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History of the Presbyterian Health, Education and Welfare Association (PHEWA)

The early years

The roots of the Presbyterian Health, Education and Welfare Association (PHEWA) stretch deep into Presbyterian soil. Our beginning and heritage can be traced back to the men and women who conceived of and served in our denomination’s earliest national social welfare ministries.

When our denomination’s Committee of Mission was established by the General Assembly in 1800, most of this nation was a frontier and only New York and Philadelphia were ranked as metropolitan mission areas.  Before long, the Committee of Mission spanned the continent and by 1873, California saw the beginnings of community work when the Donaldina Cameron House, a ministry to rescue young Chinese girls from slavery, was started in San Francisco.

The denomination’s early missionary approach to laborers and immigrants in crowded urban areas was the pattern for later Presbyterian Community Centers that sprang up across the country.

In those early years schools were established in remote places where public education was lacking, institutions like Witherspoon College, Menaul School, Warren Wilson and Sheldon Jackson Colleges.

Some of the earliest social welfare ministries grew from Sunday School Missions.  Ministry often began with teachers on horseback and grew into parish and community services.

The Association’s birth

By the mid-fifties, Presbyterian and Ecumenical groups began discussing the need to form associations to share experiences, develop skills and standards, and for fellowship and spiritual nurture. The National Council of Churches (NCC) convened its first National Conference on the Churches and Social Welfare in Cleveland, October 31–November 4, 1955. The National Missions Administrative Record saw this as significant to the expanding ministry of health and welfare:

Significant conferences and meetings are being held all the time. However, there were three events in 1955 of more than usual significance. Strangely enough, and unfortunately for those who would like to have attended both, two of these were held simultaneously in November. One was the National Conference on the Churches and Social Welfare, sponsored by the Department of Social Welfare of the National Council of Churches, and held in Cleveland … A large representation of Presbyterian workers was at the Cleveland meeting, which gave impetus to the organization of the National Presbyterian Health and Welfare Association.

The other two events were a Presbyterian Town and Country Convocation and a gathering held by the Department of Educational and Medical Work. [Minutes of the 168th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, Part II, National Missions Administrative Record, pg. 175]

That conference attracted over 1,500 persons from 31 denominations and discussed the church’s role in child and family welfare, health, neighborhood and settlement work, chaplaincy service, social education, research and action, and rural and urban work.

It was during that NCC conference that a group of 125 Presbyterians met to consider the formation of an association of Presbyterian welfare agencies. The fellowship, shared experiences and spiritual renewal that occurred among those gathered created a desire for ongoing connections. Out of that desire and commitment, a committee of five representing community centers, social education and action, hospitals, child care and homes for the aging, plus three persons, one each from the Boards of National Missions, Pensions and Christian Education. The committee included John Park Lee, Margaret (Maggie) Kuhn, John R. Thomas and Marguerite Hofer … well-known names to PHEWA members.

The proposal brought by the committee suggested an organization that would be administratively related to the Board of National Missions and provide for six Functional Groups: Services to Children, Services to the Aging, Health Services, Community Centers and Neighborhood Houses, Institutional Chaplains, and Social Research and Action. Provision was made for a board to report to the General Assembly through the Board of National Missions.

In 1956 the General Assembly of the United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (UPCUSA) validated the formation of the National Presbyterian Health and Welfare Association. The minutes of that Assembly enthusiastically supported its creation:

Another major achievement this year, long overdue, has been the creation of a National Presbyterian Health and Welfare Association, an organization designed to coordinate and strengthen the denomination’s activities in the health and welfare field. This will establish church social work solidly in relation to denominational recognition and can lead toward professional acceptance. Its membership will be comprised of health and welfare agencies and interested individuals. A constitution has been adopted which provides that the Association shall be administratively related to the Board of National Missions and report annually to the General Assembly through the Board and the Standing Committee on National Missions.

