THE CONGREGATIONAL HEALTH NETWORK began with a simple request from the largest hospital network in Memphis to a group of local pastors: Help us take better care of your people.
Ten years ago, officials at Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare were worried that chronic diseases such as hypertension, diabetes, and obesity were threatening the well-being of local residents and sending health-care costs through the roof.
“People in their 20s were coming to the emergency room in end-stage renal failure,” said Rev. Bobby Baker, a Baptist pastor and director of faith and community partnerships at Methodist Healthcare. “That person is going to be using critical care resources for the rest of their life.”
Hospital officials knew something had to change. They wanted to focus on preventive health care—getting people in to see their doctor long before they were in a crisis. So in Memphis, a city where faith remains a powerful force and more than 60 percent of the population has ties to a religious group, they turned to churches for help. It started small, with a group of about a dozen pastors at churches near Methodist South hospital, in the city’s Whitehaven neighborhood. Those pastors recruited church members to serve as liaisons to the hospital, while the hospital assigned staff to work with churches. That small pilot, first called the Church Health Network, began in 2004.
Two years later, Methodist CEO and president Gary Shorb, along with Rev. Gary Gunderson, the former senior vice president for Methodist’s faith and health division, decided to expand the project system wide. That was the only way to make a significant impact on health outcomes, said Baker. “The thought was that it can’t be a pilot, it can’t be a research project—it really has to be broad reaching,” he said.