HUNTSVILLE, Ala. (RNS) -- Each Wednesday around 4 p.m., Eugenia Evans places a sign reading "Get Your Blood Pressure Checked" at the end of a long table in the fellowship hall of First Baptist Church. She lays out a digital blood-pressure monitor and the chart she's using to track the weekly blood-pressure readings made on her fellow congregants.

Shortly, some of the church's many senior citizens begin to drift into a fellowship hall made increasingly more welcoming by the aromas from a kitchen where cooks prepare the weekly meal for those attending Wednesday evening services.

Evans, a registered nurse, spends five hours each week working in an experimental program she designed for her fellow First Baptist members. In addition to Wednesday blood-pressure checks, she will coordinate health-related programs for members and people in the community and serve as a resource for those needing referrals to other types of care.

She has been hired--though just for five hours each week--to be the church's first parish nurse. In that role, said Evans, who has worked at Huntsville Hospital for nearly two decades, she focuses on the whole person--physical, spiritual and emotional.

Parish nursing is not so much a set of skills as a concept. Programs are designed in different ways to meet the needs of individual congregations and communities. But generally, parish nursing combines a traditional ministerial/counseling function with expertise in health care education, screening and referral skills.

And that suits Evans: "It's why I went into nursing--to minister to people," she said.

The term "parish" is more often associated with the Roman Catholic faith and is somewhat foreign to most evangelical Protestant congregations.

"'Parish' is not a word that rolls right off a Baptist tongue," Evans said. "But it makes people ask what it is."

Such questions serve a purpose, because Evans said the first step in the program is interesting and educating the public--members and nonmembers--and finding out what individuals need. At First Baptist, she's using a survey to do that.

Cecile Lockridge, a 50-year member at First Baptist who takes advantage of the blood-pressure screenings, said she thinks the program is a good idea.

"Our church has been a leader in many things in the community, and I think we should be a leader in this area," Lockridge said.

Another longtime member, Sarah Green, agreed.

"We try to meet the needs of the community and have several health-related programs, such as the Alzheimer's and Parkinson's support group, the bereavement group and others," including exercise classes, Green said.

Evans was certified as a parish nurse after taking a master's-level course at Samford University's Moffett School of Nursing in Birmingham. She spends Wednesdays at First Baptist doing administrative work, trying to get the fledgling program up and running. She was given a small office in the Christian Life Center and a six-month trial period to see if the program will benefit the congregation and community.

The parish nursing concept started in Chicago at Lutheran General Hospital in 1984 and quickly spread throughout the Midwest. However, it is still relatively new in the Southeast, said Barbara Weinhold, coordinator of health ministries at Memorial Hospital in Chattanooga, Tenn.

"In Chattanooga, there has been a real responsiveness to what this is all about," Weinhold said. "Part of it is the awakening to the faith/health movement, which is abounding in the land.... People are saying they need more than one element" of healing.

Parish nursing is different from home health nurses, said Kay Hamrick, a pastoral critical care nurse at Huntsville Hospital and a theology student at the University of the South in Tennessee.

A parish nurse is not under the guidance of a physician and can't do anything invasive such as giving shots or drawing blood. And parish nursing programs must combine two viable components: an inward call of someone in nursing to minister to a congregation and an outward call from a congregation for a nurse to minister to its members.

Sharon Ball, a registered nurse with Hospice Family Care in Huntsville, hopes to go into parish nursing when she retires in a couple of years. She plans to take an October course at Lutheran General, the birthplace of the movement and the hospital where she worked immediately after receiving her nursing degree. She also took a "Spirituality and Healing" course earlier this year in Clearwater, Fla., to start her training program as a parish nurse.

"It's like coming home for me," said Ball, a member at Ascension Lutheran Church in Huntsville. "I can use the training both here (at Hospice Family Care) and at my church."

She hopes the 10 to 12 nurses who are members at Ascension will eventually form several care teams to offer a full-time ministry with home visitations.

"I can see all kinds of uses for parish nursing," she said. "We can use it as a counseling program, for educational purposes, coordinate volunteers and other things."

Weinhold, who has coordinated Memorial Hospital's program for three years, said parish nursing ministry draws from a divine example.

"From a Christian perspective, it was part of the model of Jesus," she said. "He did a tremendous amount of healing in his ministry."

There is little cost to a congregation to start a program, she said. Parish nurses do have to be licensed in the states in which they practice.

"Some hospitals hire nurses and provide them benefits while the congregation pays their salary. Others are hired by the church, and others are volunteers," Weinhold said. "It can be tweaked and adjusted to any denomination or faith. It just needs to meet the needs of the congregation."

(For information on parish nursing training programs, call Dr. Gretchen McDaniel at (205) 726-2626 or Barbara Weinhold at (423) 495-4401, or visit Advocate Health Care


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