As a hospital chaplain, I’m always particularly aware that papers like this Report focus on health issues as they’re visible in the parish. The fact is that this is appropriate. As important as I feel my ministry is, the sickbed is not the normative experience of the Christian; nor is my ministry at the sickbed the normative experience of Christian ministry for the Christian. Most Christians experience their faith in and with their congregations; and the normative experience they have of ministry, and even of ministry at the sickbed, is with their congregational clergy. I’m happy to support and to complement that; but when those relationships are established, complementary care is the best I have to offer.
So, I note with interest that one of the topics addressed in the report falls under the heading of “Episcopal Health Ministries.” The subject is health ministries developed in and from the parish, and especially Parish Nurses and Ministers of Health. This is the first topic for which the Commission offers a resolution to General Convention:
RESOLUTION A077 EPISCOPAL HEALTH MINISTRIES
Resolved, the House of ______ concurring, That the 76th General Convention urges the congregations of The Episcopal Church, which have not already done so, to explore and implement health ministry as an organizing concept or vital component of outreach and pastoral care of the congregations by 2012; and be it further
Resolved, That the General Convention selects the Sunday closest to St. Luke’s Day (October 18) to be observed annually as Health Ministry Sunday for the recognition of health professionals in the congregation; for consideration of health systems upon the lives of the congregation’s members; for study of the abundant biblical references to health and healing; and for expansion of understanding about health to include body, mind and spirit.
In the Explanation of the resolution, the Commission notes that “Health ministries play a unique and critical role in facilitating the overall health of clergy, staff and congregation.” This is consistent with their comment in the Report itself that “Much of this ministry helps prevent serious illnesses from developing
among the parishioners.”
The Explanation also highlights the work of National Episcopal Health Ministries (NEHM), noting that “NEHM is a valuable resource for those seeking assistance in the development of faith ministries.” I have been aware of the work of NEHM for some time. NEHM, along with the Assembly of Episcopal Healthcare Chaplains (AEHC), was named in Resolution 2000-A079, which first called for a gathering of “representatives of the Episcopal healthcare groups (including the Association of Episcopal Healthcare Chaplains and the National Episcopal Healthcare Ministries) and individuals representing various professions in healthcare and in healthcare policy (recognizing the need for advice on the financial challenges inherent in this area), as well as those engaged in the teaching of, and research on medical ethics and end-of-life issues,” and which resulted in the 2001 Formative Symposium on Health Care. The folks at NEHM have been faithful and consistent advocates for parish-based health ministries, while also appreciating the importance of spiritual care in clinical settings.
The report notes the value of ministries in the parish that might, among other things, provide screenings for many different health issues, to administer vaccines and to organize educational seminars on health issues.” In noting specifically the educational opportunities, the Report points to another issue of importance. That is “Health Literacy.” The Report notes,
In working with those who are carrying out ministries in health care, the SCOH notes that many report that patients and their families often do not understand the basic health information and services needed to make appropriate health decisions. The National Center for Educational Statistics has reported the following:
- Nearly half (89 million) of American adults cannot understand basic health information.
- One in three American adults has limited health literacy.
- 40-80% of medical information that health care providers give is immediately forgotten by patients.
- Reading level is not always the same as the highest grade of school completed.
- Most adults read and comprehend information three to five grades below their highest grade completed.
- One of the many side affects of lower health literacy is premature death. High risk individuals are elderly persons with severe disabilities; persons who are members of cultural, linguistic and ethnic minorities; persons who are chronically underemployed; and persons who are homeless.
- The SCOH notes that church members can be of significant help in explaining and interpreting information to others as volunteers and friends. Informed decisions can only be made with informed minds and hearts.
Where I work health literacy is certainly a critical issue. It affects any number of healthcare issues. With limited health literacy and so many immediately forgetting what they hear (largely because of stress or because of failure of the provider to “speak English,” and not because of indifference or inattention), we have continuing crises with patient compliance and self-care. Those result in significant waste of resources including money, trying to remediate health crises that might have been prevented. They affect how people understand end of life issues, which the Report addressed; and how people understand news reports on health and fitness. Parish Nurses and Health Ministers, and other kinds of parish-based health ministries, are in a good position to identify parishioners with special needs, to companion them through health decisions, and to education the congregation as a whole on important health and wellness information.
As this Report has noted, the Episcopal Church has a history of supporting universal access to health care. I look forward to some significant changes (well, I think they’re improvements) in how health care is delivered in our society. However, improvements in the delivery system will not eliminate issues of health literacy, nor will they displace the opportunities for ongoing care and support that can be met in parish-based health ministries. These are important issues that the Episcopal Church can not only speak to, but can respond to in our local congregations. So, they are important issues in this Report to General Convention.