Factors which challenge a person’s wholeness and well-being abound. Acts of violence—homicides, sexual abuse, domestic violence, child abuse—are all too common. Natural disasters wreak havoc on personal possessions and sometimes living situations. And America’s sense of security has never been the same since the events of Sept. 11, 2001.
Dr. Gaynor Yancey is a professor, Master Teacher, one of two Faculty Regents, and director of Baylor’s Center for Church and Community Impact with the University’s Diana R. Garland School of Social Work (GSSW). She also is the inaugural holder of The Lake Family Chair in Congregational and Community Health, which is shared between GSSW and Baylor’s George W. Truett Theological Seminary. Yancey focuses on the intersection of important health-related services between congregations and communities. In this role, Yancey is creating a research, ministry, and practice agenda to come alongside congregations and communities.
“Congregations are key assets in a community,” Yancey says. “They are natural gathering places in the most rural of communities and the densest of urban neighborhoods.”
Health issues also play a role in a person’s well-being. The rise of HIV and AIDS in the last two decades of the 20th century brought about new challenges for the medical field, as well as for church congregations.
In the 1980s, Yancey spent time in Nashville, Tennessee, with pastors from across the nation, providing them with much-needed information on leading their congregations in the AIDS era.
“I taught them to teach their congregations not to be afraid of people,” Yancey says. “They were taught how to continue to be responsive, kind and loving, all while incorporating positive health practices that would keep everyone safe and healthy in our communities of faith.”
Similarly, substance abuse, especially drug addiction, presents challenges unimaginable to previous generations. While in Philadelphia, Yancey lived in a shelter for homeless women who were working to get “clean and sober” in hopes of being reunited with their children who had been removed from their mothers’ care by the court systems.
“I wanted to understand as much as I could about the challenges and resilience of women who were choosing to move to a point of well-being, as well as that of their children with whom they would be reunited,” Yancey says. “It seemed to be an overwhelming commitment of each woman to go through an immense lifestyle transformation and yet, I watched each woman take on that challenge.”
Yancey works with a graduate assistant—a joint Master of Social Work and Master of Divinity student. Together, they identify what exists in current literature—definitions of terms, case studies, projects, programs—that can be used as potential course material.
“Already, we know there is not one universal definition to reflect on this area of work and ministry,” Yancey says. “Wellness, health, culture of health, well-being and wholeness are some terms we have found. We have discovered that some congregations have health ministries or wellness ministries.”
She likens this to communities that have created bicycle lanes, parks with trails and exercise areas, and cooking classes focused on healthy nutrition.
“In communities, we know that civic leaders are key in getting wellness or well-being programs started and implemented,” Yancey says. “Similarly, in congregations, the pastor is crucial to encouraging congregants to adopt a personal culture of health by incorporating aspects of exercise, nutritious eating, and getting a proper amount of sleep, for example. Yancey is in the initial stages of assessing what a focus on congregational and community health will involve. Over the summer and into the fall, Yancey will start a health-focused research agenda as well as develop a course in congregational and community health that will be taught at Truett Seminary. The course aims for leadership development in congregations and communities with a focus on health and well-being.
“Anyone who has interest in this work and ministry should contact me,” Yancey says. “I hope to hear from people who are interested in discussion and coming alongside this initiative in health.”
Yancey shares the work of her friend and colleague Joe Barber, pastor at St. Luke’s Missionary Baptist Church in San Antonio, who gives her updates on his congregation’s health ministry. While providing meals for in-need members of the community, Barber’s congregation arranges HIV testing and substance-abuse treatment referrals through the Center for Health Care Services. They have noticed the need for a substance-abuse support group.
“Pastor Joe is passionate about the needs and opportunities of his people,” Yancey says. “He knows getting them to a point of wellness and good health is going to take time.”
Yancey says it takes trained and committed leaders, responsive participants and positive awareness to change a lifetime of negative habits before moving into a state of true wellness.
“This is the opportunity and challenge before us as the body of Christ,” she says.