Adventist HealthCare

Adventist HealthCare: Facing the twenty-first century

Health-care institutions are reservoirs of goodwill in the community and assets to the church expressing its ministry of healing and health.

Ron M. Wisbey is board chair of Adventist HealthCare Mid-Atlantic and of Kettering Adventist Healthcare, Inc., Kettering, Ohio.

Some of my vivid boyhood memories are of Portland Sanitarium and Hospital. Perhaps this is because of trauma within our family or a visit to have my tonsils out; but more so because of a calmness and serenity about the campus that was actually healing in nature.

Today I realize that Portland Sanitarium represented far more to the church and to the Oregon Conference than what was understandable to a small boy. Portland Adventist Hospital has been responsible for significant church growth over the past 80- plus years in the Portland community. Such is the case wherever we have health-care institutions. They are reservoirs of goodwill in the community and assets to the church expressing its ministry of healing and health.

Often church members speak of the need to get back to the "blueprint." In the midst of changing times and medical technology, it may well be that we need to remind ourselves of our heritage and rethink our relationship as ministers with our "health-care brethren."

Heritage and future

In 1863, the year the Adventist Church was formally organized, Ellen White had a comprehensive health vision that quickly influenced church leaders. She wrote about the intimate relationship between physical and spiritual health. Within three years, in 1866, the church opened its first health-related center designed to care for the sick and to teach neglected principles of preventive and restorative medicine. Areas of concern such as exercise, nutrition, sanitation, fresh air, fresh water, sufficient rest, and sunshine were emphasized.

Thus began a health-care ministry that ultimately circled the globe. Today we have more than 150 Adventist hospitals around the world. The continuation of Adventist health-care ministry is a compelling illustration of the seriousness with which Adventists take Jesus' charge to the disciples to "heal" (Matt. 10:8, NIV) and His expectation to visit the sick (Matt. 25:35). On the threshold of a new century, how will we handle this wonderful heritage? The question is of major significance, especially in the United States, where we have a strong group of hospitals that have been finely honed during the eighties and early nineties on the whetstone of a demanding health-care industry. Today we handle governance and church involvement differently than we did even five to 10 years ago.

In every one of the eight Adventist health-care regions of the United States the church has ultimate control. Through appropriate board actions, the members can control the future of Adventist HealthCare. The scene, however, is changing, and we can be sure it will be different in the future! Today's business environment requires new ways of operation that we did not consider in earlier times. In some regions we are now allowed or required to network or affiliate with former competitors. This has placed us in a position of leadership within the community, where we should have been many years ago. The result is a strengthening of our mission concept that will allow us to continue our Adventist mission into the future.

New ways of operation

Since 1990 Adventist HealthCare officers and church leaders have met annually to discuss a broad range of health-care issues of mutual interest. This ad hoc group gives special attention to the spiritual dimension that is foundational to Adventist HealthCare operations. The meetings have taken place during a time of extraordinary challenges within the health-care industry that have made even more complex the process of strategic planning for Adventist health care and its unique approach.

Unprecedented technical advances complicate the delivery of health-care services. Ethical questions about who should receive treatment and under what circumstances require study in ways we have not had to face until recently. They include those with intractable pain who may wish to die, the destitute whose lives would be enriched by interventions for which no one is willing to pay, mothers with deformed fetuses agonizing over whether or not to bring their pregnancies to term, and the increased interest in alternative medicinal procedures not traditionally offered in hospitals. These and numerous other questions demand sensitivity, prayer, and an ethical balance that would be difficult to achieve even if the life-or-death aspects were not part of the equation.

But times of challenge are also times of opportunity. And Adventist HealthCare is orienting itself to the rapid fundamental changes in health-care delivery. For example:

  • Focusing on making a designated population healthier through the concepts of wellness and prevention that have always taken us back to our roots.
  • Turning hospitals from being seen as profit centers into being thought of as cost centers, thus making wellness a major element of our health-care philosophy.
  • Making home health a major part of the health-care delivery system.
  • Replacing many former inpatient procedures with outpatient services and same-day surgery.

Health-care and church leaders in their annual conference in December 1996 issued a document entitled "Defining and Fulfilling the Mission of Seventh-day Adventist HealthCare Institutions in North America in the Twenty-first Century." In part the document stated:

"Searching for models and metaphors to guide us, we think of this ministry in three concentric circles. We do not choose between them; we pursue all three. In the outer circle is the professionalism and quality the public has a right to expect in a modern health-care facility. Within this outer circle is the second, an overt Christian environment that sets the institution apart from secular institutions. And at the core is the third circle, the Seventh-day Adventist belief system and lifestyle modeled by Adventist administration and staff. While it is our pleasure to share the philosophy and beliefs that make us who we are, that drive us to offer compassionate care to the members of the communities we serve, and that raise the quality of life in those communities, we would not impose our spiritual beliefs on others."

