by Anne E. Basye
Deliver a baby in the middle of a winter night? No problem for Brenda Bauer.
The only RN within 20 miles of Grenora, North Dakota, the deaconess-nurse was caring for the community from St. Olaf Lutheran Church, part of the three-point Grenora Lutheran Parish. With the closest hospital 30 miles away, she had taken EMT training. So when a patient’s delivery date coincided with a cold spell—and because
the mother’s last baby had come quickly—Bauer brushed up on emergency childbirth. When the baby’s head crowned at home, Bauer and the local ambulance team, coached over the phone by ER staff at the Lewiston hospital, welcomed the child into the world safely.
Eventually, Bauer took on the title of Parish Nurse. Also known as Faith Community Nurses, these nurses serve in 33 countries around the world. In North America, about 15,000 FCNs practice this nursing specialty, launched in the 1980s by Lutheran pastor Granger Westberg. Fascinated by the intersections of faith and medicine, Westberg formalized the clinical pastoral education that prepares hospital chaplains and articulated the concept of “wholistic” health. While working in hospitals, he realized that nurses could be vital partners in achieving his vision— especially if their “patients” were in faith communities. So he invented the concept of the parish nurse and created a foundational course that trains them to care for body, mind and spirit.
Taking that course at Luther Seminary helped Phyllis Severson, now a retired parish nurse from Mesa, Arizona, realize that through her congregation, she could help shift North American culture from focusing on disease to focusing on health. “We tend to move away from illness rather than reach out to good health,” she says. So, in her congregation, she encouraged people to seek health, healing and wholeness, as promised in Jeremiah 29:11: “For I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”
While Faith Community Nurses don’t usually deliver babies, they do promote health, healing and wholeness in many ways.
In Christian, Jewish and Muslim congregations, and for the community at large, FCNs offer blood pressure screening clinics, host workshops on managing diabetes and other chronic conditions, invite expert speakers, organize support groups, offer CPR and first aid classes, and maintain automatic defibrillators. They also write newsletter articles about health issues and do much, much more. In large congregations, multiple parish nurses may focus on specialties like pregnancy and obstetrics or elder care, and coordinate home communion and visitation ministries. Tending our bodies through exercise and good nutrition is another ongoing priority.
FCN Ruth Manchester invited members of St. Luke Lutheran in Silver Spring, Maryland, to “walk to Jerusalem” between Christmas and Lent 2016. Participants walked on their own and reported their mileage. Members not physically able to walk could do 20 minutes of chair exercises to represent one mile. Motivated by the spiritually significant destination, the 190 participants—many of them part of St. Luke’s Women of the ELCA unit, which cosponsored the challenge—covered the equivalent of 16,042 miles, (more than twice their original goal of the 7,071 mile distance to Jerusalem).
Using a domestic ELCA World Hunger grant, Manchester has also offered cooking and nutrition classes to clients of her congregation’s food pantry, taught by the University of Maryland extension service. Everyone who attended all five classes received a grocery store gift card.
“Your body is your temple to Christ, and you need to take care of it,” says Rebecca May, parish nurse at First Lutheran Church in Aitkin, Minnesota. “It’s definitely stewardship.” Watching people not take care of themselves is a big frustration for May, who says change “has to come from within.”
“It’s like pulling teeth to get someone to say they need help,” says Anita Huntley, FCN at Christ the King Lutheran Church and Preschool in Snohomish, Washington. “We can’t just go and say, ‘I heard you were having this problem.’”
Instead, nurses focus first on building trust and relationships. Workshops and classes establish their expertise and availability, and serve as spaces that invite people to open up. “Blood pressure is the reason they see you, but they always start talking about other issues they might be having,” says May.
Sometimes just listening is enough—but when mysterious symptoms or troubling diagnoses are disclosed, FCNs become translators of medical jargon, counselors, patient advocates and navigators who accompany people through our complex health system.
Recently, Norah Bertschy, parish nurse of Trinity Lutheran Church in Cincinnati, Ohio, was contacted by a church member about to have surgery. While discussing her symptoms and the prognosis, Bertschy asked the widow, now living alone, whether she had transportation to the hospital and someone to assist her when she came home. Had the answer been no, Bertschy says, “I would have asked if I could help with filling in those gaps.”
In person or by phone or video, conversations with FCNs always include prayer.
“When I was a nurse in a clinic, I had to be a little more discreet,” says Kristin Bradley, FCN at Trinity Lutheran in Grand Rapids, Michigan. “I could pick up on cues but couldn’t be as intentional [about prayer].” Now she serves a congregation whose motto for health ministries is “Seeking to share God’s gifts of love and grace to promote spiritual, physical and emotional well-being.”
