partnerships

The Power of Partnership

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.

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What Can Churches Do?

JUST OVER A year ago, I attended a retreat sponsored by the Fund for Theological Education. During the retreat we were encouraged to look at our lives and to find a personal story that captured the essence of what led us to our particular ministries. That led me to reflect on my childhood: growing up in poverty, attending a different school every year, walking to school with cardboard in the bottom of my shoes because the soles were worn out, wondering how I was going to eat, lacking school supplies at times, and dealing with the stress of a single mother who was a substance abuser.

By reminding me of those things I endured and had to overcome as a child, that exercise helped me tap into my real passion. I wanted to find ways to help children growing up in similar circumstances. I wanted to inspire them to believe in themselves and know that they can make it.

At-risk youth and under-performing students need to be inspired, but equally important is their need for adults who are willing to do the work of helping them succeed academically. Education continues to be our most reliable tool for creating upward life trajectories and optimal opportunities. Churches are more than places where people come in search of a deeper relationship with God; they are also places where people come to find deeper connections with their communities and the possibility of using their gifts and talents to help those in need.

All these forces together compelled me to act on an idea I had more than a year ago: to call on friends from across the country to help create Faith for Change. Faith for Change builds a national network of churches and people of faith committed to implementing proven educational strategies for improving children’s lives.

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From Patriarchy to Partnership

I FEEL BLESSED to have grown up in the South, raised in the Southern Baptist tradition. When marriage was discussed at my church, I was taught there was a “holy chain of command.” Authority flowed from God to husband, husband to wife, and wife to kids. In the best of cases, that “authority” came with loving care, protection, and guidance. But it was authority nonetheless.

My own family mirrored this paradigm. My dad was king of the house, allowing us to watch only one show on TV: Father Knows Best. My mom, who called Dad “Popsie,” was expected to conform to Dad’s rules. (Not once did I hear her call him by his first name.) Far from being unusual, my mother emerged from generations of women who “obeyed their husbands.” This male dominator/female subordinator model of traditional heterosexual marriage often resulted in women losing their voice in both family and society.

In the ’70s, Gloria Steinem pronounced that marriage was a dangerous place for women. This made sense to many at the time. How could women celebrate their equality linked arm-in-arm with husbands who “knew best”? As a result, many women left home to develop their sense of agency in the world. And many left their marriages altogether.

But in the last several decades, a different concept of marriage emerged—an equality-based partnership model. Within this new paradigm, women (and men) have the opportunity to flourish. In fact, once two people learn to live in conscious partnership, the process can help women called to marriage develop their most resonant voice and deepest wisdom. As a result, a group of us are calling for the women’s movement to add the support of healthy marriages to its socio-political agenda.

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Wanted: 1,000 Pastors For the Poor

We are looking for 1,000 pastors to debunk a myth based on the political assertion that government doesn't have any responsibility to poor people. The myth is that churches and charities alone could take care of the problems of poverty -- especially if we slashed people's taxes. Both this assertion and myth contradict the biblical imperative to hold societies and rulers responsible for how they treat the poor, and ignore the Christian tradition of holding governments accountable to those in need. Faith-based organizations and government have had effective and healthy partnerships, and ultimately, the assertion and myth have more to do with libertarian political ideology, than good theology.

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