The Long Road to True Collaboration

I recently spent two days in Houston at the US Health Forum for the United Methodist Church. The point of the meeting was to gather church leaders engaged in health ministry from across the country. Historically, the denomination has supported health programs internationally, but it has done little in America. The greatest effort has come from, of all places, the Board of Pensions which has focused on clergy health.

Over the last ten years, the Board has uncovered disturbing facts related to the health of those leading congregations. For example, in the midst of the obesity epidemic in America, United Methodist clergy are 20 percent heavier than the rest of the country.

This meeting was intended to outline the ministries the denomination is already involved in and offer a venue for sharing. Hospitals, seminaries, primary care clinics, and a wide variety of programs were represented, including the Church Health Center.

I met some fascinating people. Many of our faith community nurse leaders were there, and I had great conversations with them about ways to grow the effectiveness of our work. I was also excited about meeting and learning about work going on at Duke Divinity School. The large hospitals that carry the name “Methodist” were there: Houston, Columbus, Dallas, San Antonio, and of course Memphis. Various agencies of the church also presented their work.

What was sadly clear is that none of these groups are working together. While they all have small projects that overlap, most seemed unaware of what the others are doing. Unlike the Catholics, the UMC has no pope. No one entity is in charge.

I saw great potential for how various ministries could work together. One light bulb that went on in my head was how effective it would be if the Board of Global Ministries moved its health department to Memphis to be based at Crosstown Concourse. Why not put the small team working on health within the work we are doing, along with Methodist Healthcare? The young Nigerian doctor who leads the department is feisty, and I’m convinced her work would bear great fruit if she were with us in Memphis. But the wheels are already turning to move from New York to Atlanta, and it seems unlikely the plans will shift.

For now, the work will continue to be done church by church, through individual agencies, or through parachurch organizations like the Church Health Center. That doesn’t mean we couldn’t work together if we started the conversations that would lead us there. “Where do we go from here together?”

We did talk a lot about John Wesley and his book Primitive Physick, which I often mention. I learned that Wesley had no tolerance for clergy who were not willing to walk five or six miles every day. I also learned he had a wooden horse, an early version of a treadmill, that he would ride for two hours if he did not have a chance to ride outdoors during the day.

Wesley was committed to health and was strong in creating connections between congregations. I think the Methodists still have a great deal to learn from the leader we trace our heritage to. We can do better at working together.

At the same time, I suspect we are not so different from most Protestant denominations—or many cities with various groups working in their corners of the health world but not weaving the connections that would make the fabric stronger as a whole.

Maybe we all need to remember to raise our eyes beyond the horizon and look at something bigger than ourselves.

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