Faith and Community Health

Faith and Community Health

Texas hospitals work with faith-based organizations to improve the health of their communities.

Written by Emily A. Cheslock

Some of the earliest hospitals were in monasteries and convents. According to the Journal of the American Medical Association, today, 18.5% of hospitals nationwide are religiously affiliated.

Spiritual beliefs play an essential role in how patients make important health care decisions. According to Duke University, studies show a positive association between spirituality and health outcomes. In addition, religious research participants expressed a greater sense of purpose, optimism and self-esteem than those who were not religious.

Brent Peery

“Not everyone is religious, but everyone is spiritual. So, when we address spiritual needs, there is a direct positive impact on a person’s health. And conversely, when we don’t meet spiritual needs, there is a negative impact on health,” said Brent Peery, D.Min., vice president of chaplaincy services at Memorial Hermann Health System in Houston.

Moreover, almost all religions teach that being healthy is essential. The Bible reminds Christians that they must care for their bodies as temples. In the Qur’an, Allah tells followers of Islam to “eat what is lawful and good” and includes examples of what foods are beneficial. While treating the ill is a Torah obligation, Judaism puts a priority on preventative health. Hindus believe that all illnesses have a biological, psychological and spiritual element. A Hindu patient will seek treatment that addresses all three causes.

Stuart Nelson

“We know that beliefs and practices grounded in spiritual traditions impact health. Examples of that might be meditation lowering blood pressure. It might be the ability to rely on a religious community as a trusted source of support,” said Stuart Nelson, vice president at the Institute of Spirituality and Health (ISH) at the Texas Medical Center in Houston.

Spiritual Care as Health Care

A person’s body, mind and spirit are all intertwined. According to ISH, we can divide people into four quadrants: biological, psychological, social and spiritual. A study from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) concluded that 77% of patients thought physicians should consider spiritual needs. Another 48% would welcome their physician to pray with them. Yet, despite these results, the study found that 70% of patients claimed their physician had never discussed religion or spirituality with them.

ISH’s education programs train providers on treating all quadrants of the patient. When providers understand a patient’s way of understanding and their religious traditions, it informs how they need to deliver care. ISH encourages the provider to let the patient be the teacher. “It’s empowering for them to teach about their beliefs. It’s a way of fostering a deep connection and trust between patient and provider,” said Nelson.

ISH hosts the Sacred Sites of Houston tour for medical students to help them understand different religions. The program exposes students to various faith traditions and how those traditions impact health and healing.

Martin Cominsky

Interfaith Ministries for Greater Houston echoes the importance of health care providers understanding different religions and cultures. Their office has a banner that says “respect” in 13 different languages to remind them that the goal is to build a community with respect for one another. “The opportunity to share ideas about how to care for our communities builds understanding and respect of different faiths and cultures,” said Martin Cominsky, president and CEO of Interfaith Ministries.

In reviewing ISH's Sacred Sites of Houston project, Nelson noted that agnostic or atheist students who completed the course were more likely to explore what spirituality could mean in their lives. “We didn’t expect this to happen. It’s fascinating to see that experiencing a variety of world traditions seems to lead to an openness to non-religious spiritual practices,” he said.

Niki Shah

Other course results are a higher likelihood of calling on chaplaincy services and engaging in spiritual discussions with a patient.

According to Niki Shah, vice president of community health at Baylor Scott & White Health System (BSW), deploying chaplaincy services is a critical element of patient care. “By combining the evidence-based science with a person’s faith, you build trust and can help a person want to seek care,” she said.

Texas Hospitals magazine

Bridging the Gap

At the onset of COVID-19, Interfaith Ministries gathered faith leaders, experts from the Texas Medical Center and government officials from across Houston on Zoom. Interfaith Ministries proactively hosted these calls to better understand the spiritual implications of the pandemic, which they continue to host on a weekly basis.

“We invited 900 leaders of all faith denominations to join the call and support each other. This allows us to see things through the lenses of different religions,” said Cominsky.

Caryn Paulos

Across Texas, faith leaders have offered support, shared best practices and helped each other navigate the pandemic. “A faith leader is a trusted person who is going to take care of the members of the church,” said Caryn Paulos, senior director of faith and community health improvement for Texas Health Resources in Arlington. “This has played such an important role in disseminating information about COVID-19 safety and the vaccine.”

Memorial Hermann worked with Interfaith Ministries to bring vaccines to houses of worship. “People already congregate in churches, and they have lots of space, making them great for mass vaccination efforts,” said Carol Paret, senior vice president and chief community health officer at Memorial Hermann.

Carol Paret

And it’s not only COVID-19. Faith-based organizations can play a role in helping solve myriad public health issues. For example, a few years ago, ISH brought together 20 local faith leaders to undergo a roundtable series on substance abuse.

“There is a recognition that we all believe different things, but when something like opioids is ravaging our communities, we have to come together,” said Nelson.

