Gary Gunderson believes strongly in the power of the local church to affect the health of the individual. “Medical science has noticed that over a life span, people who have a faith community – not just a faith, but a faith community, a local congregation – it is as healthy for that person as smoking is unhealthy,” he said.
The leading cause of death in the U.S. is almost a tie between an unhealthy diet and smoking. But according to Gunderson, if you ask the opposite question, “What is the leading cause of life?’ the data says the answer is “participation in a community of faith.”
Last July he became the head of the Division of Faith and Health Ministries at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem, overseeing the division’s four departments: CareNet Counseling, the Department of Chaplaincy and Pastoral Education, the Center for Congregational Health and the Department of Church and Community Relations. In this role he leads the spiritual care services to patients, families and medical center employees as well as the public relations services to more than 4,200 N.C. Baptist congregations.
“Gary’s work, particularly his ability to understand and meet the needs of patients in the community, has been recognized nationally and internationally,” said John D. McConnell, M.D., chief executive officer of Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center. “His natural ability to engage patients and community partners offers a new way of thinking about what it is to provide health care.”
Dr. Gary Gunderson is vice president of Faith and Health Ministries for Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center.
Gunderson’s top priority is to develop a system of health care that connects the hospital with the local church congregation. He said, “My real heart has been for the relationship – not just between faith and health and not just between prayer and healing – but between a faith-based hospital and the true faith-based health systems, which are the congregations in the community.
“This really isn’t just a strategy where we talk about faith sort of like it is another kind of pill, where you take a medical problem and say ‘let’s put a little bit of spirituality on that.’ There’s a lot of research right now that thinks of spirituality sort of like something that you would add. That’s the opposite of the way I think.”
The facts show that most patients don’t come to the hospital just to get treatment for a disease or fixed because of an accident. “Most of what we see in a hospital today is some condition that has developed over a long period of time ... chronic diseases.” Since people come back to the hospital more often, the relationship between the hospital and the patient’s congregation is a long-term relationship.
Before accepting his present position at the Baptist hospital, Gunderson served in a similar role at the Methodist hospital in Memphis, Tenn., where he developed the model for a vital connection between the hospital and local churches. The Memphis model has been highly visible, leading to a White House conference last year and another one scheduled this year.
It centered around the development of a covenantal relationship with about 500 congregations in the Memphis area. About 90 percent of those were African-American fellowships. “These church leaders drafted a covenant, the pastors signed it, and church leaders were assigned to keep the ministry functional.” They trained 3,000 church members to provide spiritual guidance, or “accompaniment” for hospital patients.
In Memphis, over a period of 5 years he learned that, “... people who were connected to one of our covenantal congregations stayed out of the hospital 39 percent longer than people from other congregations.”
There was something about this connection that improved the health of the patient. Governments and insurance companies do not collect this information. “No one has been asking about this aspect of health,” according to Gunderson. “That’s a stunning statistic.”
In Memphis, at the admission desk you are asked, “Are you a member of one of our covenant congregations?” If the answer is yes, you will be asked, “Do you want your congregation to be part of your care?” Most say yes. That sends an alert to connect with that congregation. This is beyond “chaplaincy.”
The Baptist hospital almost invented the chaplaincy program. It was the first faith-based hospital in the southern United States to developed chaplaincy training. That was radical, according to Gunderson. Now almost every hospital has chaplains.
“We don’t want a patient handed off to us by their congregation. We want them to feel like they have never left their congregation. This requires us to build a whole different relationship with the congregation,” he explained.
“We are working with the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina (BSC), with associational missionaries, and with local churches to draft the covenant.”
The first network will be across the BSC. Then Gunderson will find ways to connect with congregations other than Baptists. He said, “We have reorganized the division with congregations at the center instead of adding on a new division in the hospital. We are renaming everything – the division is now called Faith and Health. We’ll have the new field network which is called FaithHealthNC.”
The new model draws on the strength of the 21 CareNet Counseling centers across the state, which is an existing network of a faith-health strategy; providing spiritually sensitive, Christian counseling, according to Gunderson.
While some hospitals are imposing greater restrictions on pastors and reducing the hospital chaplaincy ministry, the Baptist hospital is going in the opposite direction. Gunderson believes the restrictions imposed by some hospitals is the “... radical, unintended consequences of the focus on the privacy of the patient.
“We think the privacy of the patient is a really good thing, but it is not the only thing. Hospitals have drawn these lines to make the normal practice of spiritual accompaniment extremely difficult.”
Gunderson has worked with lawyers to insure that privacy laws are honored, while recognizing that scientific evidence shows the health of the patient is directly related to the pastoral care provide by local congregations.
A significant portion of patients come from those Baptist congregations. “We want them to experience that when you’re in the Baptist hospital, you’re still part of the Baptist congregation.”
Baptist hospital already has connections with the BSC.
There is a governance relationship, a financial relationship, and a fellowship connection. “But up until now, we have not organizationally thought of ourselves as connected clinically to the congregations. Congregations are not just something that sends us money from time to time ...”
Speaking of the financial support Baptist hospital receives from N.C. Baptists, Gunderson said, “I don’t know of another faith-based hospital that receives a greater level of support from its birth mother congregations ... The N.C. convention’s relationship with Baptist Hospital is very unusual among faith-based hospitals. That money makes a huge difference.”
Gunderson added, “But I suspect that the money ... is dwarfed by the actual significance of what it already means in terms of providing a better journey for patients who come from our Baptist congregations to Baptist Hospital.”