ST LOUIS, May 10 (RNS)--Rabbi Susan Talve wonders, only half-jokingly, if hercongregation will eventually fire her because she spends so much time onhealth care and not enough time on congregational issues.

"I'm a city rabbi and the biggest problem in the city is our kids'health," said Talve, senior rabbi at Central Reform Congregation here. "I don't have time for this work, but I can't not do this work,"she said. "I've spent my whole day on health-care issues. I haven't evenbeen to the office," she lamented.

Between sessions at the recent Faith & Health Conference here, Talve was on her cell phone working on a program that addressesuninsured children in Missouri.

Talve was one of 320 religious and health-care leaders who cametogether to ponder the increasing role faith-based institutions play inhealth care and the growing influence health issues play in the dailylives of congregations.

For example, parish nursing is becoming a phenomenon. In the past 15years it is estimated more than 1,000 churches and synagogues in theUnited States have hired nurses. "Parish nurses," as they are called, help with in-home careand offer congregational workshops on topics such as diet, exercise andhealth screenings. As conference participants introduced themselves,they were quick to note that their congregations either already had aparish nurse, or were studying the prospect of parish nursing.

One participant explained his congregation was in a declining areaso it had teamed up with several other congregations of varying faithsto hire one parish nurse who works with several churches.

The conference was the first public event of the St. Louis Faith andHealth Consortium, one of six such consortia in the United States andAfrica. Other cities with consortia include Atlanta, Pittsburgh, theSan Francisco Bay Area, Columbia, S.C., and Cape Town, South Africa.They are the result of a project at The Rollins School of Public Healthof Atlanta's Emory University.

The project's goal is to identify areas where congregations could belinked to seminaries and schools of public health and medicine. Therecent St. Louis conference was co-sponsored by the DeaconessFoundation.

The Rev. Dr. Gary Gunderson, director of the interfaith program atRollins, said he believes the faith and health consortia are a sign ofthe times that will help churches find a way to incorporate health intotheir faith issues. "If you go into any congregation and write down what they're talkingand praying about, 98 percent of it is health related," he said.

The Centers for Disease Control has added fuel to the argument for a linkbetween faith and health. The CDC says a strong ministerial alliance isa key factor in improving the health of a community. And recent studiesat medical schools and the National Institutes of Health show a positivecorrelation between religious belief and a person's health.

Gunderson said all of this points to one thing: churches that don'taddress the faith health issue will die.

"The churches that survive." he said, "will be the ones perceived bymembers as places they go to be healthy."

The pairing of faith and health is welcome to many who believe thereligious and scientific communities have been separated for too long.

"We're sick and tired of being pulled apart," said the Rev. MartinE. Marty, history professor emeritus from the University of Chicago.

"Generally, the faith and health movement can be understood asreflecting two interlinked crises of the church: the relationship to itsmembers--why come?--and to its community--what have you done forme lately?" Gunderson said. "It is not enough to answer just one of thecrises, by just saying `we're good for your health, although irrelevantto your community.'

"You can't have flourishing people in a dead community," he added.

In other words, the idea of "faith health" is not just parishnursing.

But leaders of the conference were frank in acknowledging theyaren't sure exactly what the "faith health" movement will encompass. Butthey know it's a movement in its infancy; that it's going to be big andwill redefine the future church.

The Rev. Jesse T. Williams, pastor at Washington TabernacleMissionary Baptist Church in St. Louis, explained his understanding offaith health by noting that African-American men are four to fivetimes more likely to die from prostate cancer.

"What should Washington Tabernacle's response be to this issue?" heasked.

The church's response ended up as a partnership with the AmericanCancer Society and Washington University.

The team held two days ofprostate screening at the church.

"Many men won't go to the doctor,(but) may go to church," Williams said. The team screened 120 men andWilliams said health professionals tell him it most likely helped savethe lives of 7 percent of those men.