Top 10 Church Health Center Myths

After doing the work of the Church Health Center for almost 28 years, it is easy for me to come to work every day and think nothing has changed. After all, my office is in the same room it has always been, and in my head I am still 33 years old. (Please don’t laugh.)

There have, however, been enormous changes to our ministry in those past 28 years, and even more are on the horizon with the move to Crosstown Concourse well on the way. As a result, many people misunderstand the extent of the work we are doing. Here are the 10 most common misconceptions people have of the Church Health Center.

Top 10 Myths about the Church Health Center

1. We are a small clinic on the corner.

Actually, we are the largest privately-funded, faith-based clinic in the country, caring for over 70,000 working but uninsured patients. We help faith communities all over Memphis establish health ministries in their congregations. Our Wellness facility boasts an affordable gym and a demonstration kitchen where everyone in our community is welcome. We have a preschool because we believe that education is a health issue.

We are a clinic, but we are so much more. We’re moving the needle on health disparities and helping people live their healthiest, happiest lives.

2. Because of the Affordable Care Act, the Church Health Center is no longer needed.

There were 26 million uninsured Americans when we opened our doors in 1987. Fast forward to 2010 when the ACA began, and that number had risen to between 50-60 million plus the immigrant population. The ACA has helped 11 million people get health insurance, but that means there are millions more uninsured people now than when we began. The ACA has too many gaps to count, and the Church Health Center fills those gaps.

3. We only treat colds and minor illnesses.

Not even close. We care for the full gamut of healthcare needs because the uninsured get sick with the same things that the insured do. From broken bones to life-threatening cancer, our 1,000 physician volunteers allow us to achieve our goal of providing the same quality of care you would want your mother to receive. We offer dentistry and optometry. We offer counseling services and physical therapy. We’re here to care for your whole body, mind, and spirit.

4. We are just a doctor’s office.

In fact, our goal is that for every dollar we spend on treatment we spend a dollar on prevention. Our wellness programs are extensive, ranging from nutrition, to fitness, to spiritual care.

5. Our Wellness Center is just for our patients.

It is actually open to everyone in our community, uninsured and insured alike. There are no income requirements to become a member. Anyone can join and pay on a sliding scale according to their income.

FM berries6. Our Wellness Center is just a gym.

It is actually a Certified Medical Fitness Center. That means we have staff trained to help you return to your highest level of wellness after you have had a stroke, knee surgery, or heart attack. Church Health Center Wellness also houses Child Life, which is far more than daycare for your kids while you run on the treadmill. Church Health Center Child Life offers engaging staff and curricula that prepare our youngest members to be healthy for life.

Need more proof that Church Health Center Wellness is more than a gym? We host a farmers market during the summer. When was the last time you bought a locally-grown tomato at the chain gym up the street?

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Have you received your copy of the Church Health Reader? Subscribe here!

7. We are only touching lives in Memphis.

Actually, we are a national, even international organization. Our magazine Church Health Reader is read all over the world and we are the home of the International Parish Nurse Resource Center, which has trained over 15,000 nurses worldwide to work in faith communities.

8. Health is only about what the doctor does.

That actually has very little with being healthy; 10%, to be precise. For that reason, we run a preschool called Perea. We have a wide array of health programs that have nothing to do with the doctor. We believe that change in healthcare starts with you. Healthcare we can live with starts with growing a new culture that features dignity, community, giving, and prevention.

9. We are a government-funded health clinic.

Nope. We keep our doors open because of the generosity of the wonderful people in our community, congregations, businesses, and foundations. We must raise almost $14 million a year to keep our doors open.

10. I am about to retire.

Sorry, that’s a myth too. I will retire only when I cannot physically come to work. Antony Sheehan has joined the Center as the President and is helping to lead us to our new home at Crosstown, but he and I are working side-by-side and will be doing that for years to come.

The most important point I am making is that the Church Health Center will and needs to exist in perpetuity. Jesus said that the poor will always be among us, so we will, too.

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Mental Health Stigma Has No Place in the Exam Room

Bethany struck me as being very sad from the moment I walked into the exam room.

At 27, she had a number of small physical complaints, but nothing I could put my finger on. I came to the conclusion that the problem was depression, but over the years I have never been very good at telling young women that I think we need to be treating the cause of their depression rather than their physical symptoms.

