work as a calling as well as community service.
“That's one reason that our program has been so successful,” Porter posits. “It's a true ministry for the people participating in it.”
The program is now in its 21st year and has connected with more than 120 churches in its community. The process is roughly the same with each—Abundant Living staff trains a Congregational Health Promoter and an initial congregational needs assessment is conducted to find out what the specific church community’s needs and interests are. That gives both the program staff and the new promoter an idea of where to start.
“They can make their congregation wellness as small or as large as they want to,” says Porter. “And it's really unique in that it fits into the culture of the churches. We just give them the training and support system they need.”
Abundant Living essentially provides support for the support. There are three network meetings a year for congregational leaders where educational knowledge and other programming is shared based on the community health needs assessment conducted by the hospital. They also look at county, state and national data for direction about what needs to be offered. In recent years as hospitals have pivoted towards thinking more expansively about transitions of care, Abundant Living has followed suit.
“We have always been a preventative model, and education is a huge component of that,” points out Porter. “But [now] we've gone from a preventative model to the transitions care model, trying to connect the dots between our hospitals and churches. We want to tell them what's happening with healthcare, how that will affect individuals who are seeking help, who are learning how to manage their health. Churches can be that great support system."
Porter also believes that faith community nursing can make an impact on health disparities, noting the amazing coordination among African-American churches in the program to mobilize around health issues as well as the numerous church ministries that fund food banks and other services for underprivileged populations.
More importantly, churches have embraced their role wholeheartedly. Porter says the program has been contacted by pastors who have moved outside of their service area and found their congregations without an organization like Abundant Living. With that need in mind, Baptist Easley copyrighted their program in 2004 and has since assisted other hospitals with building their own programs.
“We're just blessed that it's been able to sustain for as long as it has been, that the individuals and churches that are doing this love Abundant Living,” she concludes. “They'll be quick to tell you the special ways its helped in their churches and helped minister to their people.”
For more information about the Abundant Living program go to baptisteasley.org/community/abundant-living.