Thanks to a pair of related programs from the McFarland Institute, a New Orleans-based division of Baptist Community Ministries, more churches around the metro area now count health ministries among the services they offer their members. Both the Church Nurse program and the Lay Health Advocate program are volunteer-run, church-led initiatives created to get needy residents in touch with health care services, all within the comfort zone of their churches.

Training begins soon for new volunteers interested in getting involved at their own churches.

“These programs primarily serve our uninsured and underinsured, and our disadvantaged folks and the working poor,” says Lisa Collins, Lay Health coordinator with the McFarland Institute. “In many cases, when they get ill the first person they might tell is another church member. It’s because of that familiarity. Maybe they’re in the choir, maybe they’re someone who comes to mid-week service, but they probably have someone in the church they feel most comfortable speaking to and that’s the opportunity there for a referral and the start of care.”

The initiative began with the Church Nurse program, which was created in 1997 after the American Nursing Association designated parish nursing as a specialty practice. This program is intended for registered nurses who want to use their skills and experience in their church communities. The Lay Health Advocate program began in 2004 to provide health ministry training to church members who don’t have professional medical backgrounds.

Each program trains volunteers to be a first point of contact and referral source for their fellow church members and help them access other services available in their neighborhoods. Volunteers visit area clinics and learn about health resources and meet individual providers, gaining firsthand familiarity to draw on when making referrals.

“These are not clinics, so they’re not giving shots or direct care services like that in the church. It’s more about information, education and referrals,” Collins says. “It’s all about linking people to what’s available in their neighborhoods.”

The Institute has trained 250 church nurses and 120 lay health advocates, who are now at work at 200 established health and wellness ministries across the metro area. The next training cycle begins in March.

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 – I.M.