Study finds nurses playing a larger role in faith community

Sunday, July 26, 2009
Sara Foss (Contact)
Gazette Reporter

CAPITAL REGION — Elizabeth Parks worships at Immaculate Conception in Glenville.

And she’s a nurse there, too.

Parks is one of the parish’s faith community nurses — a registered nurse who serves a religious congregation. Her number is listed in the church bulletin, and parishioners can contact her about health issues. She organizes monthly blood pressure screenings, visits parishioners who are in the hospital and hosts talks on health. She’s also sponsored exercise classes and helps coordinate a biannual healing Mass.

“I enjoy doing this because I’m giving back to people,” Parks said. “I know people have a lot of questions.”
A recent study of parish/faith community nurses found that they are playing an increasing role in providing better access to basic health services for underserved populations.

The report, titled “Findings From a Study of Parish Nurses/Faith Community Nurses in the United States,” was put together by the Center for Health Workforce Studies at the University at Albany’s School of Public Health. It was partially funded by Ascension Health, the nation’s largest Catholic health system and one of the largest sponsors of parish/faith community nurses in the U.S.

Although the study is national in scope, much of the research was conducted in the Capital Region, where Troy-based Seton Health, an Ascension affiliate, sponsors a parish/faith community nursing program that serves 27 local churches and has about 43 participating nurses.

Sandra McGinnis, a senior research associate at the Center for Health Workforce Studies and author of the report, said parish/faith community nursing is different from traditional hospital nursing. “The services run by parish nurses are much closer to a public health model than a medical model,” she said. “They emphasize the prevention of disease, the management of disease. The medical model is focused on a cure.”

“With a public health model, the community is the patient,” said Fran Zoske, a faith community nurse who co-authored the report and also serves as the director of health promotion and wellness programs at CDPHP.
Parish/faith community nurses do not provide hands-on clinical services. Instead, they offer support and health education to parishioners, referrals, counseling and assistance navigating the health care system. Their focus is holistic, with an emphasis on mind, body and spirit. Most parish/faith community nurses are volunteers at the congregations where they worship.


The approach has been around since 1984 but is not broadly understood. The Center for Health Workforce Studies paper represents one of the first efforts to collect nationwide data and the study notes that “few statistics are available about parish nurse/FCNs. Indeed, there are currently no national counts available of active parish nurse/FCNs.”

Parish/faith community nursing is much more common in the Midwest than the Northeast, where the concept is also fairly unknown.

But McGinnis said that more people are becoming aware as the number of nurses continues to rise. “The big thing that’s surprised me is how widespread this is, and how it’s growing and the enormous potential there,” she said.
The country has a nursing shortage, and McGinnis and Zoske say the nurses can fill in some of the gaps; their study found that it is a way for retired nurses to make a positive impact on public health.

“Our big concern is the nursing shortage,” McGinnis said. “It is one avenue where nurses can contribute to the health of a community outside of a nine-to-five job. … The nursing work force is aging. Half of all nurses are in their late 40s or older. We feel it might be a model for nurses who can’t work at a bedside anymore.”

The average nurse leaves the profession after five years, mainly because the job is demanding and exhausting. “They don’t want to work 12-hour shifts in a hospital anymore,” McGinnis said. “But they have this whole wealth of knowledge.” Many nurses also discover that it’s difficult to do the things they went into nursing to do, Zoske said. “Their time with patients is limited,” she said. “A new mom is in the hospital for 24 hours.”
Many parish nurses view their work as a spiritual or religious calling.

“They’re people who are looking for something else,” Zoske said. In a medical setting “The patient is less of a focus. But if you’re faith-based, the congregation is your entire focus.”
According to the study, 58 percent of these nurses serve a Roman Catholic congregation, and 31 percent serve a Protestant congregation. The remainder were Episcopal (5 percent), non-denominational (3 percent) or other (4 percent). In the Capital Region, several synagogues have them.


Angela Sheehan, director of parish/faith community nursing at Seton, said it is “rooted in a long mission of Jesus Christ as healer. It brings spirituality and health together. It brings healing back to the churches, which is where it used to be. The whole premise is that you cannot separate spirituality and emotional well-being from physical health. In the medical model, there’s no room for that.”

A parish nurse can pray with a parishioner, Sheehan said. “They can embrace family members,” she said. “They try to connect with parishioners at a spiritual well-being level.”

Sheehan said that when a parish nurse begins providing services at a church, they often announce their presence by holding a blood pressure screening. “That way the congregants can see who they are.” Contact information is also listed in bulletins, and the nurses work closely with clergy.

Many patients often return to the hospital for reasons that are preventable, and one goal is reducing the patient recidivism rate, Sheehan said. “We’re trying to intervene, to empower the patient,” she said. “A lot of times, they get out of the hospital and they have an appointment with the doctor in a month. In the meantime, their health cascades down, and they’re back in the hospital.”

Sheehan is a registered nurse, and she volunteers at her parish, Our Lady of Victory in Troy.

“When I went into nursing, I thought I was going to do what parish nurses do,” Sheehan said. “I thought there would be time to talk with patients, and pray with them, and give them teaching. I tried to interject when I could, but in hospitals you have to carry out doctors’ orders, and do paperwork. If someone is in isolation, you need to bathe them and change their dressing. It’s all task-oriented things that you have to get accomplished.”


Zoske was Seton Health/St. Mary’s Hospital’s first director of faith community nursing, and built the program from scratch, hosting lunches for local clergy to introduce them to the concept. It was a slow process.
“I would plant the seed,” Zoske said. “Three to five years later, there would be an ‘aha’ moment. I learned to be patient and wait for things.”

There are now about a dozen parish/faith community nursing programs in New York.

In their study, McGinnis and Zoske surveyed more than 500 faith community nurses. They found that the nurses were 99 percent women, with a median age of 50. About 37 percent served in congregations in suburban areas, 23 percent served in congregations in rural areas, 17 percent served in congregations in small cities and 23 percent served congregations in large urban areas. Half of the nurses in the study were affiliated with Ascension.

“Quite a number of parish nurses work in rural areas,” McGinnis said. “They may be the only contact some parishioners have with the health care system.”

Parks said she’s been doing parish nursing for about eight years.

“What appealed to me was the fact that faith community nursing goes back for centuries, to when taking care of the sick was done by Jesus and the prophets, the early church and the religious orders,” said Parks, who is the director of Dayhaven Adult Day Services, an adult day care run by Catholic Charities of Schenectady County.
Parks’ church, Immaculate Conception, has about 2,000 members. She is one of about eight nurses who serve the congregation.