Lutherans in the Twin Cities

Parish nurses address intentional spiritual care

Congregations serve as providers of holistic care for members of the congregation and the community

While having a parish nurse may be a new concept for some congregations,
having a person who integrates faith and health is anything but new. Indeed,
the idea originated in Germany. Norway has had parish nurses for about 150
years; a local group of parish nurses plans to visit their counterparts in Oslo.

In the U.S., parish nursing got its start in the Chicago area in 1983 when
Lutheran hospital chaplain, Granger Westberg, got four Lutheran
congregations and two Catholic parishes to co-sponsor a parish nurse. This
action was a logical outgrowth of Westberg’s interest in holistic health.
Among Lutherans, the Twin Cities metro area seems to be a hotbed of parish
nursing activity. The Parish Nurse Association of the Evangelical Lutheran
Church in America (ELCA) has its headquarters in the Twin Cities.

Parish nursing is all about “intentional spiritual care,” according to Valborg
Tollefsrud of Edina, a leader in the parish nursing field. When Tollefsrud
retired after 44 years at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota, she only
stayed retired overnight. The next day she started a parish nursing program
at Our Redeemer Lutheran Church (ELCA) in south Minneapolis.

The increased interest in parish nursing is sometimes assumed to be a
response to the aging of the population in the U.S. generally. However, the
profession is defined broadly, from prenatal and maternity care to pediatric
needs through the challenges of aging. Some congregations are significantly
committed to this holistic effort. For example, Mount Olivet Lutheran Church
(ELCA) in Minneapolis has six parish nurses — one maternity, two pediatric,
and three general. Bethlehem Lutheran Church (ELCA), also in Minneapolis,
has two parish nurses.

Annette Langdon, parish nurse at Calvary Lutheran Church (ELCA) in Golden
Valley, finds herself more of an administrator, as she works with 50
Befrienders, a care team, and a disabilities awareness group. She supervises
four unpaid parish nurses and helps schedule visits by the congregation’s
three visitation pastors. Among accomplishments at Calvary are improved
sign-age within the church facility, more spaces for wheelchairs, and large-
print Sunday bulletins.

Some smaller congregations have collaborated in sponsoring a parish nurse.
There’s even a group of 16 congregations of various denominations called
TRUST Inc. that sponsors a parish nurse program. Lutheran congregations
involved in that ecumenical group include St. John’s, Lutheran Church of
Christ the Redeemer, and Bethlehem, the latter also having its own parish
nurse program, according to Pat McLaughlin, who is also vice chair of Faith
Community Nurse Network of the Twin Cities, an ecumenical group. The three
churches are all ELCA congregations in southwest Minneapolis.

The Minnesota South District of the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod has 14
congregations with parish nurses at last count, according to Florine Murray, a
retired Rochester, Minnesota, nurse, who heads the effort. She’s been
working in parish nursing since 1992 and finds that one plan doesn’t fit all
congregations’ needs; it works best if the program is organized to fit a
congregation’s specific needs.

While many churches see a parish nurse program as part of their ministry to
the whole person, hospital and care facilities see parish nursing as a good
means of outreach and prevention of unnecessary visits to the emergency
room or admissions to a care facility. Parish nursing is often an opportunity
for nurses approaching retirement age to continue their care giving. Whether
a parish nurse is a paid position usually depends on the financial situation of
a congregation. Parish nursing is a “movement of extraordinary women,”
according to Wanda Alexander, a leader in the founding of the ELCA Parish
Nurse group and secretary-treasurer of the Faith Community Nurse Network.
She observed that there are more than 400 nurses in the latter group,
representing 225 faith communities; 41 percent of those nurses engage in
their ministry in ELCA congregations.

Tollefsrud says that 22 percent of ELCA congregations in the Minneapolis
and St. Paul Area synods offer parish nursing programs and services. And, the
numbers are growing.

The ELCA Parish Nurse Association is encouraging the spread in a tangible
way. It has awarded scholarships for prospective parish nurses to take the
course work required to become a parish nurse and $2,000 start-up grants
to three churches in the metro area — Messiah Lutheran, Oromo Lutheran,
and St. Paul’s Evangelical Lutheran on 15th Avenue (all ELCA) in south
Minneapolis. The association also provides mentors to work with new parish
nurses for the first year.

Parish nurses seek to integrate faith and health, reminding people to care for
their body, mind, and spirit. They are also health educators, training through
group seminars or one-on-one visits. They can serve as personal health
counselors, discussing health problems with parishioners. They often serve
as a referral agent or advocate which can, at times, entail accompanying a
member to a doctor’s appointment. They are trainers of volunteers and
developers of small groups. They may be involved in bringing meals to
parishioners who may be grieving, recently discharged from the hospital, or
experiencing the joy of a new baby.

ELCA Parish Nurse Association membership requirements include being a
registered nurse, licensed to practice professional nursing; having completed
an endorsed parish nurse program; working in compliance with the Scope
and Standard of Practice through the American Nurses Association; and
endorsing and promoting the theological definition of the ELCA Parish Nurse.

Parish nursing services are not just for lay members of the parish either.
Recognizing that many church leaders are leading unhealthy life styles,
Luther Seminary in St. Paul has its own parish nurse who aims to get church
leaders in training into healthy lifestyles. Karen Treat, the seminary’s parish
nurse, had this to say, “I have been here for four years, and the seminary has
employed a parish nurse for over 10 years. I am much like a typical parish
nurse at congregations. I do assessment of health and wellness for the
seminary community, and encourage them to seek the appropriate medical
follow-up as needed. I also do a lot of health promotion.

“Statistics show that the current church leaders have become a more
unhealthy category of professionals. Luther Seminary has looked forward in
attending to those needs by encouraging the students to care for themselves
here so that they have the tools to take care of themselves while tending to
the church when they leave the campus.

“Luther Seminary also recognized the ministry of parish nursing as an
important ministry to the church. We host the Concordia College Parish Nurse
Center every March to prepare registered nurses to become parish nurses for
their congregation.

“Luther Seminary is also beginning a graduate-level parish nurse theological
certificate this fall. It is a two-year program that is taken primarily online,
with two January terms on campus. It is designed to deepen the theological
integration of faith and health for those in health ministry. It is an exciting
time for the ministry of parish nursing.”

Additional information about parish nursing is available from Annette
Langdon, chair of the ELCA Parish Nurse Association and parish nurse at
Calvary Lutheran Church in Golden Valley, at 763/231-2955 or e-mail to or Valborg Tollefsrud, vice-chair of the association, at
952/832-5926. The association’s Web site can also be helpful; it is Wanda Alexander can be reached at 612/879-3144 or For information about LCMS parish
nurse programs, contact Florine Murray at 507/289-5977 or send e-mail to