Baptist hospital exits church consulting

Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center is shutting down the 21-year-old Center for Congregational Health and transferring congregational and clergy consulting to a new free-standing organization being formed by the center’s current president.

By Bob Allen

The Center for Congregational Health, a joint venture between Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center and the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina founded in 1992 to provide assistance for struggling churches, will be renamed and restructured to focus on a new priority the role of congregations can play in improving community health.

Bill WilsonBill Wilson, a former pastor elected president of the Center for Congregational Health in 2009, steps down in January to launch a new free-standing congregational and clergy consulting group called the Center for Healthy Churches.

The center will keep the www.healthychurch URL and accept referrals for consulting and coaching from Wake Forest Medical Center, which describes the new venture in a newsletter release as “a sister ministry operating as a separate entity.”

The old Center for Congregational Health will be renamed FaithHealth Innovation. It will retain some services of its predecessor, including training and coordinating interim ministers. Its network of hundreds of congregations of varying denominations built over two decades will be the support for a new community-oriented program to involve congregations in improving health and health care in the Piedmont Triad area of North Carolina.

Gary Gunderson, who became vice president of the FaithHealth Division at Wake Forest hospital in July 2012, pioneered a similar program during seven years as senior vice president of the Faith and Health Division of Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare in Memphis, Tenn., that became widely known as “the Memphis model.”

Partnering with about 500 mostly African-American congregations, the program showed measurable improvement in the health of participating churches, including increased longevity and longer times between doctor visits.

The program combines the caring strengths of congregations, the clinical expertise of the provider and a network of community resources through covenant partnerships linking them together in a shared mission of healing.

Clergy and congregations assign volunteers to facilitate supportive health care ministries for their members and neighbors before, during and after hospitalization. Wake Forest Baptist provides help to clergy and their consultants in providing care and ensuring that member needs are met during times of illness.

In April, the model was included in an 80-page report reviewed by medical experts from nearly 50 health care systems at a meeting in Washington exploring new ways of improving health and health care in vulnerable communities co-sponsored by the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.

Gunderson began his ministry as an activist, co-editing the anti-hunger magazine Seeds from offices housed at Oakhurst Baptist Church in Decatur, Ga., in the 1980s. He got involved in health care in 1992, when former President Jimmy Carter tapped him as director of the Interfaith Health Program at the Carter Center, a non-governmental nonprofit in Atlanta.

The Center for Congregational Health was the brainchild of Neil Chafin and Dewey Hobbs of the hospital’s department of pastoral care. They collaborated with Roy Smith, the executive director of the North Carolina Baptist State Convention at the time, to implement a plan for ministry to faith communities.

The program grew 15 years under leadership of David Odom, its first president, who stepped down to become executive director in leadership education at Duke University Divinity School in 2007.

Wilson, the center’s second president, was elected following a yearlong search and began work in September 2009. He previously was pastor at First Baptist Church in Dalton, Ga., since 2003. Before that he was pastor of two Virginia Baptist churches — First Baptist in Waynesboro 1992-2003 and Farmville Baptist 1987-1992.

Wilson has served in numerous leadership roles, including president of the Baptist General Association of Virginia in 1998. He has served on governing boards of entities including the Religious Herald, University of Richmond, Baptist Center for Ethics, Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty and McAfee School of Theology. He is currently a director of Associated Baptist Press and writes a regular column for ABPnews titled “Vital Signs.”