Hospitality and Outreach
Four Steps to a Public Health Ministry
As a hospital chaplain, I encounter people at some of the lowest points in their lives. My role is to help them see how their own spiritual resources can support their physical healing. However, hospital patients are discharged, often before they are fully healed, and most healing, most health care, takes place in our communities. While we often talk about how church attendance in the United States is declining, the truth is that over one third of Americans attend religious services weekly. Faith communities still have some of the strongest social capital in our society, and they can use that to promote health and healing.
In John’s Gospel, Jesus states, “I came that they might have life, and have it more abundantly.” (John 10:10) While I believe that the abundant life Jesus promises is more than physical health, I also believe that it does include physical health. People in our communities have health needs that churches can and should address, but they often seem overwhelming. How do you even know where to begin?
1. Think about health broadly
The odds are that your parish is already engaged in a public health ministry. That’s because health doesn’t just include the services you receive from your doctor or other health care professionals. According to the CDC, “Conditions in the places where people live, learn, work and play affect a wide range of health risks and outcomes.” These conditions are known as “social determinants of health.”
Does your parish have a feeding ministry? Lack of access to healthy food is linked to a number of chronic health conditions. Do you already have a ministry that helps people find stable housing and employment? Homelessness and unemployment are also linked to negative health outcomes. Perhaps your parish hosts twelve-step groups. Addiction is a chronic disease that is linked to numerous negative health outcomes.
2. Assess your community’s needs
Doing a public health assessment sounds daunting. Luckily, the IRS requires each non-profit hospital to make a public health assessment of its community every three years. You can find one for your community by Googling “community health needs assessment” and the name of a local non-profit hospital. Here’s a link to the Community Health Needs Assessment (CHNA) for the Johns Hopkins Hospital, where I work.
As part of their CHNA, hospitals identify two to five of the biggest public health issues in their community and provide a plan on how they will address them. Some hospitals, like Johns Hopkins, will also identify social determinants of health that they plan to address. By using a local hospital’s CHNA, you can identify the greatest health needs your community faces, as well as ideas for how to address them.
3. Discern your gifts and skills
If your parish is already engaged in a health ministry, it might make sense to build on that. For example, the greatest health need that we’re focusing on at Johns Hopkins Hospital is access to addiction treatment services. With this in mind, it might make sense for a parish near our hospital to focus on expanding the twelve-step programs it hosts to include Narcotics Anonymous and Al-Anon in addition to more traditional groups like Alcoholics Anonymous.
If you already have a parish nursing ministry, consider expanding that to include help for parishioners as they navigate the health care system, which can feel complex and overwhelming. Or, if you have a number of nurses in your parish but don’t have an existing parish nursing ministry, consider starting one to provide basic health care like blood pressure screenings and vaccinations.
Whatever your parish’s gifts and skills, there is a health care need that relates to them. If you have an active feeding ministry, consider whether the food you provide is healthy. By including more fresh fruits and vegetables, you can have a huge impact on the health of your community.
4. Form partnerships
Health care organizations are actively looking to partner with faith communities to improve public health. Reach out to local organizations and see how you can support what they are doing, as well has how they can support your efforts in the community. You don’t have to do this alone! Remember, when Jesus sent out his disciples, he sent them two by two.
Maybe your parish can offer space to start a weekly mental health clinic. Perhaps you could partner with a dietician to provide healthy cooking classes for your congregation and the people you serve through your feeding ministry. Is there a local doctor or lawyer who would come and lead an adult forum on advance directives for health care? Have you thought about partnering with the department of spiritual care at a local hospital or hospice?
At the Johns Hopkins Hospital, the major social determinant of health that we’re focusing on is stable employment. The hospital has a large human resources department, and we have experts who can help individuals prepare resumes and practice interview skills. We found it hard, though, to get the community to come to job training at the hospital. Zion Baptist Church, a local congregation, had strong relationships with their community and space for job training workshops. So now we partner with them to offer Turnaround Tuesday, a weekly program helping individuals in one of Baltimore’s poorest neighborhoods find stable employment with health benefits. Neither the hospital nor the church could have done this on its own. However, we could do it together.
The following resources explain how your parish can begin a public health ministry, as well as provide curriculums developed for faith-based and other community organizations to address chronic illnesses.
Building Healthy Communities through Medical-Religious Partnerships by W. Daniel Hale, PhD, Richard G. Bennet, MD, and Panagis Galiatsatos, MD
The Rev. Joshua Rodriguez-Hobbs serves as the Episcopal Chaplain to the Johns Hopkins Hospital. He is a 2018 ECF Fellow. Josh’s ministry project focuses on helping parishes in the Diocese of Maryland form medical-religious partnerships to improve the health of their communities.
- Mobile Health Clinic: A Path to Dignity and Wholeness by Abagail Nelson, ECF Vital Practices blog, December 5, 2014
- Where There is Despair, Hope an ECF Vital Practices tool submitted by Richelle Thompson
- So You Think You Don’t Know One… by Chilton Knudsen, Vestry Papers, May 2011