I remember, as a child, going with my father when he made visits to the sick and shut-ins in our community. For some, there were repeated episodes of illness, declining health and eventually death. Not until years later in nursing school did I fully understand what I had witnessed. The words I carried with me from those childhood visits were sugar, sores, needles and amputation.
As I was being educated about care of persons with diabetes, I was able to connect the dots on what I had seen as a child. While I was in nursing school, I learned that one of the children of a person I had visited with my father also had diabetes and was not doing well.
As time moved on, more and more was being discovered about living with diabetes. Teaching self-care to those living with diabetics became a routine nursing intervention. As a young adult in church life, I participated in visitation ministry to the sick and homebound. In my nursing job I made three to four home visits a day to homebound persons living with complications of diabetes.
It was easy on the job to go into a home of someone living with diabetes and tell them all of the things they needed to change to avoid amputations and early death related to diabetes. However, the outcomes for diabetic education revealed little change in non-compliant behaviors. In church life it seemed we always had someone on the prayer list who was living with complications of diabetes.
Those living with diabetes live and interact in a world outside the home where few understand the devastating effects of wrong food choices. So much of church life is tied to food events. There are endless conversations about “the good food” and “being full.” Not only do we have growing numbers of young adults and children diagnosed with diabetes, but obesity is also at epidemic proportions across the lifespan.
Much has been said in the media about shrinking health-care resources of the future. Churches are full of folk living with diabetes. Persons with diabetes consume a large portion of health-care resources. Those who are obese are almost three times more likely to be diagnosed with diabetes. What is the role of a caring congregation as members adjust to less available care from physician offices and hospitals? How do we come alongside those who struggle to adjust?
Not all congregations can afford a minister of health. Some are not yet informed about how to best utilize the benefits of a parish nurse. However, there is a low-cost option to begin the journey of learning more about health ministry.
From a top-down leadership approach, the decision could be made that all church-related food events be limited to heart-healthy and diabetic-friendly options. It would take courage for the staff to support such a decision in unity. I observed many health ministry program failures in the 1990s because of a lack of buy-in from top leadership. It is not a ministry to just hand off to a non-specific group. A ministry to promote healthy food choices would need observable buy-in from the top down.
There are tons of free Internet materials available about heart-healthy and diabetic-friendly foods and recipes. Family members could explore together healthy food choices and recipes. Sunday school groups could compete to provide the best heart-healthy and diabetic-friendly options at covered dish meals. Children could be taught about the food pyramid.
What could surface among some families is a need to learn how to cook – perhaps an opportunity for intergenerational ministry. Some may want to learn how to grow tomatoes, potatoes and other vegetables.
There is also the possibility that some may want to get on the journey and learn more of what the Bible teaches about the disciplined life. Some may get serious about laying down cravings for sweets and the desire for instant gratification in getting a sweet taste satisfied. Dare we risk some may discover that soul satisfaction is more important that taste satisfaction?
I have personally found the First Place 4 Health studies useful for those wanting to change from unhealthy eating. First Place 4 Health is a Christ-centered weight-loss and healthy-living program that has guided hundreds of thousands of people to a healthy lifestyle. The leadership of a caring congregation can no longer justify offering a piece of pecan pie to those struggling with diabetes and obesity, or offering fatty food to persons with high cholesterol.
In the new health-care environment it is more appropriate than ever for congregations to encourage the disciplined life in word and deed. If congregations do not rise to the occasion now, I can see children of the future going into adulthood with the same memories I have from childhood of visiting in the homes of those dying with diabetes.
Education, information and practice of healthy food choices are only the beginning of a ministry of health. It does cross generations and does place into the hands of parishioners a way to stay healthy and adjust to less availability of health-care services.
A ministry that promotes healthy food choices is low cost with high benefit. Learning to control food cravings and indulgences can transform individuals as well as the role of the congregation in the community.
Sybil Smith, a registered nurse, lives in Lyman, S.C., and is an independent consultant for ministries of health.