The Committee Recommends that this General Assembly approve the formation of this Association and commend it to groups and individuals concerned, and urge that chairmen of National Missions Committees in synods and presbyteries cooperate fully in this program. [Minutes of the 168th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, Part I, National Missions, pg. 147]

The primary concerns of NPHWA in those early years were to: (1) Improve the standards of operations for agencies, and (2) Foster the professional growth of agency personnel. In the ensuing years, standards and guidelines were developed, scholarship programs established, a personnel referral service organized, and numerous workshops, seminars and institutes were conducted to assist staffs in their professional growth and development and to aid the Church in maximizing its resources.

From the Association’s inception, the American social scene and the Church were experiencing major changes. During the sixties, the “war on poverty” and the struggle for racial equality became the focus of attention for both society and the Church. In 1968, after a series of three consultations to discuss the “Role and Structure” of the Association, the following goals were developed:

  • To improve standards of service, review implementation and work for compliance;
  • To serve as an advocate for the poor and for people with special needs;
  • To be a channel whereby those in ministry may influence the denomination’s policies, and in reverse, be a channel to sensitize the church at large on theological insights and denominational policies in order to implement them;
  • To serve the Church as a resource of experienced consultants in social welfare ministry;
  • To interpret needs of member agencies and seek to secure adequate funding for programs;
  • To stimulate research and provide a forum for formulation of positions on issues;
  • To develop experimental projects and models;
  • To provide continuing education and leadership development;
  • To analyze developments in respective fields of interest and disseminate information to members.

By 1968, the Association determined that to accomplish these goals and meet the ever-increasing challenges in fulfilling its role in ministry to the most vulnerable in society and church, full-time staff and adequate financial resources were needed. In 1969, action was taken to secure staff and to add an educational component to the Association. With the addition of the educational component, the members approved the change in name to the United Presbyterian Health, Education and Welfare Association (UPHEWA).

Structural changes were implemented throughout the seventies. In 1971, it was decided to initiate the development of Regional Councils and, in 1973, UPHEWA saw as one of its roles the building of coalitions on social welfare issues among some important groups in the life of the church: Gray Panthers, youth and ethnic and racial caucuses.

At the time of national agency restructuring in 1972, the continued existence of UPHEWA was authorized and cooperation with it was commended to synods and presbyteries. The Program Agency was also created with responsibility for providing strategy and service for the church in all areas of mission concern, including social welfare. The Program Agency continued to provide administrative support and an annual grant to UPHEWA as both the Agency and the Association sought a definition of roles and relationships that would ensure the most effective possible level of assistance and service for the church and its related institutions and professions in social welfare witness and service. The Program Agency and UPHEWA agreed that the Program Agency should assume more direct responsibility for coordination and provision of services and strategy in the area of social welfare and incorporated responsibility for service to UPHEWA in its regular program.

The Executive Committee of the Board of Directors of UPHEWA appointed a Task Force to probe the role and relationship of UPHEWA. The result was a document that would be circulated to the Board of Directors prior to the 1979 Biennial Conference in Dallas, Texas, to the general membership at the Biennial Conference and to the Board of the Program Agency at its meeting in February, 1979.

That document stated that basic to any understanding of the role and function of UPHEWA was the recognition that the church needed an unattached organization to be the voice of and for the practitioner/professional serving in the various social welfare ministries across the church. As an incorporated, not-for-profit, voluntary membership association, UPHEWA could only exist in its unique role with the endorsement and support of the program agency. Among the recommendations were that the Program Agency reaffirm the relationship and that UPHEWA change its name officially to PHEWA to further accommodate the inclusion of those persons from the Presbyterian Church in the United States (PCUS).

A 2003 update

In 1981 there were three networks affiliated with PHEWA (Presbyterian Association of Specialized Pastoral Ministries [1979]; Community Ministries and Neighborhood Organizations [1981] and the Presbyterian Disabilities Concerns Caucus [1981].  By 1996 there were ten. In 2001 one additional network was added to the PHEWA family, Presbyterians Against Domestic Violence Network. At the 2003 Biennial Conference, two networks (Community Ministries and Neighborhood Organizations and Urban Network of Congregational Leaders) merged to form the Presbyterian Association for Community Transformation.

