Lutherans in Minnesota

Healing and prayer — off the clock

Parish nurses offer spiritual care with a strong dose of medical knowledge

Healing has been a key part of the Christian faith from earliest times, has it not? Healing by Jesus, then by his followers (Matthew 10, Mark 3, Luke 9, Acts 3). Significantly, the New Testament Greek word for “heal” also means “save.” Jesus came to heal — and to save.

So it should be no surprise that healing, health and well-being continue as a key ministry of God’s big Church, whatever the denomination.

In the forefront are parish nurses. About 15 of them will meet February 25-March 1 at Luther Seminary for an annual conference hosted by Concordia College of Moorhead, Minnesota. (Organizers ask attendees to register by February 8 because participants are invited to complete assignments prior to the start of the course. See “Going deeper in parish nursing,” below.)

Parish nurses’ influence is much greater than the small numbers suggest. “As a parish nurse,” says Jean Bokinskie, “you can feel free to offer prayer — without a time clock.” And, she adds, parish nurses can do so even “with people who don’t have an insurance card.”

Mary Nordtvedt, parish nurse at Augustana Lutheran, West St. Paul; photo provided by Mary Nordtvedt

Back at church, parish nurses promote wellness through education and screenings.

Bokinskie is director of the parish nurse ministry program at Concordia and an organizer of the Luther Seminary conference. More than 1,600 nurses have completed Concordia College’s parish nurse course since it was launched in 1991. Many of them still serve congregations in Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, Iowa, Wisconsin, Kansas, and Montana.

Mary Nordtvedt is parish nurse at Augustana Lutheran Church, an ELCA congregation in West St. Paul and also parish nurse coordinator at Lyngblomsten, a St. Paul care center. “It’s a privilege to walk with people,” Nordtvedt says, “to care for them in body and spirit.”

Machinery jungle

Healthcare today is a jungle of choices. Parish nurses help to guide families through the maze of care options. They also visit shut-ins — not providing full home healthcare but checking on the homebound and advising them and their families on care alternatives. Some parish nurses administer communion as well.

Back at church, parish nurses also promote wellness through education and screenings. They set up support groups. They help midlifers find the right setting for aging parents. They pray with families enduring a loved one’s dementia, or while a parent is about to die.

Parish nurses can help individuals and families develop health care directives — what a dying person wants in terms of care, with a knowledge of what Lutheran belief says about end-of-life decisions — “so family members know what loved ones want,” says Mary Jo Hallberg, “and if they don’t want to die with a lot of machinery around them.”

That can be a great blessing to the dying and to the family — letting loved ones slip away in peace, bypassing any extraordinary measures to keep them alive, adds Hallberg, parish nurse at Gloria Dei Lutheran Church in St. Paul and chair of the Region 3 Evangelical Lutheran Parish Nurse Association, affiliated with the ELCA.

Hallberg notes another benefit: If we let the dying go when they are ready, with their consent, instead of keeping them on life support, it helps hold down the cost of health care.

Yet parish nursing isn’t only about end of life. Nordtvedt meets with preschoolers to talk about health, and Hallberg plans a sequence of Wednesday evenings for confirmation students to focus on “what makes a healthy relationship and what gets in the way of healthy relationships.”

Pastors welcome the skills parish nurses bring. “If someone would rather talk to a parish nurse, I don’t have a problem with that at all,” says the Rev. Mark Aune, senior pastor at Augustana Lutheran. “We’re not in competition with each other.”

Parish nursing, he adds, has “created an avenue of ministry that I think a pastor can’t create.”

Going deeper in parish nursing

More information about the upcoming conference is available at www.cord.edu/offices/parishnurse1.php. Prospective attendees can also contact parish-nurse@cord.edu or call Jean Bokinskie at 218/299-3825.

The cost is $575, including resources, notebook, and most meals for the week. Lodging is available for an additional cost through Luther Seminary.

The Luther Seminary sessions cover how to start a parish nurse program in a faith community.

Also covered will be historical perspectives, biblical healing in the church’s ministry, strategies for developing a health and healing ministry, and assessing congregations’ health needs. The program includes health-promotion activities, active listening, ethical and legal concerns and care for those experiencing grief and loss. Participants can also schedule a mentoring session with an active parish nurse.

The Evangelical Parish Nurse Association (ELPNA), affiliated with the ELCA, promotes spiritual growth of parish nurses in Lutheran faith and parish nurse ministry at synod, region and churchwide levels.

Augustana Lutheran in West St. Paul hosts a variety of health ministry activities.

The Lyngblomsten care center in St. Paul also offers a parish nurse ministry.

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