Frequently in our church ministry, members and staff come into contact with people who have problems that go beyond their capacity to respond with caring and effectiveness. It is always our desire to respond to those who need our help with the utmost compassion, but on occasion we are faced with situations that are beyond our personal expertise.  The Presbyterian Health, Education and Welfare Association (PHEWA) provides the link between presbyteries, congregations, ministers and others with specialized, professional expertise at no cost to those asking for assistance.   For more than 50 years, the PHEWA umbrella of networks has helped congregations and the church at large learn how to offer an inclusive welcome.   They provide assistance in developing strategies for effective responses to a wide variety of needs encountered in the practice of ministry, both in the congregation and in the surrounding community.

PHEWA was created in 1956 by action of the General Assembly to provide resources, peer support and networking connections for Presbyterians involved in social welfare and justice ministries. They provide programmatic, organizational and technical assistance to Presbyterians working for social justice and encourage churches to be responsive to the needs of, and to listen and learn from the voices of those who have been excluded and suffering. Their ministry is grounded in Micah 6:8:

What does God require of us?
To do justice
To love kindness
To walk humbly with your God

While PHEWA has been responding to individual crises for years, a recent incident highlights the current and customized need for this umbrella of networks not only for the person requiring help, but the congregation as well.

Six months ago, members of a 230-member, mid-western congregation initiated a ministry program with previously incarcerated women who were dealing with addictions, and, frequently, mental illness.  Five months into the new ministry, a participant, who was intoxicated at the time, threatened the pastor and a member of the congregation with a knife.

Following the threat, church members, staff and the other participants in the new ministry were both scared by the possibility of violence and afraid for the program’s survival. Meetings among the members, church staff and presbytery personnel were held to determine appropriate next steps.  The session was faced with the decision of whether or not to continue this crucial new ministry and how to best assist the participant who was clearly in need of professional help.

A few days before the session meeting, the pastor, concerned that neither she nor members of the session were trained to make the best decisions, called the office of the Presbyterian Health, Education and Welfare Association (PHEWA) in Louisville. She spoke with the PHEWA Program Assistant, Susan Stack, and explained the circumstances surrounding the incident.  Because of Susan’s long association with PHEWA and her familiarity with each of the networks that comprise the umbrella, she recognized immediately that several PHEWA Networks were needed to address the individual issues.

Within two days, the pastor who called was actively working with professionals from PHEWA’s addictions network (Presbyterians for Addiction Action),  serious mental illness network (Presbyterian Serious Mental Illness Network) and the institutional chaplains and pastoral care network (Presbyterian Association of Specialized Pastoral Ministries).  These three volunteer ministry networks provided the expertise the session needed to make the most appropriate professional referrals for the participant and a well-informed decision about the continuation of the ministry.

Recently the pastor informed PHEWA that "the woman who drew the knife on a church member and me was removed from the program for one year.  With the help of the three PHEWA volunteer ministry networks we established very specific requirements that she must complete during her time away from the program, including but not limited to receiving mental health counseling, refraining from the use of chemicals and allowing members of the session to meet with her psychologist prior to her return. We are praying for her safe return to the program.”

In addition, based on the input from PHEWA advisors and an evaluation of the original program outline, the ministry has continued under a new model.  In the new and improved program each woman develops an "Individual Fresh Start Plan" and receives assistance in pursuing that plan.  As this article is being prepared for publication, another woman in the program is currently transitioning out of a group home into her own apartment. Church members helped her find and furnish the apartment and have located rental assistance, job referrals and other supports.

PHEWA works with pastors, congregations, presbyteries, and their ministries, using a grassroots peer-to-peer consultancy approach.  PHEWA can connect you to those with proven experience in an area of ministry that you may want to get started, or to help work through problems that arise in a ministry you have already begun.  To make these PHEWA connections, you may call Susan Stack at (800) 728-7228 x5800 or email her.

PHEWA is a membership organization that needs your support.  To make a contribution to this vital ministry please visit the PHEWA website.