PHEWA is the place where those within the Presbyterian Church who have been excluded and marginalized gather for assistance and mutual support.  It is a place where people involved in social welfare and justice ministries may come and speak to the Church and create educational/study resources for the Church’s use. Members share a core value to do ministry with, not for. Often one hears the statement, “Nothing About Us Without Us.” This can easily apply to the PHEWA constituent groups.

These ten networks, representing the working groups of PHEWA, cover a wide range of ministries: disabilities; HIV/AIDS; community ministries and faith-based organizing; serious mental illness; reproductive options; specialized pastoral ministries; child advocacy; health and wholeness; drug, alcohol and other addictions; urban congregational leaders; and domestic violence.

A Board of Directors made up of a representative to each synod and a representative from each network governs PHEWA.  The Executive Director’s office is in the national offices of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.); that person also serves as the Associate for Social Welfare Ministries in the Social Justice Program Area of the PC (USA).

Currently a Covenant of Agreement for Shared Ministry with the National Ministries Division (NMD) guides the relationship between NMD and PHEWA. PHEWA reports regularly to the NMD Committee and is accountable to it, with two NMD Committee members serving as ex-officio members on the PHEWA Board of Directors.  Since its inception, PHEWA has always been a ministry of the General Assembly — founded, funded and staffed by denominational action.

PHEWA produces a variety of printed resources, study guides, action materials, videos; provides on-site consultations; convenes leadership-training opportunities and identifies specialists in ministries across the country willing to share their expertise with the denomination on a volunteer basis. Perhaps the most important role of all is that PHEWA nurtures what Presbyterians are doing in their local communities at the grass-roots levels.

Every two years PHEWA sponsors a national social welfare ministries conference where people gather to exchange information, learn new skills, test new ministry models, and share mutual concerns.  For many, “this is a homecoming for like-minded people who often lead lonely lives doing ministry out in the trenches,” as one participant reported. This is the time that PHEWA particularly seeks out and engages young persons to be mentored into an understanding of the Presbyterian Church’s historic commitment to justice.

The Biennial Conferences include worship, skills-building workshops, plenary speakers and presentations, the PHEWA business meeting and awards presentations.  The John Park Lee Award, named in honor of the first Executive Secretary of the National Presbyterian Health and Welfare Association, is given to someone who excels in the field of social welfare and justice ministry. The Rodney T. Martin Award, named in honor of another long-term PHEWA Executive Director, is given in recognition of outstanding service to PHEWA. In the year between Biennial Conferences, PHEWA sponsors a skills-building conference for its Board of Directors and Network Leadership Teams. 

PHEWA also provides persons with the expertise and resources to assist congregations, middle governing bodies, and individuals in developing, implementing, and evaluating social welfare and justice ministries. In one of the most cost-effective ministries of the Church, persons who have been identified as specialists in ministry share that expertise with persons around the country who are faithfully reaching out to persons and families within their churches and communities. PHEWA may be “the best kept secret in the Presbyterian Church,” but for those who find support and aid from our ministries, we are given high praise and form solid relationships. Every time PHEWA has been reviewed by the General Assembly, it has been commended for its service to the denomination.

The biblical mandate found in Micah 6:8 is foundational for PHEWA: “What does God require of us…to do justice, love kindness and to walk humbly with our God.”

- March 2003

This is not an original piece, but a bringing together of materials found in the PHEWA archives. Special thanks to Marguerite I. Hofer, as much of this is recorded in an unpublished history of PHEWA. Marguerite was a founding member of NPHWA and served in leadership roles with PHEWA and the wider church over many years. Other materials are from PHEWA Board reports, PHEWA annual reports to the National Ministries Division Committee (NMDC) and the Minutes of the General Assembly.


Read an informational item from the February 2010 meeting of the General Assembly Mission Council of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) to bring the PHEWA history into the current day, with current challenges and opportunities, for PHEWA to continue to provide prophetic word and ministry to and for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

PHEWA and GAMC Statement Regarding Personnel Decisions of March 2009



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