By NANCY FRAZIER O'BRIEN
Community engagement by Catholic hospitals to assess and improve the physical health of local residents is nothing new. But a program of Penrose-St. Francis Health Services in Colorado Springs, Colo., adds a fresh element to an old formula by assessing the spiritual wellness of the community.
Fr. Paul Wicker, pastor of Holy Apostles Catholic Church in Colorado Springs, Colo., leads parishioners in a discussion of the month's Gospel readings. The program is one of many intended to build fellowship and lessen loneliness and isolation.
The Healthy Church Initiative, begun in 2012, helps local congregations of any religion to determine what spiritual and emotional issues might be preventing their members from reaching optimal health.
"It connects to our mission, to nurture the health of the people in our communities," said John Zondlo, healthy church facilitator for Penrose-St. Francis Health Services in Colorado Springs. "It offers much more than what we can do within the four walls of the hospital."
Penrose-St. Francis, part of Centura Health which is affiliated with Catholic Health Initiatives, developed a tool called the Spiritual Wellness Survey, which congregations can complete together using a PowerPoint presentation and an interactive voting tool that Zondlo calls a "gizmo." Using the handheld gizmos, members of the congregation can see the aggregate results of their responses right away on a screen.
The survey is made up of a dozen multiple-choice questions, such as what issue "affects my health most significantly," what "keeps me up at night," what would be "the best medicine for my soul" and what health issue "I would like to see addressed in our congregation."
In addition to showing members of the congregation that they are not alone in certain concerns, "the church leadership can use those insights to focus on shared needs in the congregation," Zondlo said.
Larry Seidl, group vice president of mission integration at Penrose-St. Francis, said it was a natural fit to work through churches to better engage the community. "Churches dot the landscape more than schools, more than fast food restaurants, more than libraries," he said.
Catholic Deacon Rick Bauer works out at the Wellness Center at St. Francis Medical Center in Colorado Springs as a participant in The Healthy Church Initiatives' clergy wellness program.
Citing World Council of Churches statistics, Seidl said there are 53.1 churches in the United States for every hospital.
Church leaders also are involved with their congregants in a way hospital officials aren't, he said. "They know how many people are affected by a layoff, they know who lives (alone), ... who might be suffering from loneliness or a sense of abandonment."
Staying on message
So far, two dozen churches and a synagogue in the Colorado Springs area have done the survey, some of them multiple times to measure progress toward a particular goal. Church leaders are using what they learn through the Spiritual Wellness Survey in a variety of ways, Zondlo said.
Some have launched a sermon series or Bible study linking spirituality and health, using speakers and other resources provided by Penrose-St. Francis or coming up with their own. Others have hired faith community nurses or established health councils within the congregation to monitor concerns on an ongoing basis.
Penrose-St. Francis also offers resources to help the congregations to address particular issues uncovered through the survey. Workshops on such topics as advance medical planning and trainings for church volunteers who visit the homebound are scheduled at the hospital, and some congregations have been connected with local community agencies for training on mental health, Ebola, fire safety or other issues. When Colorado legalized marijuana, one parish requested and received a lecture on the effects of the drug.
Learning to combat loneliness
At Holy Apostles Catholic Church in Colorado Springs, Fr. Paul Wicker found that when his parishioners took the Spiritual Wellness Survey, many named loneliness — "a national disease," the priest said — as their biggest problem.
The results led Fr. Wicker to start a new form of whole parish catechesis on the first Sunday of each month that involves a revised Mass schedule and a shared meal between the two services. That will allow parishioners to get to know one another better and to "share how they are experiencing an intense relationship with God" as they study the scriptures, he said.
Hannah Kovach, left, listens as Pat Audet comments during the first monthly luncheon at Holy Apostles Catholic Church in Colorado Springs, Colo. The church pastor, Fr. Paul Wicker, says participants will share their personal relationships with God at the meetings, and part of the effect of their candor will be to counter the loneliness of some parishioners.
Barbara Mosser, a faith community nurse in St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Colorado Springs, said community health assessments generally focus on physical matters such as education about diabetes or high blood pressure.
"This survey is so visionary because the whole concept of faith community nursing is body, mind and spirit," she said. "If you are spiritually unwell, it is going to affect your physical health."
To improve balance for the elderly and combat stress for all age groups, Mosser offers tai chi classes at the parish that have been "very well received." When health-related concerns surface in the parish, she organizes workshops that are open to the entire community.
More than 300 people in the 1,500-family parish have joined in a program called Walk to Jerusalem in Lent and Walk to Bethlehem in Advent that combines the physical activity of walking with spiritual meditations, Mosser said.
"It's a wonderful communal activity for all age groups," she said, adding that even those physically unable to join in the walk can pray along with the walkers.
Another aspect of the Healthy Church Initiative is a clergy wellness program. In addition to offering clergy conferences on various topics — this fall it was on disaster response — Penrose-St. Francis opened its existing employee wellness program to any local clergy members who want to participate.
Because of the "unique stresses" in their lives, clergy were often "not being role models for the conversations they were having from the pulpit" about health, Seidl said.
Deacon Rick Bauer of Our Lady of the Pines Catholic Church in Colorado Springs agrees. A former Churches of Christ minister who later returned to the Catholic faith into which he was born, Bauer said he had "a tendency to want to save the world and not pay attention to my health."
Bauer and his wife, Mary, have been exercising at the Penrose Hospital gym and Mary has "re-engineered our whole diet in terms of our consumption of useless carbs," he said. As a result, "I'm down 25 pounds so far," he added.
In January, Mary and Rick Bauer plan to launch a six-week parish program called the Daniel Plan that will kick off with a Spiritual Wellness Survey and some anonymous testing of participants' vital signs, "just to get some baselines there."
He said he hopes the program's emphasis on "food, faith, focus, fitness and friendships" will bring about some "systemic changes" in its participants as well as some smaller steps toward better health.
"It might mean a few less doughnuts and a few healthier snacks after church," he said.
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