The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America


Parish nurse heals door-to-door

When the body is in pain, so is the spirit

Nobody answers when Pat Haldi knocks at the tidy little house in Spokane, Wash. The door is ajar, so she steps in and calls, "Hello!" A 90-year-old woman in a wheelchair meets her.


"Are you surviving the heat?" asks Haldi with a hug. The woman, who lives alone, says she is coping well. Someone helped her open the windows to let in a breeze.

Thus begins one of Haldi's visits as a parish nurse for Central Lutheran Church, Spokane. Haldi is one of a growing number of health-care professionals who serve congregations in their spare time. Some churches have made it a paid position. Parish nursing has mushroomed since its beginning in 1984 to more than 4,000 churches. (See also, page 35 and page 22.)

"People hunger for wholeness," says Jessica Crist, an ELCA pastor and director of the Northern Rockies Institute of Theology, Helena, Mont., which trains parish nurses.

'High touch'

Nurses are eagerly embracing parish work because they can reclaim their positions as true healers — a role sometimes lost in high-tech medicine.

"This is an opportunity for nurses really to be more high-touch," says Cynthia Gustafson, parish nurse at Our Redeemer Lutheran Church, Helena, Mont. The founder of the Parish Nurse Center at Concordia College, Moorhead, Minn., she now teaches nursing at Carroll College, Helena, and works with Crist.

Parish nursing is needed because health-care has become less personal. "Doctors don't have the time that they used to have with patients," says Haldi, a nurse and certified diabetic educator at a rehabilitation center.

Haldi proposed the parish nurse idea to Central two years ago. The church's health cabinet — doctors, nurses, even a lawyer — drafted policies, a mission statement and job descriptions. They looked at how the parish nurse could reach out into the community.


Flexible ministry

Congregations tailor the parish nurse's duties to fit needs — for example, outreach to the elderly or support for mothers and families. Parish nurses generally don't give direct treatment so much as they educate and act as patient advocates, referral sources and health counselors. Haldi has found a nurse can often gain an important rapport with parishioners.

As representatives of the church and the medical profession, they bring a holistic approach to health problems.

"People aren't going to call the pastor and ask him to pray for a constipation problem," Haldi says. "But if they're in physical pain, they're in spiritual pain."

The nurse's most important business often turns out to be conversation. On one of Haldi's visits, the talk centers on the patient's family, sewing projects for the church bazaar and childhood. An hour later, it turns to diet, medications and sleep. Haldi checks blood pressure, listens to her breathing and inspects feet and ankles for swelling.

"This isn't like putting hands on somebody and healing a broken bone," Haldi says. "The parish nurse's ministry is more like the healing ministry Jesus gave us."

While Haldi takes the time to listen, she wants no credit. "The healing power comes through Christ's blood and it's a combination of the body, mind and spirit," she says. "Where one fails the other can make up."

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