When Debbie Meiklejohn began the Faith and Health Ministry at Our Lady of Good Counsel Church in Little Rock about four years ago, her focus was on being present.
She remembers visiting an elderly parishioner, a convert, who was wondering when the Catholic Church would come, as her former Protestant faith had been doing a health and visiting ministry for years.
“When it’s someone coming to see them representing the Church, they know they’re still cared for and prayed about, and they know they’re not forgotten,” Meiklejohn said.
In a partnership with Catholic Charities of Arkansas and the Westberg Institute, Meiklejohn is leading the Faith Community Nursing Foundations Course, a four-session program that helps current and retired nurses and laypeople interested in being health ministers and to bring health education to a parish, as well as being an advocate for those in need.
“They just get more of an education on how to incorporate spirituality into their visits and focus on the health and wellbeing of the person and how to prevent illness,” Meiklejohn said. “It’s mainly just for the overall wellbeing of the person and their spiritually.”
Five people in the state completed the certification via Zoom in the summer. The course is currently taking applications for classes that will run at several parishes in 2021:
St. John Church in Russellville, February
Good Counsel in Little Rock, April
St. Raphael Church in Springdale, June
St. Edward Church in Texarkana, September
Blessed Sacrament Church in Jonesboro, October
Participation is limited to 12 per class with a minimum of six people. Attendance at all four sessions is mandatory. Speakers, including from CHI St. Vincent, are also brought in for topics including abuse, suffering and grieving and legal and ethical issues. The program is approved by the American Nurses Association Scope and Standards of Practice. If it is unsafe to meet at the time, the course will transition to virtual sessions.
The cost per person is $300, which covers tuition and class materials. The program received grant money the past two years from Blue and You Foundation ($1,000), diocesan Respect Life Office ($1,500), Catholic Campaign for Human Development (through Catholic Charities of Arkansas) ($500) and Our Lady of Good Counsel Church ($750).
The desire to bring the program to Arkansas has been years in the making. In 2016, Meiklejohn received her certificate from the Little Rock Theology Institute.
“During the third year of our program we were asked, ‘What are you going to do with the knowledge you learned in this program?’ … I thought about it and I wanted to do parish nursing,” she said.
She retired from CHI St. Vincent in 2019 after a 31-year career in nursing in Fort Smith and Little Rock, which included working with cardiac patients and in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit.
Meiklejohn took the Faith Community Nursing Foundations Course in the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City in 2016 and was asked to bring it to Arkansas. With a seven-member committee, Meiklejohn established the Faith and Health Ministry at Good Counsel. After surveying parishioners, the group has helped run health fairs, bringing in pharmacists and physician assistant students to check blood sugar levels and give flu shots, held CPR classes, purchased first aid kits for the parish and brought in speakers. They primarily visit the elderly and homebound.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Meiklejohn was visiting about four to five people once a month to share any health education they might be interested in -- from how a disease progresses to nutrition to mental health -- and encouraging follow-ups with a doctor if necessary. Meiklejohn is not there to diagnose but to observe for any medical red flags and to listen, pray and answer questions. The ministry does not do anything that requires a physician’s order.
While some parishes have health programs, this certification gives them the tools to focus both on the spiritual and health benefits for each person they minister to, Meiklejohn said.
The plan is to expand the program by deanery, eventually covering the state.
Meiklejohn said Pope Francis’ message for the 28th World Day of the Sick in February summed up the hope of the program. He said in part, “What is needed is a personalized approach to the sick, not just of curing but also of caring, in view of an integral human healing.”
And in this time of pandemic, it’s even more crucial, she said.
“When you're by yourself especially during this COVID time, it’s really hard. They just need to know they’re cared for,” Meiklejohn said.
To register for the program or more information, contact Meiklejohn at or (501) 940-5041.
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