Samford University is the only school in Alabama and one of the few schools in the nation offering a graduate program to train parish nurses.
"It is an up and coming field all over the country," Dr. Gretchen McDaniel says of the term that refers to a nurse who is trained to help coordinate a health ministry within a congregation.
"Overall, if you have a healthy congregation, they are more able to serve the Lord and to serve others in the congregation," explains Dr. McDaniel.
Dr. McDaniel is parish nursing track coordinator in Samford's Ida V. Moffett School of Nursing, where the track is one of six specialty areas in the Master of Science in Nursing degree program.
The growing need for parish nurses is partly attributable to changes in the health care system, says Dr. McDaniel
"People are being released from the hospital earlier and earlier. However, they may still need resources within the community and support in many different ways."
Dr. McDaniel defines five roles of a parish nurse:
Teacher and Health Advocate. A parish nurse would be involved in overall health promotions, such as scheduling classes on diet and weight management.
Volunteer Coordinator. As an example, says Dr. McDaniel, there may be volunteers who can work with young mothers and babies. "The nurse can coordinate the needs and the people available to assist with that need."
Referral Agent. When families have needs, the parish nurse will know of community agencies that can provide care. "People may get discharged from the hospital and have visits by home health care, but if they miss meals or can't get medication, they end up right back in the hospital," says Dr. McDaniel. A parish nurse can spot potential problems and link the person with the resource that can best assist.
Integrator of Faith and Health. "Studies show that many times there is a strong connection between faith and health. This role may involve being a listener and praying with people."
Health Counselor. Somewhat an extension of the other roles, the contributions as health counselor may extend beyond physical care. For example, a nurse might pick up on hidden problems that might not come out in conversation with other church staff members, says Dr. McDaniel.
Career opportunities in the field are growing, according to Dr. McDaniel. Although most parish nurses are hired by churches, some hospitals are looking at hiring them. In some rural areas, churches pool to fund a parish nurse position, she said.
In addition to the graduate level parish nurse program, Dr. McDaniel oversees a non-degree certificate program which trains Registered Nurses in basic parish nursing skills.
Samford is one of only 50 institutions in the county with credentials to use the endorsed curriculum of the International Parish Nurse Resource Center in its certificate program. Approval came only after McDaniel attended an intensive faculty preparation seminar and the school passed an in-depth application process.
Alabama Woman's Missionary Union, through its Baptist Nursing Fellowship, supports the certificate program financially and administratively.
Thirty-six nurses from throughout the state are enrolled in the series of three weekend certification sessions which will conclude in January.
"I was surprised at the interest," says McDaniel, who had expected 10 people.
"There is definitely an interest in health ministry within the church. People see the need."
For information on the parish nurse programs at Samford, telephone (205) 726-2047.