Going to church may nourish your soul, but until recently it didn't offer much for your cholesterol level or body-mass index.
Now, a growing number of congregations are hiring nurses to help inspire churchgoers to eat better, exercise, manage chronic medical conditions and in general regard their physical bodies as a gift from their creator.
"Health care should not be like a body shop where we just take our vehicle in to be fixed. It's a matter of body, mind — and spirit," said Susan Chase, associate dean for the graduate program at the University of Central Florida College of Nursing. "We have to address all of that in order to prevent disease and help people heal."
With Americans facing an epidemic of obesity, heart disease and diabetes, health officials say it makes sense to try to reach them through their houses of worship.
"We need to integrate health into where you work, where you play and where you worship," said Diana Silvey of the Winter Park Health Foundation. "One of our nurses found that she could tell patients the same thing their doctors did, but people were more receptive to the nurse because she was part of that faith environment. It's a good fit."
Parish or faith-community nurses were once mainly intended to treat congregants who fell ill during Sunday service. But in recent years they have expanded their practice to include a range of church activities — from teaching healthful-cooking classes to leading weight-loss challenges to running support groups for those with depression.
During the past year, the Winter Park Health Foundation has awarded $500,000 in grants to support local faith-community nursing programs, including hiring nurses for Redeemer Lutheran Church and First Congregational Church, both of Winter Park, and First Presbyterian Church of Maitland. The grants cover 100 percent of the nurses' salaries for the first year, 80 percent the second year and 60 percent the third year. Florida Hospital provided training through its Parish Nurse Institute.
The first question churchgoers typically ask is: What exactly do you do?
"They'd sort of pop their head in my office out of curiosity," said Denise Schmalzle, hired as the parish nurse at Redeemer Lutheran under the grant program. "Parish nursing is different in that it's really promoting wellness, instead of treating someone after they become ill."
Schmalzle counsels individuals, teaches classes, meets with seniors and lectures summer campers on the importance of taking care of themselves. Her most recent audience was a group of 3- and 4-year-olds, to whom she delivered the message that "our bodies are a wonderful creation of God."
An estimated 40 to 60 Central Florida congregations now have a nurse who works with them, although some are unpaid. Many more congregations have a less-formal "health ministry" established by church leaders to encourage healthful activities and offer educational programs.
Though religion's role in medicine can be traced to ancient civilizations, churches in more modern times have not always been exemplars of healthy living. As recently as April, researchers at Northwestern University reported that young adults who regularly attend religious activities are 50 percent more likely to become obese by middle age than their nonreligious peers.
You can blame some of that on church traditions of Sunday morning donuts and fat-laden potluck suppers, particularly in Southern congregations. That's why one mission of faith-community nurses is to encourage more-healthful choices, both at those church get-togethers and at home.
"I'm hoping she'll teach us how to put something besides Velveeta in the casserole," said Liz Doyle, a 54-year-old businesswoman who chairs the hospitality ministry at First Presbyterian Church of Maitland. "I see this as a wonderful opportunity for her to reach people of all ages."
Amid the recent recession, the nurses also have worked as community advocates to find help for congregants who need medical care and prescriptions they can't afford. Others are more like lifestyle coaches.
"I spend a lot of time as a health coach and counselor," said parish nurse Tonja Williams, who has worked at Macedonia Missionary Baptist Church in Eatonville since October 2007. "But one of the first things I had to do was get people to develop that level of trust. In the African-American community, we are often very reluctant to share [personal] information. But you have to overcome those barriers to reach a point where you can really get things done."
Macedonia's congregation is big — nearly 3,000 members — so Williams had her work cut out. But she has managed to orchestrate health fairs with more than 50 vendors, a major blood drive, flu shots for 1,500 people last year and an eight-month congregationwide fitness challenge with Saint Mark AME Church in Orlando.
Much of the goal, Williams said, was "just getting people to move." But the challenge proved so popular that a year later, church members already are clamoring for a rematch. Collectively, the two congregations lost 1,000 pounds, and many individuals were able to discontinue medication for diabetes and high blood pressure.
"It was phenomenal," she said.
Support from the church's pastor, the Rev. Willie C. Barnes, has been key to Williams' success there, the nurse said. Barnes actually launched a health ministry more than six months before Williams' arrival, and he sometimes gives sermons on health issues.
At First Congregational Church of Winter Park, senior minister Bryan Fulwider is taking note. Since his faith community's nurse came on board in February, he has felt the pressure to be a good role model for healthy living.
"It's a good kind of pressure," said Fulwider, who delivered a recent sermon on wellness. "I've struggled with weight issues all my life. Now, we've started staff walks before our weekly meetings.
"At the end of the day, it's all about helping people experience the fullness of life, which we believe is a gift from God."
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