UMCOR / News Room / News & Features / Archives 2006 / 20061017-1

Speakers Challenge Church Health Ministry Leaders

By Deborah White*

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (UMNS) -- United Methodists need to become agents of "holy boldness" in advocating for better health care, Bishop Felton May told a national gathering of health ministry leaders.

"Our health system is broken -- 46 million Americans have no health care and 40 million have minimal coverage; 18,000 Americans die every year because they have no health insurance. How can we say we're the strongest nation in the world when we treat our citizens so shabbily?" asked May, dean of Philander Smith College's Harry R. Kendall Science and Health Mission Center in Little Rock, Ark.

"Our vision is a culture of caring with health care for all," said May, addressing United Methodist leaders who gathered Oct. 8-11 At St. Columbo Retreat Center in the Memphis area for the National Congregational Health Ministries Conference. "Empowering Ministries of Health: Transform, Mobilize, Advocate" was the theme of the conference, sponsored by the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries.

About 75 health ministry leaders representing 37 annual (regional) conferences attended the meeting. Topics included how to start health ministries, teach congregations about healthy lifestyles, collaborate with other agencies, encourage balance in body, mind and spirit, and address HIV/AIDS. The conference also included an in-depth tour of the Church Health Center in Memphis, an interfaith health ministry led by Dr. Scott Morris, a physician and United Methodist pastor.

The conference is part of a growing emphasis on health ministry in the United Methodist Church. It was the second annual National Congregational Health Ministries Conference. A third conference is planned for Sept. 23-26, 2007, in Wichita, Kan.

A prescription for health

A health ministry can embrace much more than physical health, and it doesn't have to be confined to the church building, several speakers said.

To start a health ministry, first assess the needs of church members, recommended Sheridan Smotherman, congregational heath ministries coordinator at the Church Health Center.

She gave participants a "Congregational Prescription for Health," an assessment tool developed by the Church Health Center. It includes questionnaires for individuals, for small groups, and for the pastor and health ministry committee. "It will provide a road map to health ministry," she said.

A thriving health ministry needs a diverse committee that includes children and teens, Smotherman said, adding, "Who wants to hear about arthritis 24/7?"

But don't get trapped in committee work, advised the Rev. Gary Gunderson, senior vice president of Health and Welfare Ministries at Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare in Memphis. "Point outside of your structure," he said. "Health is formed outside our walls. We need partnership."

For Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare, this means forming partnerships with congregations, other health care organizations and universities. In a new project called Partnering Congregations, a group of pastors is developing a model covenant for congregations and the hospital system, said Teresa Cutts, Methodist Interfaith Health Program senior scholar.

Participating churches will assign volunteer caregivers to help members of the congregation when they leave the hospital. They will check on members, deliver food, mow lawns, pick up prescriptions and assist in other non-medical ways. "The focus will be on caregiving, not health care providing," Cutts said.

Cutts also provided tips to health ministry leaders on collaborating with other organizations in the community. "Build a network of people you trust," she said. "Find informal leaders that do the work for love, not money, and their passion will help sustain the work."

Spiritual pyramid

Good health for individuals and congregations includes a strong spiritual component, conference leaders pointed out. "Often the spiritual dimension is left out," said Kae Tritle, a registered nurse and wellness coordinator for the denomination's Iowa Annual (regional) Conference.

A Harvard Medical School study concluded that people who spent time with their "higher power" were more able to resist the physical aspects of stress, Tritle said. "When you enter into prayer, you are already changing your focus from the problem or stress to God," she said. "Breathing slows, emotions calm down. Our stress decreases."

Bishop Sally Dyck of Minnesota presented her model of a balanced spiritual life called the spiritual pyramid. It includes 30 minutes of Bible study and prayer per day; two hours per week of small group discipleship; one to two hours of service in the church and one to two hours of worship; 30 to 90 minutes of service and outreach per month; and 8 to 16 hours of retreat time per year. (See to download a copy of the spiritual pyramid.)

"I offer this as a way of thinking abut your spiritual life and looking at your local church," she said. "Are you missing one of the components?"

God brings healing

Another challenge came from Bishop Fritz Mutti, who urged stronger advocacy in the fight against HIV/AIDS. "One of the problems with this global pandemic is to make people aware. It's on the back burner," said Mutti, bishop in residence at St. Paul School of Theology and author of Dancing in the Wheelchair, a book about HIV/AIDS.

At the closing worship service, Bishop Hope Morgan Ward of Mississippi said, "With the community of God's people, we can help one another.

"How do we receive God's gifts? We don't have a clue how to make this work, but God does. God will bring healing to God's people," she said. "I pray that some day people will say, 'Those Methodists ? there's something bright about them.'"

*White is associate editor of Interpreter magazine, published by United Methodist Communications.News media contact: Tim Tanton, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or