On Wednesday nights at First Baptist Church in Hendersonville, church members can get a good meal, practice with the choir or take classes about their faith.

They can also get their blood pressure checked.

That service, provided by volunteers, is part of the church’s parish nurse program. First Baptist and other local churches launched programs a decade ago to help improve the physical health of their congregations, but some faded out because of a lack of money and volunteers.

Saint Thomas Health in Nashville hopes to revitalize local parish nursing programs and to start new ones in churches and other faith communities. Saint Thomas recently started a Faith Community Nursing program that offers bimonthly training events for parish nurses and will run a three-month-long certification course for parish nurses this fall.

“Jesus was concerned about the whole person — the body, mind and spirit,” said Ray Cleek, a staff minister at First Baptist in Hendersonville who coordinates the program. “That fits right in line with what the parish nurse program is doing.”

The idea is to get preventive medicine out of the doctor’s office and into the pews.

“Rather than have people come to us, the concept is to bring this preventive-medicine concept to them at their congregations,” said Jerry Kearney, vice president of mission services for Saint Thomas Hospital.

Parish nurse programs offer a mix of services, including simple tests such as blood pressure screenings, classes on topics such as CPR or healthy living, and support groups for people caring for a loved one with Alzheimer’s.

They can also give people one-on-one attention.

Life Saving Visits

Carol Welsh, a part-time parish nurse at St. Joseph Catholic Church in Madison, often visits parishioners in their homes. Sometimes she’s there to check on a specific need, such as someone recovering from surgery. Other times she’s checking on older church members who live alone.

“I can pick up on things — let’s check your medicine, is there anything we need to call your doctor about, let’s straighten out that rug so you don’t trip — all kinds of things that a nurse might see,” she said.

Welsh, who started as a parish nurse in 1998, spends two days a week in the office. She takes about 30 calls a day from parishioners about health issues. She also organizes regular blood drives and health screenings, works with about 20 volunteers and oversees the church’s food pantry.

At least twice, she has helped save a parishioner’s life.

In one instance, she took a man’s blood pressure and it was very low but his heart was racing. It turned out he was in atrial fibrillation and needed to be treated in the emergency room right away.

“That was one case where I was in the right place at the right time,” she said.

Sharon Adkins, executive director of the Tennessee Nurses Association, is one of the advisers for new programs at Saint Thomas. She used to direct the Center for Parish Nursing and Health Ministries run by Vanderbilt University Medical Center and McKendree Village, which has since closed. About 150 nurses went through the program in the eight years it was open, including Welsh.

Adkins remains an advocate for parish nursing,

One of the most important things a parish nurse can do is listen, Adkins said. Often parishioners may have medical questions and don’t know whom to turn to for answers.

Parish nurses also address issues such as obesity in children by teaching them early on about healthy eating practices.

“We can teach people to be healthier, and we can start with children in church,” Adkins said.