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Health Ministries for Congregations and Communities

by Patricia Magyar and Cherian Thomas, M.D.

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United Methodist congregation-based health ministries are expanding rapidly today, especially in the United States, partly in response to an aging church membership and partly because of a growing awareness that maintaining and improving physical health is a significant expression of Christian mission.

Wesleyan Thought

Two historical streams support this trend. First is the theological and ethical teaching of John Wesley, the eighteenth-century British founder of Methodism. In Wesley’s view, all followers of Jesus Christ (and the church as the body of Christ) have the responsibility of investing all of their gifts in mission and ministry. Shared ministry is a natural consequence of following Jesus.

Striving toward Christian perfection, a basic Wesleyan concept, means love of God and love of neighbor, as summarized in two bedrock Methodist precepts: “do no harm” and “do good.”

Wesley himself often expressed “doing good” interms of efforts on behalf of both spiritual and physical health. He and early Methodist preachers knew and advocated the value of good food, clean water and air, and exercise. They warned against the health risks of alcohol and tobacco use. Wesley published, and the circuit riders carried in their saddlebags, a sort of healthcare rimer called Primitive Physick. Wesley was particularly concerned about the health and welfare of the poor. He organized both charitable and self help ministries, some involving health, for those on the margins of society. And many Methodists were among the poor and marginalized. Wesley’s commitment to health was strongly influenced by New Testament stories of how Jesus healed thesick and cared for outcasts.

Community-Based Health Approach

The second historical stream is more recent in origin but as powerful in appeal. This is community-based primary healthcare which originated in work with poor communities in Asia, but which has expanded to influence global healthcare delivery. Key principles include education and the creative use of assets at hand. One basic asset is the willingness of people to learn to avoid behavior or habits that invite infection or other factors causing ill health.

The community-based healthcare approach was pioneered by Drs. Raj and Mabelle Arole in the Jamkhed area of rural India, east of Mumbai, beginning around 1970. The Aroles were graduates of the Christian Medical College in Vellore, where they did residencies in medicine and surgery. They later earned degrees in public health in the United States. The couple committed themselves to work with the poor of India in improving both health and economic conditions, focusing particularly on poor women.

As the Jamkhed project’s website summarizes:

Drs. Raj and Mabelle Arole had a vision for health in its broadest, most holistic, sense when they started the program. They believed that health does not just mean high-tech hospitals, doctors, nurses, and medicines, nor does it exist in isolation. Health is interrelated with nutrition, agriculture, economics, education,women’s status, and other factors. Therefore,they felt a comprehensive, holistic approach would represent a viable solution for dealing with the health problems of the poor. http://www.jamkhed.org/fundraiser.htm

The Aroles’ approach is now a standard in much of the developing world and has influenced health education and practice in the most sophisticated and technological cultures. It invites persons and their communities to take major responsibility in addressing their own health conditions and needs.

Community-based outlooks and techniques cameinto the United Methodist mission orbit through the work of Dr. Christiana Hena, a missionary physician who studied in Jamkhed with the Aroles.She was the first of some 250 people sent by the General Board of Global Ministries in recent yearsto learn from the Aroles. Dr. Hena also became a trainer in the field and today works in northeast Kazakhstan, still as a United Methodist missionary, both as a doctor and as one who equips others toserve as community-based health practitioners.

The community-based health strategy is central in United Methodist global work to combat and eradicate preventable diseases such as HIV/AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis. Education, good nutrition, adequate sanitation, and alternative means to treat and cure are essential components.

The Church as Spiritual and Medical Home

Both Wesleyan theology and elements of community-based healthcare are obvious in the growing congregation-based healthcare movement, which often extends beyond the congregation into thel arger community.

A typical first step is an assessment of the health needs in the congregation and community. Plans are built upon the findings. If the need is for free primary healthcare, the congregation—or a group of congregations—may organize clinics staffed by volunteer physicians and nurses to look after those with ailments such as diabetes or conditions such as high blood pressure or high cholesterol. Examples of such clinics include those at St. Mark Church, Wichita, Kansas; Rayne Memorial in New Orleans; and the Joy-Southfield Health and Education Center of Second Grace United Methodist Church in Michigan. Education may be a pressing need, leading to sessions on HIV/AIDS, STD, and other easily transmitted diseases, perhaps at special health fairs or at regular church functions.

Testing for communicable diseases and counseling may be offered. One goal is to provide a spiritual and medical home within the church.Examples of this kind of mission ministry can be found within many annual conferences. The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina demonstrated the need for such congregation-based services in Louisiana and the conference and congregations have responded dramatically, with the assistance of the general church. United Methodist-related community centers also participate in such comprehensive ministries.

Parish nurses and volunteer health advocates are increasingly visible in The United Methodist Church. Congregations may partner with one another and with other organizations to strengthen and enlarge the efforts, reaching out to retirement facilities, nursing homes, hospitals, and communities of the poor. Today there are approximately 450 United Methodist parish nurses at work through congregations. The Health and Welfare Program Area of Global Ministries is increasingly involved in linking and resourcing these professionals.

The employment of “health ministers” is also on the rise. Such persons provide personal health counseling one-on-one; lead group education sessions; facilitate support groups for caregivers, cancer survivors, and volunteer “heart savers;”advocate for improvements in healthcare systems; and provide general health information to the community and congregation. Importantly, health ministers offer spiritual care for the sick and needy.

Healthcare Ministry Network

The General Board of Global Ministries and theGeneral Board of Pension and Health Benefits are collaborating in the building of a congregation based healthcare network. A third annual “Empowering Ministries of Health” conference was held in August 2007 in Wichita, Kansas. Fifty annual conferences were represented by 150 pastors, parish nurses, health educators, and health advocates. Workshops covered both health ministries as mission and the self-care of clergy. Health ministry networks are likely to increase dramatically in the immediate future.

Networks for healthcare are also expanding in Central Conferences (outside the United States).The Zimbabwe Annual Conference focuses on the greatest need of the day; that is, homecare for persons with HIV/AIDS in homes. Pivotal in this work are United Methodist Women of Zimbabwe, all volunteers, who visit homes and help families to take care of the sick and dying. These women may carry few supplies and medicines but bring an abundance of love and prayers! The volunteers also visit orphans and vulnerable children who may live in child-headed homes. The Zimbabwe Annual Conference assists this work through the AIDS Orphan Trust.

The community-based healthcare program in Davao, Philippines, is an example of congregations working with communities to strengthen primary healthcare. The emphasis is on health education and prevention and focuses on the most vulnerable segment of society—mothers and young children.


Striving to walk boldly in the footsteps of Jesus and John Wesley, The United Methodist Church in 2008 is a leader in community- and congregation-based healthcare globally and in the United States. This is a big undertaking, one that calls the church as the body of Christ today to ministries in ways that may measure up to the description of Jesus in Mark 7:37: “He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.”

Portable Document FormatDownload this paper in print-friendly PDF format (4 pp, 180K)