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What is a Parish Nurse?

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  • Written By: wiseGEEK Writer
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 09 November 2018
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A parish nurse is usually a registered nurse who has chosen to specialize in working with faith communities. Parish nurses tend to work with one large congregation or several small ones to help provide connections between faith and health. They may offer education services, work with people trying to understand complicated health care issues, and emphasize preventative health care measures in keeping with the teaching of the particular church they work for. The occupation is a specialty recognized by groups like the American Nursing Association.

Modern use of the parish nurse began in the 1970s and is often credited to Reverend Granger Westberg, who formulated the idea and then contacted the Lutheran General HealthSystem in Illinois about creating partnerships between nurses and congregations. His ideas were accepted and several nurses were hired to work with congregations of different religious sects, including Roman Catholic, Methodist and Lutheran churches. The idea has grown and there are numerous parish nurses employed in churches of many different religious denominations, inside and outside of the US.

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A parish nurse has many goals and responsibilities. Chief among these goals is viewing health as integral with spirituality. This would mean such nurses would seldom give any medical advice that was not in keeping with denominational beliefs. However, in most cases, their work is to help educate and support parishioners (and any others in the community) rather than to give significant diagnostic medical care. They may give some medical care to people requiring home nursing or home visits.

Work of the parish nurse can vary and may include creating support groups, referring people to services that may help them, organizing volunteers for health ministry programs, and counseling individuals on health related matters. Other types of work can include home nursing visits, running wellness or health education seminars, and teaching about health related issues as interpreted by a denomination. Another important function of the parish nurse is to work with people who have no advocates in the health system.

The parish nurse typically has a minimum of a bachelor’s degree in nursing, although some continue their education and have master’s degrees. There are a few nursing programs that specialize in this form of nursing and its particular requirements.

Only a small percentage of churches have a parish nurse, and one issue can be payment. Sometimes a hospital can sponsor a nurse, or an individual grant helps pay the nurse’s salary. Some parish nurses work in other fields of nursing and take on this job on a volunteer basis.

Income is usually of less consideration for these nurses because most make significantly less than they would by working in hospitals. Job opportunities may not be easy to find, and there are an estimated 10,000 or so parish nurses working currently, which means finding work can be difficult. Many nurses interested in this field work with a local church or parish to help establish this type of program.

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