Parish Nurses Offer Hope in Rural Populations

Published on March 18th, 2016

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United States farming communities and their families are indeed special populations that the church serves. From the wheat fields of Kansas to the dairy farms of Wisconsin, from the or­chards in Washington to the orange groves in Florida, farmers serve our country by providing not only food and fibers, but also jobs to many. Farmers are unique individu­als, working independently, for the most part on family farms, and developing such strong work ethics that they often enter the health care sector late. Often, they lack a comprehensive insurance plan, so rural churches can be a vital part of farming populations’ daily lives by providing a congregational health ministry.

Agricultural populations have unique health problems related to safety, voca­tion and environment. Wisdom must be used in applying fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides while keeping children and family safe in a working family environ­ment. Exposure to farm hazards has brought an increased incidence of brain cancers, lymphomas, Parkinson’s disease, farmer’s lung and other illnesses. Safety and health are important concerns to farmers seeking to be good stewards of the land and environment and especially their family’s health. They can be pushed to financial and psychological limits caused by uncontrollable factors like the world economy, weather, expensive equipment and operating loans to plant and harvest the land. There is truly a health care crisis for rural populations.

Most churches have registered nurses, since R.N.s represent the highest number of health care providers in the United States. One outlet that may help solve the rural and small town health care chal­lenge is parish nurses. Nurses in church settings can reach these families and provide them with education, screen them for hypertension, skin cancer and other chronic diseases, answer health-related questions, coordinate volunteers, refer them to community resources and provide them with spiritual comfort by prayer, music and presence.

I was raised on a sixth generation dairy farm in southeastern Wisconsin and have witnessed rural schools close and imple­ment dealers go out of business, but the church remains the lasting institution. A parish nurse can truly make a differ­ence in a rural or small town commu­nity. The church has been the worship home of families for generations and is a major part of their identity. The rural or small town church may be one of the last institutions that can help communi­ties by collaborating with the local health care institution. Indeed, that church may be small serving less than 200 people but they can be mighty in making differences in mind, body and spirit. Parish nurses can be part of the team ministry who can help establish health care ministries and strengthen rural health.

Parish nurses can coordinate food pan­tries and shelters, meet health care needs by holding community education classes in their churches and develop support groups for the community, or help develop programs and respond with compassion to people with special needs. Rural and small town churches serve people from cradle to death and have larger elderly populations. Nurses can serve a vital role with the elderly by visiting the sick and homebound. Nurses can develop health fairs, immunization and flu clinics, and create programs that will decrease social isolation and enhance social health. As we develop congregational health ministries across the country, there is often a little white church by the roadside. It may be small and plain, it means the world to so many rural and small town people. We, as nurses, can use this simple structure to meet the needs of many.


Contributed by Carol A. Lueders Bolwerk, PHD, RN, director of parish nursing and congregational health ministries, Concordia University Wisconsin, Mequon, Wis.

LCMS Rural & Small Town Mission (RSTM) supports and encourages rural and small town congregations in engaging their communities and growing together in Christ through Word and Sacrament.  Learn more about us at lcms.org/rstm.