Holy health: Hospital program aims to boost community health

BARBARA COTTER Updated: January 15, 2013 at 12:00 am • Published: January 15, 2013

Judging from the questions and statements in the survey that Patsy Janeba took one day, you could almost see her stretched out on a couch in a therapist’s office, mulling over her existence.

“In general, how satisfied are you with your life?”

“What keeps me up at night?”

“I suffer most with ...”

This, however, was not your typical setting for deep soul-searching — though executives at Penrose-St. Francis Health Services believe it might be the perfect place to ask such questions. Janeba was at church, and she took the survey with the others at Trinity Lutheran Church to assess the spiritual well-being of the congregation.

The survey is one cornerstone of a relatively new Penrose-St. Francis program, the Church Health Project, part of the hospital system’s longstanding effort to boost community health and wellness by reaching people through their places of worship and emphasizing the connection between body and soul.

“Generally speaking, if you were to ask a church what its health care ministry would look like, they’d say, ‘We visit the sick and we bury the dead,’” says Penrose-St. Francis Vice President of Mission Integration Larry Seidl. “What we’re trying to do here at Penrose-St. Francis is ask the question: ‘What can a church do for its members to keep them well, or to be with them differently in the process of getting sick?’”

For about 13 years, Penrose-St. Francis has been helping churches create health ministries, with guidance from its team of Faith Community Nurses. Some of the 20 Colorado Springs churches that Penrose-St. Francis works with offer basic services, such as blood-pressure checks and flu-shot clinics. Others, including Trinity Lutheran, have a more robust program.

“It really depends on the church, and what resources they have” says Cynthia Wacker, head of the Faith Community Nurses. “We always encourage them to make sure they open it broadly enough so anyone interested in health and wellness — counselors, spiritual advisers, mental health professionals, chiropractors in the church — can be involved in the wellness of this church.”

Trinity Lutheran benefits from having Faith Community Nurse Jackie Sward as a member, and she’s instituted several programs through the years, including this season’s “Hold it for the Holidays,” which rewarded participants who gained no more than 2 pounds through Jan. 6.

“The big thing is just to encourage people to make healthy choices and help them understand the connection between faith, physical health and emotional health,” Sward says. “We’ve done all kinds of activities — everything from breast self-exams ... to suicide prevention with teens. We’ve done a lot of nutrition-related stuff.”

Trinity Lutheran was one of six churches to pilot the Church Health Project in 2011, and it’s now being used at seven churches, with a goal of adding 15 to 20 this year.

The project relies heavily on the survey, which consists of 14 preset questions and six that a place of worship can tailor to its own needs. Congregants take part in the survey together, punching their answers on hand-held “gizmos” that tally the responses and display the results immediately.

“It was absolutely wonderful,” Janeba says. “How do we see ourselves? What do we need from the ministry? It was eye-opening — something you might not see in yourself, but by the questions posed, it gets to the core of your needs. I think it’s connecting that our body is a temple for God, and we have to take care of it, not abuse it.”

Some of the results are so surprising that congregations gasp when they display on the screen in front of them.

“One of the questions in the survey is about loneliness,” Seidl says. “When I’m sitting next to the people I go to church with every week and see 39 percent of the folks think loneliness is what’s making them sick, that’s an ‘aha’ moment for people who worship and pray together.”

The survey results can help leaders of churches, synagogues and mosques develop programs and sermons to tackle the congregation’s needs. Penrose-St. Francis has thick “tool kits” for participants that include sermons and social media advice, and suggestions for weekly classes and focused Bible studies.

The program has been getting attention outside Colorado Springs. Penrose-St. Francis did a presentation at an American Public Health Association Convention last year in San Franciso, and the response was “Wow — this is an ‘aha’ moment in church-hospital relationships,” Seidl says.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services also invited Penrose-St. Francis to a White House conference on faith and health, and Seidl received a follow-up inquiry from someone with the World Health Organization.

“Yes, it’s happening across the country, where hospitals and churches are starting to make these connections, but I don’t think anyone is doing it the way we’re doing it here,” Seidl says.

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