But how exactly do we handle this heritage of "faith-based" hospitals that have been passed on to us? Do we turn our backs on them and say to our professional health-care executives, "You manage these church assets for us, and we will stand by and watch from a distance"? Or do we partner with our Adventist HealthCare executives and offer them our prayer support, our moral support, and our public support, as well as personal friendship and spiritual guidance?

The Adventist pastor and health care

In a community where there is an Adventist HealthCare institution, how does an Adventist pastor interface with the institution and its administration? Actually, this question should be expanded to include all pastors who have a community hospital that is available to their ministry, be that hospital "faith-based" or not. Here are some considerations:

  • Get acquainted with the hospital president/CEO. Make an appointment and make yourself available to him or her. Ask the question "What can I do to help you and the institution?"
  •  Minister to them spiritually. These are very busy people who are regularly challenged beyond human capacity. They need to be spiritually energized and know that they have your personal and congregational support. If neccessary, invite them to visit your congregation and share how their institution can utilize the talents of your members.
  • Check to make sure that all the facts are known when questions arise in the community or congregation regarding institutional life. Your personal relationship with the administrator or key executive will make a difference.
  • Although you may relate to a community hospital differently than you would to an Adventist institution, you still owe it to your community and congregation to build a relationship with key executives within the institution that provides care for your congregation.
  •  Do all that you can to engender a friendship and even an appropriate partner ship with the physicians and other key health-care providers in your community, Adventist or not.

Another important element in the pastoral role in a hospital is the concept of volunteering. As you visit almost any hospital, you will notice active community volunteers, primarily non-Adventists. The pastoral care department of any hospital longs for professional clergy to assist with patient care. Often Adventist pastors are better trained than clergy of other faiths.

However, often non-Adventist clergy seem to be far more interested than our Adventist pastors in attending pastoral-care committees and assisting pastoral-care departments of hospitals. Why is this so? Is it because of the denomination-wide drive for "soul winning," and the concept that church administration judges everything by "baptisms"? Is hospital ministry not thought to be fertile evangelistic ground or an area where a minister should spend much time? Our focus on baptismal growth has been one of our greatest strengths, but it can also be a significant weakness if we are unable to project an atmosphere of openness and ministry within the community setting.

The church is called to do more than teach and baptize. It is also called to heal the sick, to care for the afflicted, to serve God's creation, and to practice disinterested benevolence in behalf of everyone in need. Adventist HealthCare exists to provide these functions.

The responsibility of health-care providers to the church

Adventist pastors should practice the art of disinterested benevolence, and at the same time be spiritual leaders in the community. As we have described, the church and/or pastor also has responsibility for designing relationships with health-care personnel. It is equally true, however, that health care also has responsibilities in these areas. Quite frankly, our health-care executives have been so busy through the eighties and nineties, saving the health-care enterprise for the church, that they have not had or taken the time to communicate with the local pastors and churches as they may have desired.

Fortunately, most institutions or regions are now holding mission conferences and other programs, attempting to reach out to the church, local and corporate, and assist with a better understanding and mutual appreciation of Adventist HealthCare.

We may best view the viability of an Adventist HealthCare system in the context of the harvest cycle. We should not ask each person or each organization to do the same work or to obtain the same results. The Bible speaks of some people being commissioned to sow, others to cultivate, and yet others to reap. On a small farm the same person could do all three, but in the field of "the world" there needs to be a team of workers specialized in each of the aspects of the enterprise.

Adventist HealthCare sees itself as primarily contributing to the aspect of "soil preparation." In terms of sheer numbers there is no place that compares with an Adventist hospital for opening the way for Adventists to meet with other members of the community. It is "comfortable ground." Of the millions of people who come to Adventist hospitals every year, almost all come away with a name recognition of Adventism and a more positive sense of the church that supports the ministry.

But Adventist health-care facilities are not churches. They provide health care in an Adventist/Christian setting. Adventist hospitals are rather part of Adventism's "get acquainted" bouquet of opportunity. We can improve the ways on which we follow up on this opportunity.

Central to the future of Adventist health care is a commitment to continue the healing ministry of Jesus Christ. We may do this by inviting individuals to participate in the promotion of wellness and the treatment of illness, ensuring that patients receive quality care that is cost-effective and accessible and that addresses each person's physical, intellectual, emotional, and spiritual needs, and allows terminally ill patients to die "whole."

Thus Adventist HealthCare, as it faces the twenty-first century, seeks the integration of a personal faith in Jesus with competent health-care delivery. This is health-care ministry.


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Ron M. Wisbey is board chair of Adventist HealthCare Mid-Atlantic and of Kettering Adventist Healthcare, Inc., Kettering, Ohio.

February 1997

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