Like many faith-based nonprofit systems, Methodist had seen its ties at the congregation level become more cordial than operational. Direct ties between the United Methodist Church and its healthcare ministries were effectively severed after the church paid a $21 million settlement in the 1980s to cover a group of failed nursing homes on the West Coast.
Memphis is not a city where being tied to faith is a bad thing. Soul singer Rev. Al Green still draws a crowd to worship at Full Gospel Tabernacle, and Memphis "megachurches" boast memberships in the tens of thousands. "I wanted the efforts that we had ongoing in what we call the health and welfare ministries division to be more than just typical hospital chaplaincy efforts," Shorb says. "I really wanted to explore them beyond the walls of the hospital in a significant way, but I honestly was not sure how to do that. There are not a lot of role models out there to use. I did know that faith does impact health and health status, and there was an opportunity to do something significant in a city that has such a remarkable base of faith organizations."
After consulting with Scott Morris, MD, director of the renowned Church Health Center free clinic in Memphis, Shorb approached Gunderson with the opportunity to remodel the system's health ministry in a city with "staggering need." To Gunderson, it was finally an opportunity to blend his experience in public health with his background in faith.
"There is a whole body of health science and theory that is ready to be implemented, but it needs congregations to do it; it needs community partners to do it," Gunderson says. "The hospital in and of itself can only be a catalyst for creating the community-scale partnerships that are necessary to deal with community-scale problems."
From the system's own surveys, Methodist discovered that 70 percent of patients who came through the doors had been at a place of worship in the previous 30 days. "For a hospital, there is no other institutional contact remotely in that same number," Gunderson says. The church is not an affinity group--it is a real place on the map. So to Gunderson, the question became how to create active pathways that went beyond the usual educational outreach.
The result was Methodist's Congregational Health Network Partnership. Affiliated congregations are asked to agree to a covenant in which the hospital assigns a dedicated hospital liaison--a "navigator"--to each congregation. The navigator, usually someone employed in patient services, works directly with a liaison at the partner congregation to create a direct pathway into the healthcare system. At a basic level, the idea is that rather than have a church member merely express concern about the health status of a congregant, the liaison--identified by the clergy as a trusted member of the congregation--will have direct contact with healthcare resources to connect church members with the care that they need. Gunderson is quick to point out that the idea is not necessarily to create a referral base for Methodist, but to link people in need to clinics, physicians or even social services when need be.