ATLANTA — Mercer University’s Georgia Baptist College of Nursing has launched an initiative to educate members of Atlanta-area churches to help others as they face death. The project offers free support from Mercer faculty volunteers with the College of Nursing, as well as School of Medicine and College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences, who provide training for church lay health advisers, or Mercer Care Partners, in palliative care.
Mercer Care Partners are trained laypersons who help members of their congregations in need of palliative care, which is the practice of preventing and relieving suffering while ensuring the best quality of life possible for individuals with advanced chronic and life-threatening conditions.
The response in the first weeks of the program has been overwhelming, said Dr. Janet Timms, professor of nursing and one of the organizers of the program.
“We did outreach to a small number of churches, but we’ve been hearing back from other congregations who have heard about the program and want to participate,” Dr. Timms said. “We’re thrilled with the response. It’s been a delightful surprise.”
Most congregations are significantly affected by illness, care-giving, end-of-life needs and grief, Dr. Timms said, and congregations are looking for ways to help members with the winter in the “seasons of life,” which can often extend for months or years. It is important for communities of faith to help members prepare for them and deal with those difficult times, she said.
As part of the program, church members who agree to participate and become Mercer Care Partners in their congregations will receive training in the following topics:
introduction to palliative care; ethical issues at the end of life; cultural considerations and spiritual care; communicating with patients and families about end-of-life care; loss, grief and bereavement; and care during the final hours of life.
Churches that have been part of the pilot project have expressed a high level of interest, pastors working with the groups report. One such church is First Baptist Church of Tucker, which has had tremendous success with its first few classes, said the Rev. Randy Shepley, the church’s pastor and a class attendee. He was hoping for a dozen congregants to come to the class, but each session has had more than 30. The interest among his congregation is high, but it is a complex undertaking to help others face death, loss and grief, Shepley said.
“When someone dies, we want to help, but sometimes we don’t know the right thing to say, sometimes we don’t know what to do, and this class has been an opportunity to learn those things and it has been tremendous,” said Shepley, a 1993 Mercer graduate and a Doctor of Ministry candidate at Mercer’s McAfee School of Theology.
The church members who are studying in the class are learning something that will enhance their relationships with others in the congregation and with God, Shepley said, as they help others transition from this world to the next. Being with someone in that time is a sacred experience, though difficult, he said. The training helps congregants to help the dying and their families in a more Christ-like and compassionate way.
“To sit with someone as they transition is a priceless, holy moment. It is not an easy moment, but is priceless,” Shepley said. “It is something that is important to witness, because God is there when that happens and God is in charge of that process.”
Shepley has experienced it as a pastor on many occasions, and was taught many of the concepts of end-of-life care in his master’s training at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology. However, Shepley said, taking the latest concepts of a new field – palliative care – and applying them in a multidisciplinary way that involves church laypersons is a new concept.
“This is a cutting edge congregational learning opportunity, and this is a new direction in involving the whole congregation and we’re very glad to be a part of it,” Shepley said.
So far, a number of churches have expressed interest and several have begun courses, Dr. Timms said. Through an initial university-funded grant, faculty facilitators are holding classes at four churches, and hope to have 85 Mercer Care Partners trained by this summer. The response has led the Georgia Baptist College of Nursing to apply for further funding within Mercer’s AIM Grant Program, as well as outside funding to expand the program.
“There is just such a need for this, and we’re hoping to find ways to expand it,” Dr. Timms said.
About the Georgia Baptist College of Nursing
Founded in 1902 as a school of nursing, the Georgia Baptist College of Nursing is the oldest nursing program in Georgia. Over its 108-year history, the College has graduated more than 6,600 nurses. Since its founding, the College has been dedicated to educating the person, fostering the passion and shaping the future of nursing. The College merged with Mercer University in 2001 and offers a Bachelor of Science in Nursing, a Master of Science in Nursing, a Ph.D. in Nursing and, beginning in Fall 2010, a Doctor of Nursing Practice.
About Mercer University
Founded in 1833, Mercer University is a dynamic and comprehensive center of undergraduate, graduate and professional education. The University enrolls more than 8,000 students in 11 schools and colleges – liberal arts, law, pharmacy, medicine, business, engineering, education, theology, music, nursing and continuing and professional studies – on major campuses in Macon, Atlanta and Savannah and at three regional academic centers across the state. Mercer is affiliated with two teaching hospitals — Memorial University Medical Center in Savannah and the Medical Center of Central Georgia in Macon, and has educational partnerships with Warner Robins Air Logistics Center in Warner Robins and Piedmont Healthcare in Atlanta. The University operates an academic press and a performing arts center in Macon and an engineering research center in Warner Robins. Mercer is the only private university in Georgia to field an NCAA Division I athletic program. For more information, visit www.mercer.edu.
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