By Tara Orley and Sue Wiese
For Senior Voice 

Parish nurses build on caring tradition


Courtesy Tara Orley

A parish nurse teaches Sunday school kids about "tools to keep us healthy." There are more than 150 parish nurses in the state of Alaska, who all work almost exclusively as volunteers.

Dave called to his wife Barb as he was leaving the house, "I'm headed up to church for my exercise class!"

Barb was quick to respond, "Don't you mean the gym?"

"No, our new parish nurse Mary is leading us in some Tai Chi, she says it will help my balance. I asked her to explain this new medicine for my blood pressure when we are done. I bet she could even help you figure out those Medicare forms you've been so frustrated with."

What does a registered nurse do in the setting of a faith community?

Throughout history, the church has been a center of healing. In keeping with this tradition, Parish Nursing was recognized as a new specialty in nursing in 1984. The cheerleader for this movement was a pastor by the name of Granger Westberg. He was a medical student instructor and hospital chaplain who recognized that healthcare needed to be more than just care of our physical bodies.

He advocated that humans need care of the whole person-mind, body and spirit. Parish nurses are registered nurses, who receive additional education in intentional care of the spirit. The practice is recognized by the American Nurses Association (ANA) and is held to its own Scope and Standards of Practice. The first group in 1984 consisted of six nurses, and the practice has now grown to over 10,000 practicing parish nurses, in more than 25 countries. Parish nurses aren't limited to a single faith, and have a wide diversity of faith traditions.

In recognizing the latitude of this group, the name parish nurse has evolved to the official name of 'faith community nurse' in many settings. These nurses work in paid and unpaid positions. There are more than 150 parish nurses in the state of Alaska, who all work almost exclusively as volunteers. There are also over 30 health ministers, who are not nurses, but have completed the course to support their parishioners in achieving whole person health.

In all they do, parish nurses share the powerful gift of spiritual support and the ministry of simply being present during what can be the most difficult times in life.

It's important to note that parish nurses do not provide 'hands-on' nursing care for their faith community, and do not duplicate services already provided in someone's established healthcare environment. Because they are a trusted set of ears and held to the rules of confidentiality set forth by their profession, they act as a safe person for faith community members to discuss health concerns with.

Nurses deal in the 'nitty-gritty' elements of health every day and are comfortable answering difficult questions, as well as helping to identify appropriate resources. They are also able to accompany their church members to act as their advocate when navigating the health care system. By working to keep those who are 'a little sick' from becoming 'really sick', they can make a big difference in the lives of their faith community members-lowering anxiety, reducing suffering and decreasing health care costs.

As the walls of many of our local clinics and hospitals are bulging, we realize that addressing health should begin long before someone gets to the point where they need to visit a healthcare facility. Parish nurses seek to use the relationships and regular meetings with their parishioners to identify education needs and ways to support members in pursuing healthier and more proactive lifestyles.

There is much potential for healing of bodies, minds, relationships and the environment in our world. Dr. Deborah Patterson, author of "The Essential Parish Nurse: ABCs for Congregational Health Ministry," reminds us: "Faith-based nursing challenges the nursing profession to reclaim the spiritual dimensions of care, challenges the healthcare system to provide whole-person care, and challenges the faith community to revitalize its healing mission".

For further information on faith community nursing, or to become involved in this vital program to create a healthier community, contact the Alaska Faith Community Nursing Resource Center at Providence, 907-212-2595 or visit

Tara Orley is a Faith Community Nurse Coordinator at Providence Health and Services Alaska. Sue Wiese is a Faith Community Nurse at Amazing Grace Lutheran Church in Anchorage.


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