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Synod of the Covenant webinar explores a provocative question: Can our faith make us well?

It can and it does, according to the organization Science for the Church

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Photo by Patty Brito via Unsplash

LOUISVILLE — When Jesus assures the woman who’d suffered 12 years from a flow of blood that “your faith has made you well,” he was stating a truth that applies to people of faith today as well, according to the Rev. Drew Rick-Miller.

Rick-Miller, project co-director for Science for the Church, led a webinar last week for the Synod of the Covenant on how faith and faith practices contribute to people’s well-being. Two additional presentations addressing physical and mental health are planned for March 16 and March 23. Learn more here. Rick-Miller’s hour-long talk can be viewed here.

Rick-Miller, a pastor who studied physics as an undergraduate, made the case for clergy and other faith leaders to keep in mind that the nation’s mental health crisis is big and growing. Nine in 10 Americans, one poll found, are aware of the crisis. “Not all [struggles] are solely mental health issues,” Rick-Miller said, “but it’s certainly a contributing factor.” One in five U.S. residents has a diagnosed mental health illness, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “This is a severe crisis,” Rick-Miller said, “and in the church we feel it.”

For clergy and other leaders of religious communities, “navigating churches through pandemics and social turmoil has made it difficult,” he said. “Psychologists tell us clergy show more signs of trauma than post-deployment military personnel today. This is the reason we as the church need to be talking about these issues.”

For Rick-Miller, many questions have been studied and some warrant further study: Does what we do in the church help us? Can the things we do every day in church enhance our health? Is there benefit to the things church leaders do to nurture Christian disciples? Can scientists measure it? Does our faith make us well?

“Our bodies are remarkably good at healing on their own,” Rick-Miller said, “but there are instances when we need help, from science and directly from God.” Much of the healing we experience “comes from God working through our bodies and through medical professionals and the treatments they’ve created,” he said. “It’s a both/and perspective.”

No less an authority than the Mayo Clinic concluded that “most studies have shown that religious involvement and spirituality are associated with better health outcomes, including greater longevity, coping skills and health-related quality of life, even during long-term illness, and less anxiety, depression and suicide,” Rick-Jones noted. “Several studies have shown that addressing the spiritual health needs of the patient may enhance recovery from illness.”

A Harvard study focusing on teenagers indicated that participating in church lowered depression by 12% and going to church made them 87% more forgiving and 38% more likely to volunteer.

Turning to the benefits of prayer, Rick-Miller said researchers have a hard time drawing conclusions on the impact on the person being prayed for. “Where there is consensus is prayer and meditation and the impact it has on the one praying,” he said. Among the benefits: reduced stress, better concentration and reduced memory loss.

“All this research has medical researchers asking a fascinating question,” Rick-Miller said. “Should doctors prescribe church?”

Here’s an answer from Harvard medical researcher Dr. Tyler VanderWeele, writing in USA Today in 2016:

“If one could conceive of a single elixir to improve the physical and mental health of millions of Americans at no personal cost, what value would our society place on it?

“Going a step further, if research quite conclusively showed that when consumed just once a week, this concoction would reduce mortality by 20-30% over a 15-year period, how urgently would we want to make it publicly available?

“The good news is that this miracle drug — religion, and more specifically regular church attendance — is already in reach of most Americans. In fact, there’s a good chance it’s just a short drive away.”

The Rev. Drew Rick-Miller

“We need some caveats. It’s not universally good for us. If you’re in a toxic church, one creating trauma and stress, it won’t confer those benefits,” Rick-Miller said. “Likewise for those who struggle with guilt or shame, or are holding a grudge.”

What is it about the things we do in church that helps religious people live longer and have reduced stress, anxiety and depression?

“The most common answer is community support,” Rick-Miller said. “In a healthy church, it’s hard for people to be lonely. Human beings are created to be in relationship.”

Religious patients are more likely to follow up on treatment. They typically drink less alcohol and use drugs less frequently. They smoke less and are more likely to wear their seatbelts. “Caring for our bodies that are fearfully and wonderfully made is a factor that contributes to why we have these benefits,” Rick-Miller said.

But there’s another side to that coin: Church folks fare worse in diet and exercise, he said. “We like our donuts at coffee hour and we like our potlucks,” he said.

Rick-Miller asked those participating in the webinar not to hear him saying that everyone in faith communities “receives the benefits” enumerated above. “People in church get cancer and experience depression. People of faith are not immune from illness and suffering of all sorts,” he said. “But there do seem to be some benefits pretty generally and pretty widely to what we do in church.”

“I want to encourage you as church leaders to do what you do: Build healthy community, nurture disciples and create opportunity for worship and spiritual practices,” he said. “Understand that what you’re doing has real benefits that can be shown empirically. What you’re doing has real value, so much so that some medical professionals want to refer their patients to the care you can provide.”

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