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A Lenten Practice for All Seasons

From a member of St. Michael’s, Little Rock

“Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms.” 1 Peter 4:10 (NIV)

Many of us use the period during Lent to give something of ourselves to others. After all, every one of us is blessed with our own set of gifts and we answer our calling when we share those gifts with others. This year when Lent arrived, I didn’t come up with a specific commitment at first. Then it occurred to me during one Sunday morning service what I might be able to give of myself. In my career as a psychologist (which I consider one of my key gifts), I’ve pursued a variety of areas of practice. I’m more like a “jack of all trades and a master of none” than anything else, but I spent a number of years working with families and kids, so that was a particular area of interest for me. During the past year, I had put together a few presentations with a fellow member of our congregation on mental health, targeting family issues in particular. So as I thought about what to do that might be helpful to some of the members of our congregation here, I decided to try to share some of my knowledge in that area.

How to share what I knew was not without potential problems. While I wished to be helpful, I already practice locally in a Veterans’ medical center, which provides me with professional liability insurance coverage for my work there. It does not, however, cover any professional services I might provide on my own outside of that setting. Nor did I really want to engage in a separate private practice on the side. For those of you who aren’t healthcare professionals, you may not realize that practitioners must be acutely aware of the potential for personally damaging lawsuits for malpractice, which can arise from even the most seemingly benign advice given to others. Thus, mental health providers have to be extremely cautious about offering direct services or advice to others unless it is part of their job or practice for which they have insurance coverage.

I finally hit on what seemed a reasonable solution. In a church newsletter, I offered to field questions and suggestions from members of our congregation about broad issues of interest to them. I would then write a column on that general topic, offering information and resources that hopefully would be of help to a variety of individuals but might also be helpful to the person who had a specific concern. I would include local resources for follow up if anyone wished to pursue professional services, as well as general information for self-help.

To start off the project, I wrote a brief column in our church newsletter inviting anyone to email questions to me or to express an interest in learning more about issues related to family, kids, or other broader topics. With the help of the local priests and staff, we set up an email account specifically for me and a section in our web pages where these articles could be shared with all. My promise to those contacting me was to provide either a column on the topic to be published in our newsletter or on the website, or to send some resources and information directly to those inquiring. In my career, I’ve accumulated a lot of handouts and reference information on many topics in my field that I can share, so my hope was that I could use existing materials I already had on hand to help fulfill my part of the bargain and simply be able to augment these resources with the occasional column. I also specifically made it clear that what I would be doing was not “treatment” or advice for particular individuals or situations, but rather an attempt to provide information and resources (such as handouts, websites, books, etc) related to their general area of interest to use as they saw fit.

So far, I’ve not been swamped with requests, but it has been enough to keep me occupied. Other congregations may find this model to be helpful, as most will have some healthcare professionals among their members. They may find this a palatable means for sharing their own gifts and knowledge in an appropriate and safe way, while offering a potentially helpful service for others in the congregation. It might even be helpful to create a health committee of several folks with such backgrounds and interests, so that not just one person has the burden of helping with all requests. I’d also suggest considering inclusion of persons who have a lived experience of dealing with their own mental health challenges. These individuals can offer insights into how others might make progress on their own road to recovery. Remember, we all have gifts. Not all of them come with a diploma or legal certificate to officially sanction a person’s abilities, but they may be helpful nevertheless.

If anyone is interested in pursuing this idea and would like to contact me for further information or to hear more about this project, you may email me at: resources@stmichaels-church.net.

J. Glen White