The mission of Adventist health ministries is to demonstrate God’s love and power by promoting whole person health principles that support individuals, families, and communities as they seek for the more abundant life promised by Christ (John 10:10).
During the past 10 months, as I have traveled throughout the North American Division (NAD) and met with our health ministries directors at churches, conferences, and unions, I have been pleasantly overwhelmed with the depth and breadth of the work that is being done. And even more so the compassionate individuals who are serving in this capacity. Health professionals, and those with no prior training or experience, engage heartily in the work, with much faith to match their labors.
And it is always thrilling when I hear of a newly appointed health ministries leader. I recently received a call from a church pastor who was unexpectedly asked to take on this additional role at a conference. As we talked, I sensed a growing calmness as he learned of the health ministry resources available through the NAD. Before our conversation ended, he confidently decided on a simple place to start—a “small” but significant first step. Clearly it is unusual that a pastor should take on the role of health ministries leader. However, as a pastor, you are instrumental in shaping the vision of your church and assisting volunteers to find their optimal place in ministry.
There are decided benefits to having a health ministries leader who has some type of professional training, such as a physician, nurse, counselor, therapist, social worker, dietitian, or one of many others. But the most important quality is to have a deep conviction of the importance of the Adventist health message, exhibited both in personal practice and in compassionately sharing this with others. What a leader may lack in skill or knowledge they can more than compensate for by building and graciously leading a team of people who are willing to contribute their own God-given skills.
But I do keenly sense the pressure of taking on such a role. After all, haven’t we heard that the health work is the “right arm of the body” and “an entering wedge, making a way for other truths to reach the heart”?[i] Moreover, “we have come to a time when every member of the church should take hold of medical missionary work.”[ii]
So how do we go about doing this while being balanced, compassionate, relevant, and also being able to report to the church board about the fruits of the labor? You can find many resources through conference, union, and NAD health ministries departments.[iii] But as important as tools and programs are, they can be only as effective as our planning, preparation, and perseverance. Here are some suggestions for making your health ministry work truly effective in reaching the people.
1. Pray Continually
You surely prayed prior to accepting the position as health ministries leader. Now, continue to pray as you consider the goals and objectives of the ministry and plan the activities and events. Pray for which program you should do that will best meet the needs of your community. Pray for volunteers, those with and without health professional training. Pray for participants both in the church and among the community who are ready to make healthy changes. Pray that they have a support system, or that your church is able to become that for them. Pray with your team.
And when appropriate, pray with the attendees. While working at the Seventh-day Adventist Guam Clinic, I would, toward the end of health education programs, schedule individual sessions with patients to see how their personal goals were progressing. I remember one patient in particular. She was a member of a non-Adventist Christian church and retired from serving in public office. Without prompting, she shared with me her thoughts regarding my practice of praying at the start of each program. Watching me, she became convicted that her own life was lacking in a daily spiritual activity, so she began to read the Bible for five minutes every day. It was a response that I had not intended or expected, but the Holy Spirit spoke to her. There are times to have private prayers for our program attendees. And sometimes they need to observe and participate in them.
2. Meet Their Needs
It is a common mistake to plan a health program that, though excellent, may not be meeting the needs of your community. Sometimes we focus on real needs while missing the target of reaching their felt needs. In John 5 Christ comes to the Pool of Bethesda and finds a man who had suffered for 38 years with a crippling disease. Alone and friendless, he agonized over his past life of sin, finding no relief for his tormented thoughts. But the question Christ asked him was “Do you want to be healed?” (John 5:6, RSV).[iv] The man identified his felt need when he responded that no one was there to help him get into the pool—the place where physical healing was believed to happen. His felt need was for relief from his physical agony. And Christ’s first response was to heal him of that. But the Savior later seeks the man in the Temple to assure him of a spiritual healing. The spiritual healing was the man’s real need, but it could not be accomplished without first demonstrating compassion toward his felt, or expressed, need.
Discovering the felt needs of your community can be done with a simple door-to-door survey. As you walk or drive around, take note of issues that could be affecting their health. Are the streets safe for walking? What kind of groceries are available? How many fast-food restaurants, bars, and smoke shops are in the neighborhood? What is the age and ethnic makeup of the population? Also, use information available online through the local Department of Health to learn of the major diseases affecting them. Network with other community groups to learn from their experiences. By assimilating all this data, your ministry will be much more effective and valuable to the community.
3. Count the Cost
Before running any class or program, be sure you have a concrete plan and realistic expectations of what is needed for the pre-work, the program itself, and follow-up work. All three are vital aspects of a successful program, and bear in mind that follow-up is the most labor-intensive but also most productive in yielding fruit.
