At first glance, it appeared to be a normal spring Sunday afternoon. Children played outside an old neighborhood church in South St. Louis, while inside the church about 30 parents took part in a parenting class.
But it was not an ordinary Sunday afternoon. Inside, a woman sat crying, having sought safety in the church after being physically abused during a domestic dispute. As police arrived to talk with her, church members comforted the battered woman.
The parenting class was sponsored by three churches in South St. Louis, including St. Paul UCC, where the class was being held, Pilgrim UCC and Tyler Place Presbyterian Church. Becky Valicoff has been a parish nurse at Tyler Place for the last six years. She seemed to take the chaos in stride as she answered questions about being a parish nurse.
"We work with people on a one to one basis, helping them with health problems and social issues," said Valicoff. "We also provide health education programs in the congregation and community."
Valicoff's congregation has sponsored health fairs, CPR classes, first aid classes and a drug and gang seminar.
Valicoff also considers herself to be a health advocate. She works to connect parishioners with community agencies, helps provide transportation to and from the doctor's office, and coordinates church volunteers to help out with the parish nurse program.
"The parish nurse tries to see the person as a whole," she says. "We try to help provide quality of life and wellness."
Many of the parish nurses in the St. Louis area, including Valicoff, are part of the Deaconess Parish Nurse Program. Twenty-two parish nurses serving 27 churches across St. Louis take part in the program, started by the Deaconess Foundation in 1989. The program expects to set up three more parish nurse programs by the end of this year.
According to Alvyne Rethemeyer, program director, 11 different denominations throughout St. Louis take part. As congregations start their own parish nurse programs, the Deaconess program assists by recruiting parish nurse candidates, offering parish nurse basic preparation courses, arranging continuing education and extending employee benefits to the parish nurse.
The parish nurses actually become employees of the Deaconess Parish Nurse Program, which provides declining salary support during the first three years. The congregations reimburse the foundation for the salary: one-third the first year, two-thirds the second and all of the salary by the third year.
Congregations are required to sign a three-year commitment. Rethemeyer said that it takes that long for a program to make an impact. "I always tell people that parish nursing is very difficult to get started and almost impossible to kill," says Rethemeyer.
"The ultimate goal of parish nursing is to improve the health of the congregation and community," says Rethemeyer. "Intermediate goals include helping people see healthy living as a matter of stewardship, assist people in making life style changes that improve health and effectively use the health care and social service systems."
Barbara Baylor, Minister for Health and Wellness, Justice and Witness Ministries in the UCC's national setting in Cleveland, estimates that 150 UCC congregations have parish nurses. She points out that there are many different models of parish nurse and health ministry programs.
For example, some parish nurses are paid and some are volunteers. Some congregations have developed a health team or committee. Others have lay health leaders. Some even have an ordained health minister.
St. John's UCC in Monroe, Wis., has two volunteer parish nurses, Mary Deininger and Nancy Bergey, in its year-old program. The parish nurses provide monthly blood pressure screening, sponsor a health fair and provide flu shots, and occasionally get called out during the night, among many other things.
"I can't say enough about this program, or the positive effect it has had on our church's ministry," says the Rev. Scheryl Seymour, Associate Minister at St. John's.
The parish nurse program at Bath (Ohio) UCC also has only been in place for about a year. Here parish nurse Ruth M. Wieditz sees her role primarily as an advocate and health counselor.
"My advice for any congregation looking to start a parish nurse program would be to begin by educating church members," she says. "This is extremely important so that church members do not have false expectations, because this is a new role where the emphasis is on the spiritual and mental dimension and not simply the physical."
To learn more about parish nursing or health ministries, contact Barbara Baylor at 216-736-3708; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org, or Ann Solari-Twadell, Director of the International Parish Nurse Resource Center, at 847-384-3755; e-mail: email@example.com. The resource center's website is www.advocatehealth.com/about/faith/parishn/index.
Brian R. Hook, a student at Eden Theological Seminary, is a free-lance writer based in St. Louis. Portions of this article appeared in a Presbyterian News Service release.