Pressure Points (February)

with Dr. Bruce Hartung

Q: There is a lot of talk these days about health care and health issues.  I know that even our LCMS health plan is getting into the cultural stream by putting more emphasis on prevention as something we all should be doing.  You would think that we would have had this kind of emphasis in our church years ago, but I guess later is better than not at all. 

Here is my question relative to this topic, as a leader in my congregation:  What can congregations do to help?  We ought to be helping our staff stay as healthy as they can be, and we ought to be helping our members do the same.  I know we should not turn our congregation into a health club, as one of my friends put it when I talked with him about this.  But I think we should be a group of people that support people’s health and participate in prevention.  Again, what can congregations do?

A: Frankly, I like your thinking and your vision about health and well-being.  This is indeed a group or congregational effort, as well as an individual effort by each of us. 

For instance, it does not help to encourage your staff to exercise regularly if the demands of their work or your expectations of them are so extreme that thereHartung, Bruce no incentive for them to take the time to exercise.  To take this example further, it does not help to encourage your staff to eat nutritionally if most of the food your congregation offers is not particularly healthy.  Or, it does not help if the congregation does not help its staff protect regular time off away from the job at the same time that it encourages its staff to effectively manage stress.

In short, the message of prevention — and, I would add, wellness — needs to be both verbalized and behaviorally supported. 

The way I see it, prevention is keeping an illness from happening, while wellness is keeping an already good and healthy thing going. Thus, it is important that the congregation become a community of people who encourage each other to live healthier lives.

If you do not already have one, consider developing a health cabinet in your parish.  This cabinet would consist of people who are aware of health and wellness issues, and may even work in those areas.  Nutritionists, nurses, counselors, doctors, dentists, social workers, and community health workers might be good candidates for this cabinet, among others. 

This group would come together to talk about the vision of a health-encouraging congregation and begin to assess what needs to be done.  Wheat Ridge Ministries (www.wheatridge.org) has an excellent congregational health-assessment resource available. 

If you are willing to take a larger step, look at the Wellness Council of America Web site, at www.welcoa.org.  This group has a methodology and a means of certification for becoming a “well-workplace.”  Help your congregation become certified as a well-workplace by putting together a plan that will give you a lot of opportunities to think through health-related issues.

Other resources include the Health Ministries Association (www.hmassoc.org) and the LCMS parish nurse movement.  Check with your district to see who the parish nurses are in your area, if you do not have people in the congregation who are familiar with this very dynamic direction of work.

Your question gets answered by more than a laundry list of things people should do that are health enhancing.  Rather, it gets answered by forming a team of like-interest people who can begin to talk together about initiatives that might be taken.  There is more to this than just encouraging personal resolve; it does involve the support of the community and the parish.

I have received another question about this theme. So, the next column will look at this whole question through a slightly different lens.

Rev. Bruce M. Hartung, Ph.D., is dean of Ministerial Formation at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, and can be reached at hartungb@csl.edu

Posted Jan. 31, 2008

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