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Parish Nursing: walking with people in crisis 

An overstretched NHS can’t always offer the personal, holistic care many people crave – but a parish Nurse can, providing an essential connection between church and community as the first UK book documenting this important ministry shows

As Julie Barry stood in the high street chatting to a friend she noticed a mum with two small children on the other side of the road.

As she watched the mum walk by she felt she needed to talk to her. Crossing the road, Julie caught the mum’s attention and introduced herself. “I’m Julie, the parish nurse,” she said.

PN1The woman’s mouth dropped open. Without saying a word she fished an envelope out of her bag. Inside, was Julie’s name and contact details – she’d just come from the Citizen’s Advice Bureau and they had suggested she contact Julie.

This God-ordained meeting enabled Julie to build up a relationship with a minority community that she’d been wanting to connect with.  

Julie has been a parish nurse for five years, based at Eden Baptist Church in Edenbridge, Kent. Her background in A&E gave her a good grounding in working with people in crisis, the mainstay of Parish Nursing.

There are currently 90 parish nurses in the UK appointed or employed by a local church, with around one third based in Baptist churches. Many parish nurses combine their work in the NHS with Parish Nursing hours.

"I'm their advocate. I make sure they get the help they need"

“I visit people a lot,” says Julie. “I do a lot of listening. It’s about walking with them in their crisis. I’m their advocate. I make sure they get the help they need. Eighty per cent of the people I work with don’t have a church background.

“There isn’t a typical day. This morning, I posted an encouraging message through someone’s letterbox to get them out of the house and to an appointment. Then I went to the Food Bank to sort out a delivery for a young mum. Later I have a MIND group in church. After that I’m taking someone who’s agoraphobic to an appointment.”

Last year saw Parish Nursing celebrate its 10th anniversary; the ministry came to the UK, via the United States, in 2004.

Helen WordsworthThe Revd Dr Helen Wordsworth (pictured), a Baptist Minister and registered nurse, is CEO of Parish Nursing Ministries UK.

“Jesus sent 72 followers out to address people’s health concerns and to tell people that the kingdom of God was near them,” says Helen. “We want to help people do this.” 

Helen is the author of the first UK book on Parish Nursing – Rediscovering a Ministry of Health.

She hopes it will encourage churches to recognise just how beneficial having a Parish Nurse on the staff team can be.

"There is a significant difference between those churches that have parish nurses and those that don't in terms of integral mission"

“The research shows a significant difference between those churches that have parish nurses and those that don’t,” Helen explains. “Not so much in terms of numbers on seats or increase in membership but in integral mission: in time spent with people who don’t attend church; in connection with the local community; in volunteer co-ordination and support; and in raising the profile of the church and working with other agencies. It seems to work really well where the church has other community activities such as a playgroup or drop-in coffee shop, which the nurse can work alongside.”

Helen is keen to emphasise that Parish Nursing is about whole person healthcare, something that an overstretched NHS cannot always deliver. With more churches than health centres in the UK, the church is uniquely placed to offer services that reach people’s less apparent needs – a listening ear, help with understanding medication, someone to act as a mediator with other health care providers, someone to reassure a nervous patient awaiting surgery.

The gospel we preach has a foundation in wholeness

“The motivating factor that got me involved was borne from a deep conviction that the gospel we preach has a foundation in wholeness,” says Helen. “Our mission should not separate out the spiritual elements from the mental, physical and community health aspects of life, and our engagement with health should not exclude spiritual care.” 

Because Parish Nursing is church based, there is a greater freedom to talk about faith. In fact it’s made clear in brochures given to prospective patients that the parish  nurse may offer to pray with them.

According to Helen, “most of the parish nurses pray and discuss spiritual care with at least half of their patients. Many of those are not church goers but appreciate the offer of prayer. It is always done in an appropriate way and with the client’s agreement. The nurses really appreciate the opportunity to integrate their nursing skills with spiritual care.”

A parish nurse can, very effectively, connect a church to its local community. Church members can offer the nurse’s services to friends and neighbours. And many nurses have become regular and very useful additions to toddler groups, lunch clubs, and other church-based groups.  According to Helen, one of the first jobs a new parish nurse will do is get to know local GPs and other health care professionals so that the door is open for referrals from the community as well as from within the church. 

“Parish nursing is relatively easy for a church to incorporate alongside the activities it already offers,” says Helen. There are some minimal set up costs plus costs for training but Parish Nursing Ministries UK “would walk with a church through the whole set up process,” she explains. And the charity provides training, resources, advice and regional co-ordination. It is then up to the church whether they offer paid or voluntary hours.

However, start-up grants are available through Cinnamon Network and churches may be able to access local grants.

Helen hopes that her book, published last month, will be a catalyst for igniting a fresh vision to see holistic health care provision as one of the church’s most prized missional activities.

“We want to have 160 projects by the end of 2017,” says Helen. “Beyond that, we want to get to a point where nearly every church in the UK has a parish nurse.”

For more info visit http://parishnursing.org.uk/

Revd Dr Helen Wordsworth is a Baptist minister with 16 years’ experience in mission enabling at regional level, alongside other denominations. She is also a Registered Nurse, Health Visitor, and Nurse Educator, and an Associate Fellow of Durham University Department of ­Theology. She is CEO of Parish Nursing Ministries UK.

‘Rediscovering a Ministry of Health: Parish Nursing as a Mission of the Local Church’ by Revd Dr Helen Anne Wordsworth is published by WIPF and STOCK (978­1­4982­0595­5/ £16) and can be ordered through your local bookshop or purchased from Amazon

Baptist Times, 21/04/2015
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