“The body and spirit are too intertwined to easily separate them from each other,” explains Meg Tonne, a registered nurse and parish nurse for First Presbyterian Church. Part nurse, part social worker, part patient advocate—the parish nurse fills roles we rarely think to associate with church ministry. While Meg Tonne (pronounced Tony) is the only parish nurse in Oak Ridge, she says that tending to the whole person—body, mind, and spirit—is her goal while serving on the church staff.
Meg Tonne ministers to church members as a medical professional, spending her time in a plethora of ways. Sometimes she is visiting those who are homebound or hospitalized or in a nursing home; waiting with family during surgery; praying with someone; providing a listening ear; holding a hand; giving emotional support; attending a church staff meeting; or planning a monthly luncheon for senior adults.
Other times, she is advising church members of patient rights, discussing health insurance, referring the sick for appropriate medical assistance, accompanying someone to a doctor appointment, lending medical equipment, assisting with home health care, holding health screenings, taking blood pressure, or doing EKG screening at a health fair. While she cannot do hands-on nursing or treatment, her responsibility is to refer members to the assistance they need.
Meg explains her passion for this ministry by saying: “I’m a conduit of God’s healing touch, but healing and curing are not the same. Even though someone is dying in their body, they can still be healed within their spirit.” Meg pointed out that the gospels are full of healing. She thinks the church has lost sight of how valuable healing is and of the importance of healing as part of Christ’s ministry.
In her role with First Presbyterian, she provides spiritual encouragement, prayer, and support for those with chronic illnesses and age-related difficulties. She believes that healing may mean comfort and assurance through the end-of-life process. Counseling church members through changes in life such as the death of a spouse, a divorce, or moving from their home to an assisted living facility are things for which doctors do not have time. Meg is also very comfortable with issues relating to death. She sees this as a time for hope. Parish nursing meets church members on the personal side of life.
Parish nursing, officially called faith community nursing, is recognized as a profession by the American Nurses’ Association guidelines. It began in the early 1980s when Granger Westberg, a Lutheran minister in Illinois, decided that ministry should somehow include health for the body, soul, and mind. The Lutheran General Hospital in his area initiated the first faith community nursing program with six area churches. The parish nurse may or may not be a member of the congregation they serve.
Meg is a member of First Presbyterian Church. He or she must be a registered nurse. They do not take the place of medical professionals but simply provide an added support person between a patient and the medical community. Some parish nurses are part-time employees of Covenant Health with which a church contracts for the specialized services.
Churches may have a volunteer parish nurse or hire a nurse directly. Because of ministerial confidentiality and HIPAA laws, Meg finds that she must be cautious to protect the confidentiality of all church members and their families when she has had contact with them. Church members naturally want to care for each other but she is not allowed to answer one member with questions about another member’s difficulties. She diligently stays focused on her ministry and her role.
Meg is employed to work 20 hours per week. When someone is in the emergency room or having some other medical crisis, she is able to both help them through the medical process and give them needed emotional support. When a church member gives permission, she will maintain emergency contact information. This is useful when she needs to contact an adult child of an aging member to share about a car accident, a fall, or other difficulty. Sometimes she will have the adult child of a church member call her and ask her to check on their parent. She has walked through the death process with more than one family member.
One evening she happened to be in the hospital where she ran across a woman crying outside her dying husband’s hospital room. When Meg reached out to the woman, she told Meg about her husband’s illness and that she was hiding her tears from him. “I need to be strong for him.” the woman said. Meg wisely encouraged the woman saying: “No. You need to be crying together.”
When asked how her role contrasts with that of a pastor, she said they work as a team. Frequently they do visitation together because the pastor cares very much about pastoral care. The parish nurse’s services to church members and their families are given free of charge just as is the case with all ministerial staff of churches. Meg ended by stating, “My job is so rewarding, and I feel very appreciated.”
For more information, see the church’s website at www.fpcor.org. The First Presbyterian Church is at 1051 Oak Ridge Turnpike.
Besides writing articles for local news media, Myra Mansfield serves as a chaplain with the Anderson County Sheriff’s Department, serves the Oak Ridge Ministerial Association, and supports several local nonprofit organizations with volunteer service.