The good news is that many deeply committed individuals and organizations have developed programs that are practically “plug and play.” Videos, workbooks, cookbooks, and activities have all been put together in excellent packages. Start with what is available. Encourage your team to focus on the personal aspects of the ministry. How can they invite people from their work and personal networks? How will they connect with the attendees? How will they recognize barriers that individuals have, and help them overcome them? How can they best support those who are struggling through the program? What will be done for follow-up? How does the health program bridge into meeting their other needs? If someone asks questions about the church (and someone will), how do you respond? How can each church member be involved? Even the best of programs will not replace the effect of a personal touch to reach a heart.
4. Integrate and Inform
Health ministries should not be an isolated event. The leader and team members should not be working outside the other programs of the church. It is very important that the leader is often in contact with the pastors and elders, and attends as many board meetings as possible. Share your plans with the board, and talk with other department leaders about how you can collaborate. Board and church members should know how the health initiatives fit into the overall plans of the church. Are the events part of the evangelistic cycle?
5. Recruit and Retain
One of the most important roles of the health ministries leader is to identify individuals who will actively contribute to your events. Perhaps there is a physician who can commit to giving a health lecture on occasion. Maybe a university student who is majoring in a health or biological science can give a guest presentation (have their material reviewed by a trained professional). How can the youth and young adults be involved? How can every member be engaged and trained to support the work and befriend attendees? How can past program attendees be engaged in future programs? Have brief but regular meetings with your team so that everyone understands the details of the program. As they become familiar with the hows, turn their attention to the whos. Remember that the program is only a tool. The goal of doing health ministry is not to run a perfect program, but to reach people.
6. Broaden the Field
What do you think of when you hear “health ministry”? Often it means cooking classes, lectures on what to eat or how to exercise. Hopefully it doesn’t bring to mind scars from food fights over what should be allowed at potlucks. As a dietitian I know that our diet and physical activity are very important. And our communities want to know how to do this. But let’s also consider their other needs. Remember, as Seventh-day Adventists, we believe that health is comprised of physical, emotional, social, and spiritual aspects.
In an article published in the Journal of the American Medical Association,[v] the authors identified the top causes of living with disability in the United States as including major depressive disorder and anxiety disorders. In addition, some of the primary risk factors for decreasing life expectancy included smoking, high body mass index, and alcohol use. The U.S. surgeon general’s 2016 report on addictions in America states: “The accumulated costs to the individual, the family, and the community are staggering and arise as a consequence of many direct and indirect effects, including compromised physical and mental health, increased spread of infectious disease, loss of productivity, reduced quality of life, increased crime and violence, increased motor vehicle crashes, abuse and neglect of children, and health care costs.”
There are almost countless factors that affect our health. They affect our ability to function, to enjoy life, and to understand spiritual issues. Again, take a long look at your community. Talk with them. What are the major issues they face, and how can you best help?
7. Include Spiritual Healing
Sometimes we shy away from addressing spiritual issues for fear of frightening people away. But when done well, and appropriately for each situation, including spiritual elements may not be as offensive as we think.
Some years ago I was asked to share a health talk at a group home for senior citizens. The church member who invited me also said that there was one atheist attendee who would immediately walk out of the room if anything spiritual was shared. While prayerfully preparing, I was convicted that I needed to include an element of faith in the presentation. As I stood in front of the room full of attendees, not knowing which was the one of whom I was warned, I began with a disclosure. With a calm voice I stated that I was a Christian, so some of the things I was going to share would be from that perspective, but I hoped that everyone would gain something, even if they disagreed with my spiritual beliefs. Not one person left as I spoke for 30 minutes, so I began to think that our special friend was not there. Several stayed to talk with us after the program. Once they had left, my church member related that an elderly woman firmly said, while pointing to me, “Bring her back.” It was the atheist. She had been resistant to religion, but had sensed that we could be mutually respectful of each other. And she was willing to hear more.
There is no one-size-fits-all in health ministry. We are working with individuals and communities that have their own specific needs and barriers. Our churches have their own individual list of available resources and talent. But every one of us is called to bear the message of hope, healing, and wholeness. The message is embedded within the identity of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, and is demonstrated by practicing and sharing the principles of healthy living. The key, then, is to find the Christ-centered way that works for you, your church, and your community.
Remember, it’s good to dream big but start small. Begin with what you have right around you. Then as you continue step by step, learning and adapting as needed, the Lord will grow the work and bring forth “much fruit” (John 15:5-8).
Angeline B. David, Dr.P.H., M.H.S., R.D.N., serves as the health ministries director for the North American Division of Seventh-day Adventists.
[i]Ellen G. White, Testimonies to the Church (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1948), vol. 6, p. 327.
[ii] Ibid., vol. 7, p. 62.
[iv]Bible texts credited to RSV are from the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, copyright ã 1946, 1952, 1971, by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. Used by permission.
For additional resources, including community survey questionnaires, program ideas and helps, and networking and educational opportunities, visit the NAD Health Ministries Web site at www.NADHealthMinistries.org. Free document downloads and an online store are also available.