“As part of the parish team, I get to care for mind, body and spirit together,” Bradley says. “People know if I am calling or coming to visit them, we are going to pray together.”
WISE WOMEN WEATHERING A PANDEMIC
Brenda Bauer felt her call to parish nursing early, and has been able to serve in parish settings for most of her career.
Many others come to Faith Community Nursing after long practices in clinics, hospitals and public health. Whether paid staff members or volunteers, their deep grasp of the language and practice of medicine is an asset for congregations, especially in emergencies.
Bertschy, a nurse for almost 50 years, had just moved into her role as parish nurse in her congregation when the COVID- 19 pandemic hit. The self-described “rookie” parish nurse quickly started adapting existing ministries to comply with fast-changing health protocols. The weekly sit-down community meal became a to-go meal that guests, wearing masks, could pick up. The food bank closed to the public, and donations were rerouted to other charities. Kate’s Cupboard, which provides new moms with cribs, car seats and other equipment, switched to curbside pickup.
Working with the county health department, Trinity Lutheran hosted twice-monthly COVID testing and a pop-up vaccination clinic. Bertschy and another volunteer made vaccine appointments and arranged transportation for older Trinity members.
Mindful of the need to tend body, mind and spirit, FCNs emphasized keeping people connected to one another.
To bring a sense of community to people who were isolated, “I tossed out my regular schedule and sat on the phone from 8:30 a.m. to about 7 at night, taking breaks now and then,” says Bauer, who eventually lined up volunteers to assist her. “It was like throwing out that life preserver and saying, ‘Yes, there is hope. We’re gonna see you through this.’ Making those connections—that is what Jesus would do.”
Through the “Trinity in Touch” phone call ministry, Kristin Bradley matched every member who was over 75, had a health condition or lived alone with another member, who called weekly. The congregation also launched a weekly “Walk and Talk” devotion that encouraged members to walk outdoors and then meet online to discuss a
Bible verse. “We designed it to work the mind, body and spirit together, knowing that when one part is not working well, the other two parts can also weaken,” Bradley says.
Throughout the pandemic, parish nurses sought each other’s support through the Evangelical Lutheran Parish Nursing Association. In ELPNA’s online networks, nurses shared what was working and what wasn’t in their congregations. They also focused on their own spiritual growth. “I know how to be a nurse,” says Bertschy. “Emphasizing the spiritual part is where professional networking benefits me.”
As the pandemic recedes and congregational blood pressure screenings return to church calendars, FCNs continue to foster connections. Bertschy watched members who were on the verge of being homebound “step over the line” during the quarantine. She plans to increase visits to these parishioners.
Additionally, with mental health issues on the rise, Bertschy and Trinity leaders are participating in mental health first aid classes—something Rebecca May of First Lutheran is also looking into. Sponsored by the National Council for Mental Wellbeing, the courses teach people how to identify, understand and respond to signs of mental illnesses and substance use disorders. Its purpose is to share the skills needed to reach out and provide initial help and support to someone who may be developing a mental health or substance use problem or experiencing a crisis.
“More grief support from pastors is also needed, after people lost so many ‘normal’ activities— as well as some loved ones,” says Bertschy.
SEEKING HEALING NO MATTER WHAT THE OUTCOME
Kristin Bradley has seen how faith makes people more resilient and hopeful. Rebecca May knows it impacts health outcomes.
Still, healing is necessary.
“Everybody needs healing, be it physical, emotional or spiritual,” says May. “We are all sinners, and we all need healing, whether we think so or not.” Even in dire circumstances, “people can come to a spiritual healing, and realize that they are okay with whatever [happens], be it disability
or death.” Healing can come through healing services like the ones offered twice a year by May’s congregation, or through daily interactions with caring people.
During the pandemic, Brenda Bauer went from being the healer to being the one seeking healing. Recently diagnosed with a progressive neurological disease, she is now on disability. Instead of making calls to check in on parish members, she gets calls from other parish nurses in her network. She loves the care and support, but wrestles with questions like: Who am I now? How can God still use me?
As a parish nurse, Bauer met many severely ill people who faced these questions. “The whole emphasis of my calling was making God real in people’s lives, meeting them where they were and reminding them that God is there,” she says. “I have to tell myself that all the time now. I don’t know how my journey is going to go, but I know who is with me.”
Anne E. Basye is a writer living in the Pacific Northwest and the author of Sustaining Simplicity: A Journal (ELCA,