Behavioral health is another area where hospitals and churches can partner to make a big difference bridging the gap between a trusted faith leader and mental health professional. A study from the Mental Health Foundation, a non-profit located in the UK, estimates that 80% of people go to a faith leader about mental health concerns before talking to a medical professional.

“By working with our faith partners, we can understand what behavioral health issues their communities face. We work with faith leaders so they can refer their parishioners to therapists or other mental health professionals,” said Shah.

BSW is currently working on its 10,000 Lives Mental Health First Aid campaign to train community members on mental health first aid. “The faith community has stepped up to help with this initiative. They want to get trained so they can recognize signs of depression and suicidality in their membership,” said Shah.

Service and the Social Determinants of Health

For centuries churches have played a significant role in addressing the social determinants of health. Food, clothing, shelter, transportation and money for essentials are things that people trust to ask for at a church.

Those in the faith community have the same desire to serve others — a valuable resource for hospitals’ community health initiatives. “Without the faith communities, it would be hard for us to address the social determinants of health for all our patients,” said Paulos.

Memorial Hermann’s community health department works to reach vulnerable populations to address social determinants of health. “Working with various organizations is important. No single group is going to be able to address every issue, but through collaboration, we can make a real difference in our communities,” said Paret.

Memorial Hermann works at the community level to best address their needs. For example, one community felt their park was unsafe, impacting their ability to get outside and exercise. Memorial Hermann helped bring organizations to the table to make the park usable for community members.

This year, Interfaith Ministries has been working with Amazon Alexa devices to do daily health checks with the elders they serve. In addition to the devices, the organization has also provided WiFi for seniors who didn’t have internet access.

“We’ve found that our seniors are very eager to learn and use new technology. They recognize the opportunity to connect with their kids and grandkids. This has been wonderful for their mental health,” said Cominsky.

Donna Stauber

BSW’s faith community health program works to match volunteers with homebound seniors and individuals. “The volunteers do everything from helping with grocery shopping or picking up medications to sitting with them and watching TV,” said Donna Stauber, Ph.D., system program manager of innovation and spiritual care delivery at BSW.

BSW has seen a 40% decrease in inpatient admissions and a 30% decrease in emergency department visits from patients in the program.

“Having someone that you can rely on to help you is life-changing for these patients. We’re able to use volunteers in their community to address their unique social determinants of health,” said Stauber.

Shah added that this also benefits caregivers at the hospital. “Providers tell me how happy their heart is knowing someone is going to be there to support the patient upon discharge.”

a nurse talking to two people in the THR waiting room

Bringing Health Care to the Church

Faith community nursing is a specialty that focuses on the intentional care of the spirit combined with traditional nursing practice. Faith community nurses assist members of their congregation to maintain or regain wholeness in body, mind and spirit.

Texas Health’s faith community nursing program has over 300 volunteers who work in 127 congregations across 16 counties in North Texas to promote health and well-being. Depending on the needs of a congregation, the programs support anything from food pantries to blood pressure screening to diabetes education.

“When you’ve seen one program, you’ve seen one program. The work that faith community nurses do in their congregations varies depending on the needs of members, the time they have to give and the available resources,” said Paulos.

The nurses aren’t working under physicians; they function in an independent nurse role under the Nurse Practice Act in Texas. The most common role they play is a health advocate and educator – keeping parishioners up to date on new public health information or talking with them about a diagnosis they may have received.

“We’ve had many examples where people have needs such as medication, food or clothing, and we can connect them with the resources they need,” said Paulos. “We once had a lady mention not being able to afford medication via a prayer request. The community nurse was able to work with the drug company to secure a scholarship for a year’s worth of medication. It’s all about connecting the pieces between body, mind and spirit.”

Photo Courtesy of Interfaith Ministries Greater Houston

BSW helps faith communities develop a church health ministry. At first, they tried a “tell the ministries what they need to do” approach – but soon realized that each congregation is unique, and their leaders know what their parishioners need. “I quickly learned you couldn’t tell churches what they need. You have to go in, find out what they need and get to know what the disparities in their community are,” said Stauber.

Now, BSW helps health ministry teams by informing them on pertinent public health information, offering blood pressure and glucose checks and teaching parishioners how to monitor those things.

“We offer the opportunity for congregations to join us in our faith community health program by offering training on how to be an effective volunteer and different things about safety and their part in offering support to patients,” said Stauber.

Faith and spirituality are how people connect with others and make sense of their world. It’s the innate ability to connect with the deepest parts of ourselves. Leveraging spirituality and faith to promote health creates a unique opportunity for hospitals to work with faith-based organizations to improve the health of communities.

“People are being exposed to different traditions, ethnicities, cultures and ways of being. Bringing in people of different religions helps to foster understanding and better address common problems in communities,” said Nelson. “We all believe in different things, but at the end of the day, we all have a desire to serve and heal our communities.”

To learn more about the Institute for Spirituality and Health or Interfaith Ministries for Greater Houston, visit or