Community and personal health enthusiasts are meeting for the Seventh-day Adventist Church's health training conference, the denomination's largest lay health training event, drawing nearly 500 participants this week to Orlando, Florida.
The annual summit, which continues through February 7, offers tools for local and regional church leadership to deliver community health programs, which are key since the denomination's commitment last year to help implement international health goals in local communities, church leaders said.
Workshops are designed to train local church leaders to hold seminars on topics from grief recovery and smoking cessation to nutrition and family health classes.
"We want every church to become a community health training center," said DeWitt Williams, Health Ministries director for the Adventist Church in North America.
His goal echoes that of world church health leaders who last July met with officials of the World Health Organization -- a United Nations Agency -- to seek a partnership in implementing its Millennium Health Goals in communities. The denomination of 16 million members has about 130,000 congregations worldwide.
Since its beginnings some 150 years ago, the Adventist Church has advocated education on healthful living and now operates the largest Protestant network of hospitals worldwide. Over the years, Adventists have been shown to live longer and healthier lives compared to others within surrounding populations. The ongoing Adventist Health Study 2 is being conducted at the church's Loma Linda University in partnership with the United States' National Institutes of Health.
For church members who aren't health professionals, the Orlando summit is "ideal" training for learning the latest evidence-based practices, said Dr. Peter Landless, associate Health Ministries director for the world church.
"Obviously we're not training them to do surgery or run an [emergency department], but to understand how to be extensions of Christ's grace and love in a world that is hurting, physically and emotionally," Landless said.
Landless is co-teaching a week-long health foundations seminar, which he describes as a crash course for instructors to learn the physiology of disease. Health is addressed in terms of lifestyle -- including rest, exercise, social connectedness and integrity, he said.
"We feel it's important to train our church members -- not only our health professionals who are already trained, but also our members -- to understand these processes," Landless said. "That helps them then to discern and choose wisely from the myriad of treatments that are peddled out there."
Church leaders around the world acknowledged the gap between the denomination's goal of every church functioning as a health education center and current reality. While there are no world church statistics for local congregation community health programs, a seminar attendee offered one example. Dr. Ephraim Palmero, Health Ministries director for the Adventist Church in the U.S. state of Alaska, said only 11 of the 31 churches in the state offer a health program or have designated a Health Ministries director for their congregation.
"We need to convince local church leadership that it's worth investing and trying to improve the Health Ministry of the church for community outreach," Palmero said. "It will take a lot of leadership mentoring one-by-one to get everyone on board."
Some attendees are sponsored by their local church administration or congregation, while others came on their own expense. James Convensky, Health Ministries leader at the Rockville-Tolland Adventist Church in Connecticut, said he paid his own way to attend the summit.
"I just save and we invest in our own health ministry [at our church]," Convensky said.
He and his wife have lead health seminars at their church, such as mental health programs and cooking schools. The denomination's commitment to healthful living is meaningful, he said, because 30 years ago he joined the church because of its health message.
"I look forward to this every year," Convensky said.
While most of the summit's participants are from the United States, the event is co-sponsored by the Adventist Church's North American and Inter-American regions, and includes attendees from five continents. For more information, visit www.nadhealthsummit.com.