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Vibrant, Caring Places: Q&A with Matthew Ellis Vibrant, Caring Places: Q&A with Matthew Ellis
October 19, 2009

Matthew Ellis, Executive Director of National Episcopal Health Ministries, talked to Church Health Reader about how congregations can be vibrant, caring places.

John Shorb: How do you think the Church as a whole and individual congregations make the church a caring place of health and wholeness?

Matthew Ellis:
The Church can provide a forum to discuss health issues openly. Addressing issues – like the most recent pandemic flu concern – in a straightforward way and having informed discussions allows us to explore how our health impacts our relationships.

It’s also important for clergy and church leaders to model the importance of taking care of yourself: body, mind, and soul. Clergy are often overworked and find it difficult to take time to take care of themselves. This can lead into a bad spiral where they become overworked, stressed, and do not have time to eat right. This leads to additional health problems and prevents them from feeling renewed. At some point, they hit a difficult spot – which is not good for them or their congregation. We need to create the space for clergy to take care of themselves so they can model good health – allowing them to give back more to the congregation over the long term.

Another way is to support, encourage and provide tools to congregations to get themselves healthier. Churches spend a lot of time dealing with illness: clergy and members visiting people in the hospital and in their homes when they are ill, for example. If we can get congregations healthier, that will allow them more time to do other work.

I’d also note the building of community should not be overlooked as a benefit of health ministries. Here at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, we have a program for senior citizens called “Terrific Thursdays.” They get together once a week for a program. Many of them play instruments, so on “Band Day” they bring their own instruments and have a nice little jam session. Each week is different: community leaders come in and give presentations, they have round table discussions or they do arts and crafts. They enjoy the activity and the opportunity to see each other regularly. That time and fellowship is critical in keeping them active and involved, which we know contributes to better overall health.

Do you see a compelling reason why the church should be doing this work?

In the Episcopal Church there is a tradition of the “Three Legged Stool:” tradition, scripture and reason. Looking at health ministry in regards to scripture, the verse that has always resonated with me in scripture is a verse from Matthew 25: “And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ ” This has been a critical part of my thought process and why I think this ministry is so important. It brings a personal connection to those who need help, in addition to the actual services provided.

In terms of tradition, the Church has always been a traditional provider of health care. Prior to the recent trend of larger insurance companies, churches had been heavily involved in the provision of health care. This is a return to that kind of initiative. The final component is reason. Here it makes sense that we use the current scientific knowledge to address issues to the best of our ability and make informed health care choices.

When things get really tough, people often turn to their faith community. Our current health system is largely based on our employment status – a vase majority of people get their health care benefits through their employers. With the turn in the economy, people find themselves underemployed – and they no longer have good access to health care. Churches can fill in some of that gap by providing very basic preventative screening, providing health information and checking up on people.

Tell us about how National Episcopal Health Ministries began, its mission and the role it plays in the Episcopal Church and the community.

Our core mission is to promote health ministry in Episcopal congregations, assisting them to reclaim the Gospel imperative of health and wholeness. When people feel better mentally, spiritually, emotionally and physically it allows them to serve God's will in a greater capacity. Our vision is to do that intentionally with a focus on helping people make the most of their physical and spiritual lives within the church.

Granger Westberg has been a big inspiration to the health ministries movement. In the Episcopal church, Jean Denton was instrumental in pulling together an organizing group that really laid out the blueprint for what National Episcopal Health Ministries would become. They wanted to find ways to take the skills and knowledge of the nurses in our churches and apply that with greater focus to congregations. In 1996, the first meeting of National Episcopal Health Ministries was held to coincide with the annual meeting of the Health Ministries Association..

How do you complete your mission through the grassroots model?

We have a decentralized organizational structure consisting almost entirely of volunteers. We also generate our own funding through contracts, grants, programs, and individual donations. Annually, we hold a national conference where we gather people who are doing a variety of health ministry programs. We offer education classes where people can take a week-long Episcopal version of the International Parish Nurse Resource Centers Parish Nursing curriculum. We connect people with the resources through our newsletter, our website, and regional events so that they can implement these initiatives locally. We try to find people who are already doing successful programs and share the ideas in a framework that is easily replicated elsewhere.

One of our most popular examples is “The Backdoor Readings.” It’s a one-page flyer of health information with a different focus each month. Churches print it out on a monthly basis and put it on the back of stall doors in the bathroom or in various meeting rooms around the church so that health information is always present. It is a very easy and simple program that begins to create an atmosphere and environment of health and wellness.

John Shorb is the Editor of Church Health Reader.

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