CHHSM Brings Message of Health and Human Service Collaboration to UCC Rural/Small Town Church Gathering

The UCC Council for Health and Human Service Ministries took a leading role in a first-ever Virtual National Gathering of UCC Rural/Small Town Churches and Ministries, held Feb. 9-11 from 4 to 7 p.m. each day. Throughout the three days, all of the keynotes and session presenters focused on the theme, “Nourishing the Seeds of Faith” (Isaiah 55:10-11).

During the Friday, Feb. 10, evening breakout session, CHHSM’s the Rev. Dr. Elyse Berry, associate for advocacy and leadership development, spoke to attendees about “Health Care Services Accessibility in Rural and Small Town Settings.” The key, said Berry, is collaboration.

Laying the groundwork for successful collaboration in rural settings may seem only practical, but it also is surprisingly spiritual, Berry said. And it involves creative thinking.

“Where does accessibility start? Where does collaboration start?” she asked. It begins through reflection and imagination. “For partners to collaborate, someone had to have an idea,” she added. “Somebody had the heart and mind to ask, ‘I wonder if … ’”

Berry gave for examples of CHHSM members collaborating with partners to meet community needs:

  • Orion Family Services, based in Madison, Wis. Orion is a long-time partner of St. John’s UCC in Monroe, Wis., a small town about 45 minutes south of Madison. A few years ago, the church noticed that there were no mental health services in the rural area around Madison. So the congregation approached Orion and the two began the process of offering services at Monroe House, a building owned by St. John’s. In 2017 and 2018, the property was renovated into a site that could offer multiple services, including outpatient therapy, supervised visitation, a neutral space for family interactions, parent/family/provider meetings, and local office space for clinicians and community service workers. It opened as an outpatient therapy clinic in 2019, and also is used for independent living.
  • United Church Homes, based in Marion, Ohio, successfully teamed up with South Haven UCC in Bedford, Ohio, years ago to build affordable senior housing on the church’s property. Recently, the endeavor was expanded to further meet the community’s affordably housing needs.
  • Deaconess Nurse Ministry, Deaconess Foundation, Epiphany UCC, and the Islamic Foundation of Greater St. Louis have partnered for a series of health clinics, now located in several underserved areas of St. Louis. Deaconess Nurse Ministry provides the nurses and the Islamic Foundation provides the physicians. Epiphany houses one of the clinics, and provides office space for a Missouri Health Care for All staffer. Deaconess Foundation provides funding for the staff member.
  • MOLO Village CDC, Bellewood & Brooklawn/Seven Counties Services, St. Peter’s UCC, the UCC Church Building & Loan Fund, and the UCC Cornerstone Fund are working together to meet multiple needs in an underserved area of Louisville, Ky. In the latest expansion, MOLO Village and Bellewood & Brooklawn/Seven Counties Services are exploring a program that would sustain mental health care services at MOLO Village.

The second half of the presentation considered the nuts and bolts of collaboration in small towns, where organizational resources of time, energy, and money often are limited and must be carefully allocated.

Collaboration combines effective strategies and those organizational resources for effective outcomes, said Berry. She reviewed the four types of working together in communities, from the least to most investment in time:

  • Networking – exchanging information for mutual benefit
  • Coordinating – exchanging information and altering activities for mutual benefit to achieve a common purpose.
  • Cooperation – coordinating, plus sharing resources for mutual benefit to achieve a common purpose.
  • Collaboration/Partnership – Cooperation plus enhancing the capacity of another for mutual benefit to achieve a common purpose

Berry stressed that careful planning and good communication are essential ingredients to successful collaboration. But, she added, collaboration doesn’t always have to be done via years-long programs. There are plenty of ways to collaborate on short-term projects, she said.

“As the church community, you might be the trusted voice in your town,” she said. “If there’s a vaccination clinic at your space, as the safe space, that can be a game changer for accessibility. You can have all the services in the world, but if you aren’t getting the people in the door, it’s an accessibility issue. If you’re holding a pop-up clinic, you’re saying to your community, ‘We value your health. We value you.’”

Berry also suggested holding in-person or online Town Hall meetings on community issues, and holding educational presentations and inviting guest preachers to the church.

During the Q&A discussion following the presentation, several attendees voiced concerns over the lack of mental health and addiction services in rural areas and small towns. They also discussed the need for safe spaces for people of different cultural or personal identities.

“Many rural areas are way behind cities in social issues,” said George Miller, pastor of Emmanuel UCC in Sebring, Fla. He cited an LGBT support group that meets almost secretly in a local church that wondered if it needed to hire security to hold its meetings.

Sherry Warren, minister for gender justice on the Health and Wholeness Advocacy team of Justice and Local Church Ministries, spoke of her experiences while working in Green Bay, Wis., and Dubuque, Iowa, and the continuing problem of “the stigma around mental health and addiction, and any non-dominant cultural or personal identity.”

“Small towns can be terrifying. How do we help these people, especially these kids?” she asked. She described one UCC resource — the Our Whole Lives human sexuality curriculum — as being a lifesaver for many individuals and towns.

According to the Rev. Roberto Ochoa, M.Div., minister for ethnic inclusion and congregational support for rural and small churches for the UCC, the Virtual National Gathering was created thanks to work that began in 2019, when the Rev. John Dorhauer, UCC general minister and president, received a letter from a local church pastor imploring him to improve relations with rural congregations and ministers, who often felt isolated and disconnected from the UCC’s national setting. A report from the UCC’s research team found that more than 60 percent of UCC congregations are in communities with fewer than 25,000 residents.

“CHHSM is thrilled to have been asked to participate in this Rural/Small Town virtual gathering,” said Berry. “We are hopeful that our small part helped provide a starting point and the resources for local UCC congregations working to increase their health and human service ministries. In working with partners, local churches can achieve so much more than they could otherwise. Collaboration is the key to our ministries.”

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