Parish Nursing is a unique ministry opportunity for actively licensed nurses to serve in a faith community.  My first encounter with a parish nurse came when I had foot surgery.  I had always known Marie.  She was a fellow canine culturist (dog lover).  We often swapped dog stories as we served meals to the homeless at Munsey UMC.  But I had no idea she was the parish nurse in my family’s faith community.  She  approached me with concern about my buneonectomy.  She was very informative and helpful.  But I became a little uncomfortable as she physically sized me up by walking around my body and entering my personal space.

“What are you doing?”  I asked.

“Oh, just trying to decide which shower chair you’ll need.”

“What?….Why?”

“I’m the parish nurse dear.”

“Oh….(at this time I was very relieved because Marie was standing behind me, trying to configure my height from my waist down, her face squarely behind my derriere)…but I won’t need any of that.  I still quite young and this is only a 6 week thing.”

“Uh—uh.  I’ve got the size you’ll need.  Shall I get your husband to load it in the car?”

“Are you sure you won’t need it for other patients…you know, geriatric stuff?”

“Nope.  Got a whole closet full.”

“Uh…OK.”  (I had given in to several frivolous requests of lay people when I was a pastor.  So I dismounted my argument.)

Twenty four hours after my surgery, I was sitting on that chair.  I felt foolish considering that at one time I truly thought I did not need the contraption.

Shortly after my first post surgery shower, Marie called.  Before I could thank her for the chair she wanted a detailed description of how I felt…and she didn’t mean my emotions.  She made me think through my current body state.  Then she assured me that all was well, gave me her home number to call during the night (if needed) and told me what symptoms should cause alarm.

The parish nurse in our faith community had made a difference for me.  So I was delighted when Lula Gray of Mountain States Health Alliance asked me to lead the annual Parish Nursing Retreat at the International Storytelling Center in Jonesborough Tennessee.  The topic was “Listen for What?”.

I began with an hour of storytelling.  I choose an array of stories and asked the nurses to take notes by identifying the emotions each story elicited.  After an hour of stories we had lunch.  When our group reconvened, we discussed the emotions.  Some nurses were set on having a “good column” and a “bad column”  for there emotional list;  others were more open to a list of emotions that offered no labeling.  I took the list of a nurse that insisted on the column system and validated her work by asked the group which story they would like to hear more.  They all choose the “happy stories”.  From that point, I introduced a list of defense mechanisms humans can use to keep us from hearing negative emotional stories.  I so appreciate the brave nurses that claimed their defense mechanisms (we all do it!).  From that point, I introduced a concept called “The Ministry of Presence” (this is devotional will be my next post).

The conversation that followed was rich.  Together, this group and I discovered that in order to truly offer a ministry of presence we had to listen for the emotion in our patients/parishioners stories, we had to ask questions about that emotion and we had to offer a non-judgmental presence, fostering spiritual safety and trust.  I facilitated as the group made a how-to list (organized bunch, aren’t they?)

The final portion of our time together revolved around self knowledge.  Each of us has a story.  This story has shaped who we are.  Knowing our story, accepting our story and loving the self as it has evolved through the story is a mark of spiritual maturity.  This spiritual maturity enables us to offer the ministry of presence to those who are hurting.  The more present we are with ourselves as we recollect our story and live out the current chapter of our lives, the more present we can be for those who bend our ear about their spiritual and emotional struggles.  I told the story of Parker Palmer and his hiking trip.  He has no idea that repelling would be part of the trip and he became thoroughly annoyed with his 20 something guides as he hung over the edge of a cliff, preparing to descend.  The thick, specially designed repelling rope looked like a thread.  Just as he was about to object to this exercise that resembled certain death, his guide told him to lean into gravity by sitting into his harness.  This was the antithesis of what he wanted to hear and he convinced himself that his theory was surely a mistake.  So he straightened up.  In doing so, he crashed into the side of the cliff…on his face.  When he finally did what he did not want to do, it worked.  He began to enjoy the descent.

This is like our spiritual life.  In order to progress, we must do what seems like certain death…or great discomfort.   (Revisit old stories, confront negative thoughts, forgive ourselves)  But we must lean into the discomfort.

I ended our time together by taking about self care for the caregiver and how spiritual growth is anything but daisies and sunshine.  The good news is the hard work of spiritual transformation is worth every tear.  It not only improves our patient/parishioner care, but it also impacts our marriages, child rearing and work relationships.

I enjoyed my time with this lively group and before I left, I had been “booked” for another workshop for senior citizens at Munsey Memorial, April 1, 2014.  I look forward to that event.

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