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Interview: Helen Wordsworth, founder director of Parish Nursing Ministries UK

05 May 2017

‘I love nursing. It’s about the whole person’

Parish nurses work in a complementary way with the NHS; so they don’t give injections, or prescribe or administer medicines or dressings. Instead, they offer physical, mental, and community-health interventions to people of all ages and backgrounds, with a focus on spiritual care.


Parish nursing is whole-person health care offered through any local church, led by a registered nurse who is part of the church’s ministry team. He or she may be voluntary or paid, but they’re accountable to the church and to the Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC). They have professional support through an infrastructure organisation linked to the Westberg Institute for Faith Community Nursing.


They can educate well people in how to stay healthy; support people who’ve had an acute illness or an operation, or chronic condition; and give non-specialist end-of-life care. If the church wishes, they can focus on older people, asylum-seekers, homeless people, children and families, carers, or refugees. Referrals can be taken from anywhere, dependent on the parish nurse’s available time and level of competence.


They also recruit and develop a support group to monitor and guide their work, and a volunteer team to offer domestic support when it’s needed. They can also refer patients to other providers and voluntary agencies in the area. Parish nurses follow their code of practice as laid down by the NMC, which includes rules on documentation and confidentiality.


We have around 100 of them in more than 90 churches across the UK, in nearly every Christian denomination and theological tradition. About 30 are in Anglican churches. Around the world, there are about 15,000 faith-community nurses or parish nurses in 30 countries.


I came to theology from community-health nursing and nurse education; so I had an acute awareness of the spiritual-care needs of people. As a nurse, I’d meet people nearing the end of life who wanted to talk about faith or say a prayer. Given all the publicity around praying in the NHS, as a nurse I’d be discouraged from doing that. Although I could make a referral to the chaplain if we were in hospital, the moment of need might pass. In the community there was no chaplain. As a health visitor, I’d come across lonely mums struggling to manage difficult toddlers, and would long to put them in touch with a church-based toddler group. But I felt restricted by time and local-church connection, and, as an NHS employee, I had to be careful about promoting a faith-based activity.


My biblical studies strengthened my view of life as integrated and holistic; so when I explored the American concept of parish nursing, in 2001, I appreciated its biblical foundation and the practical application, though the practice might look quite different in the UK.


Tragically, 9/11 happened while I was in the US, and I couldn’t fly home when I was due to; but it became very clear to me that a vision I’d received two months earlier, of something beautiful but painful being placed in my hand to be held for a while, and then shared widely, was this gift of parish nursing. So I wrote a Master’s dissertation on its relevance for the UK context, and that’s where it all started. With some colleagues, I ran some seminars, consulted the Department of Health, recruited seven nurses for pilot projects, trained them, and went on from there.


The most difficult thing has been persuading some colleagues in ministry to take this seriously, and understand the potential it brings to a church’s mission. Older people remember their grandmothers talking about deaconesses who were actually trained nurses in the beginning, and did some amazing missional work. But younger members only know the NHS, and separation of physical health from spiritual life. It’s the same problem with funders: they tend to focus either on religion or on health, and parish nursing has an integral approach. We were growing, though, and we desperately needed funding to restructure; so I resigned as a regional Baptist minister and focused entirely on the leadership of parish nursing.


Funding finally began to come through around three years ago, and we could appoint my successor, Dr Ros Moore, who came to be the CEO from being the Chief Nurse in Scotland. We work together really well. Ros takes the lead with the overall management and liaison with nursing organisations, and I focus on helping churches to catch the vision.


The Westberg Institute, in Memphis, Tennessee, was set up in 1987 to resource the developing role of the parish nurse from the original idea of a Chicago hospital chaplain, Granger Westberg. It produced the first training programme, which is now delivered across the world, and it has resource centres in each continent. The UK is the European resource centre, training educators and networking with nurse leaders in other countries, and we held our first European conference last year.


Most nurses are Christian, since the practice has a strong Christian theological foundation; but there are a few Jewish ones in America. In some African countries, there is more emphasis on HIV-AIDS treatment and malaria prevention. In Western countries, there’s more focus on diabetes, heart health, and dementia.


My new task as the International Faith Community Nursing Specialist will be to engage with mission agencies, church leaders, nursing leaders, and funders about starting the initiative in new areas and countries. So I’d like to have the opportunity of meeting world mission-leaders here in the UK, to see how they could take this simple, transferable concept to enhance the missional work of the national churches elsewhere. I’ll also be connecting with each of the continental resource centres, encouraging them in the training programmes and resources they offer. I can do a lot through the internet, but there will be travelling, too.


I love nursing — and it’s not just about physical and emotional tending, or medical interventions. It’s about the whole person. That means we need to be thinking about evidenced-based practice, improving care, advising people about keeping healthy, and preventing disease. We need to focus on what’s most important to the person at the moment we encounter them. Often they are asking: “What’s the meaning of all this? Does God care about me? How can I restore relationships with someone I love? What can I hope for?” We have time to listen and address some of these spiritual issues.


I’m part of the Christian family, and I’ve been privileged to work with wonderful people of many denominations, both in regional ministry and now in parish nursing. Every denomination has something special to enrich the life of the worldwide Church. My Baptist roots have given me a sense of freedom to explore new ways of ministry, and I think that’s probably been key to developing parish nursing from the grass roots.


I’m the oldest of four girls, and we were brought up in a deeply Christian family. We had vibrant youth activities, and the adults who surrounded me introduced me to a God of love who wanted me to work with him and for him in the world. Sharing those values at school was hard, but church and family support were stronger than secular influences, and my faith’s grown through the ups and downs of life, seeing God at work in surprising ways. It was strengthened through spending time in Ethiopia as a Tearfund relief nurse, and having to rely daily on his protection.


I’m so grateful to all those who have mentored me. I’m especially thankful for my husband, Rob, whom I met through Tearfund, who shared his faith with me and supported me as I explored the call to ministry. He also shares my passion to see parish nursing grow across the UK, and now, the world. My mum is happily still able to connect with us all, although my dad died of Alzheimer’s back in 2010. We have two children, both academic achievers and travellers, and now two very precious grandchildren.


My husband has been the greatest influence on my life, but role models were Florence Nightingale, the early Baptist deaconesses, the Revd Dr Myra Blyth, and my grandmother, who, at the age of 80, was still taking services around the village chapels, and doing meals-on-wheels. Teachers? Gilbert Bilezikian, John Ortberg, Christopher J. H. Wright, Tom Wright, Stuart Murray Williams, and Nigel Wright.


I love long-distance walking, and travelling, especially in France and Austria; gardening, home-making, needlework, classical music, and choral harmony.


I pray most for wisdom, and the ability to share God’s good news in ways that people will get it; for more churches to engage in parish nursing, and more nurses to come forward to pioneer it; for each of the nurses and our co-ordinators, that they may be strengthened and protected in their work; for gifted peacemakers to engage in some of the world’s worst trouble-spots.


Time-wasting makes me angry. It makes me happy to see someone take up new leadership tasks and developing their gifts.


If I found myself locked in a church with a companion, I’d choose my husband and any of the teachers I’ve mentioned. Or I’d love to meet my grandmother.


The Revd Dr Helen Wordsworth was talking to Terence Handley Macmath. parishnursing.org.uk

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