Often, patients become defensive when they come to see me with physical complaints and I ask them questions about their mental health. This is understandable: if a patient sees a doctor about their chronic stomach pains and they’re asked if something in their life has been causing them turmoil, they may think that the doctor is implying that their symptoms are “all in their head”. We all want to be taken seriously, especially when we’re experiencing pain of some sort. Unfortunately, on more than one occasion, patients have left before we finish the appointment because they are insulted by the thought that their physical pains are rooted in anxiety or depression.

As a society, even though we’ve come a long way in accepting, loving, and successfully treating those around us who struggle with mental health issues, the stigma surrounding mental health is still very real. Whether it’s a social stigma that perpetuates the myth that mental health sufferers are broken, lost causes or a patient’s self-stigma, the topic of mental health remains taboo, even in the exam room. A patient will openly admit that their hip hurts, but they’re less forthcoming in admitting that they can’t remember the last time they felt joy. The fear of admitting “weakness” prevents them from receiving the very treatment that can help them get better.

I hoped that Bethany was open to seeing our counselor, but I was still afraid that an abrupt this-appointment-is-over response might be coming. I just couldn’t justify performing a number of expensive tests or giving her medicine for “feeling bad,” which would in effect be a placebo.

At first, Bethany declared that all was well and that her life was going fine. But near the end of the appointment, long after I had brought up the possibility of seeing the counselor, she asked, “Is the counselor on the premises here?”

“Yes, she is. Would you like to see her?”

“It couldn’t hurt.”

Mental Health Stigma


Resurrection Health

Holy Week reminded us that Jesus suffered in his physical body. Easter week reminds us that God raised Jesus from the dead in his body.

The resurrection was not only spiritual; it was physical. The tomb was empty because the body was no longer dead. Hundreds of people saw Jesus. He spoke to his disciples. He invited Thomas to touch his wounds. He made a fire and cooked breakfast on the beach. He took a walk with Peter for a private conversation. All of this was bodily.

New Testament writers herald that we, too, will experience resurrection at the end of time. We may not know all the details of how the body will be transformed or when exactly this will  happen, but we know that we will have bodies going into eternity with God.

God does not say, “I made a mistake with this body business. Let’s just worry about the spirit.” Over and over, the Bible tells us that God values the body and comes to us in our experience with the body.

Jesus brings life to body-and-spirit. God means for us to cherish the nature of being human in body-and-spirit. Through it all we are connected to God, who calls us to live a life of faith in and through the body, just as Jesus did.

Rather than pushing the body aside in your understanding of what it means to live a full life, embrace it. See from Jesus’ example what it means to be human and intimately connected to God.

Adapted from God, Health and Happiness by G. Scott Morris (Barbour Publishing, 2012).

Doctor: Don’t Touch

The number one rule for a male doctor who examines a woman in a burqa is, “Stand back and don’t touch.”    

This is more than a slight impediment to doctoring.

A Middle Eastern father brought his teenage daughter to see me. She wore the traditional clothing of her religiously conservative culture. After gathering as much information as I could through conversation, I knew I had to listen to her heart. I find this challenging from across the room. Thankfully the girl’s father gave me permission to approach her with my stethoscope, and the girl started to adjust her burqa to allow me to use it. Removing the first layer revealed another thickness of black underneath. The folds parted again to expose a further swathe of dark cloth. Finally she shifted most of the formless yardage out of the way, and I saw that next to her skin she wore a tee shirt like any American teenager.

Kiss me, I’m Irish, it said.

Over the years, I’ve come to see the Church Health Center, where I practice family medicine, as the United Nations of Memphis. The working uninsured come to our open arms, whether U.S. citizens who move to Memphis for various reasons, lifelong Tennessee natives, or immigrants from around the globe. They may find work in our city, but they don’t have health insurance. The Church Health Center offers care, and where they come from is irrelevant. They come in need.

When I first came to Memphis in 1986, I was determined to begin a health care ministry for the working poor. A lightbulb did not suddenly go on. I dreamed of this for years as I slugged my way—sometimes impatiently—through the training that would make it possible. When the time came, I chose Memphis because historically it is one of the poorest major cities in the United States. I instigated relationships with St. John’s United Methodist Church and Methodist University Hospital in Memphis, found an old house to rehab, and rolled up my sleeves. The next year, the doors of the Church Health Center opened with one doctor—me—and one nurse. We saw twelve patients the first day.

Today 55,000 people depend on us for their health care, and our Wellness facility welcomes 120,000 visits a year. A staff of 220 people shares our ministry of healing and wellness. Hundreds more volunteer time and services. A network of medical specialists makes certain the uninsured working poor receive the same quality of health care as anyone with a Cadillac insurance plan. Fees slide on a scale based on income and family size.

So what sets us apart from other community clinics around the country?

The Church Health Center is fundamentally about the church. We care for our patients without relying on government funds because God calls the church to healing work. Jesus’ life was about healing the whole person—body and spirit—and the church is Jesus in the world. Jesus’ message is our message. Jesus’ ministry is our ministry. Local congregations embrace this calling and help make our work possible. We raise about $13 million a year, but the value of the health care we deliver is $100 million annually. And for every dollar we spend on treatment, our goal is to spend a dollar on prevention.

The church can choose to get involved by reclaiming the biblical mandate to bring healing. Individual congregations can choose to get involved by envisioning their role in the health of members and the community around them. Individual Christians can choose to get involved in changing health care by taking charge of their own health care.  And it has nothing to do with what happens in Washington or who is president.

In the years that the Church Health Center has cared for people in Memphis, we’ve seen that two-thirds of our patients seek treatment for illness that healthier lifestyles can prevent or control. As the health care landscape changes, we know there will still be gaps in access to care, and the Church Health Center will continue to stand in the gap.

But we’ve also realized that if we want to make lasting difference in our patients’ lives, the most effective strategy is encouraging overall wellness in body and spirit. Some of our patients teach us profound lessons, and we carry them into our own lives and relationships.

We can put salve on what hurts at the moment, but what does that change? At a fundamental level, we must transform what the words well and health mean in the minds and hearts of most people. We’ve developed a Model for Healthy Living that communicates our heart for healing and wholeness in body and spirit. That’s what people need, and that’s what we want to help people discover.

Adapted from God, Health, and Happiness by G. Scott Morris (Barbour, 2012).

5 Tips for New Year Resolutions

We’re six days into a new year. How many resolutions have you broken? Or do you avoid making resolutions because, based on your past track record, you expect to fail?

For many people, resolutions have to do with improving their health. Sadly, the resolutions people choose start with guilt about what they are doing wrong.

Taking charge of your health is a dynamic experience. The right combination and force must come together to produce a particular action or result. I believe the starting point is understanding you are a body-and-spirit being created and loved by God. When you grasp this, you glimpse the level of health—wholeness, well-being, connection to God and others—that God means for you to experience.

In the early stages of change, you want to be sure that what you expect to gain will outweigh what you give up. Will cutting back on comfort foods really make enough difference in my health to be worth the sacrifice? Will joining a support group really make it easier to go through a tough time? Will exercise really improve my sleep?

Goals are indispensable to changing behaviors and moving along the wellness spectrum. If you’re setting a goal, my first piece of advice is to meet yourself where you are. Find your genuine starting point, not one you think is more socially acceptable. Tell yourself the truth, not to beat yourself up about past failures but to establish a starting point for moving forward.   Here are five quick tips to keep in mind as you frame your goals.

1. Behavior changes when you name the new habit. Simple actions make a big difference, but first you must state what the simple action is. Name the specific habit you want to form, and picture yourself doing it one step at a time.

2. Behavior changes when you see progress. Progress is something you can measure. How will you look back and see where you were and how far you’ve come? Give yourself landmarks by which to measure progress.

3. Behavior changes when you know what to do. Verbs are the stuff of life. What are you going to do? Break down big goals into specific action steps you can take within a specific period of time.

4. Behavior changes when it’s realistic to do what you plan. “Stop eating desserts” is not a goal. “Choose fresh fruit for dessert three times a week” is a behavior-changing goal.

5. Behavior changes when the end is in sight. Goals are not forever. Set goals with a time limit and then reevaluate how they’re working. Set short-term goals for developing new habits, give yourself small rewards for accomplishing them, then set new goals.

Where are you? Where do you want to be? Goals are the path in between.

Adapted from God, Health, and Happiness by Dr. Scott Morris. To order a copy, visit