The Rev. Barbara Felker thinks physical health can’t be separated from spiritual health—or from the health of the community as a whole. Her work both in the healthcare system and in the church reflects that conviction; she serves as vice president of strategic community partnerships at Northwell Health (Brooklyn Region) in New York and as pastor of leadership development at Highbridge Community Church (RCA) in the Bronx.
RCA Today spoke with Rev. Felker about both these roles and how they function together to minister to underserved urban communities.
What is the focus of your work at Northwell Health?
Many underserved communities in Brooklyn have higher rates of diabetes, hypertension, and cardiovascular diseases. Many people go to the emergency room when they become chronically ill, instead of having regular visits with a primary care physician. That’s an expensive model of healthcare. We’re working to develop a preventive model of care and increase the ambulatory network of primary care providers to reduce chronic illness hospitalizations. This will reduce the cost of providing care and improve the overall health and wellness of these communities.
You also serve as the pastor of leadership development at Highbridge. What does that work look like?
I was ordained on June 3 as minister of Word and sacrament. I work to enhance our leadership development initiatives and assist our pastor in identifying emerging and potential leaders in our congregation and community. By providing formal leadership development, we will ensure the sustainability of Highbridge in the future.
We have been very intentional in how we develop our church leadership, congregation, and members of the community. In addition, our pastor has developed a preaching rotation of our consistory members to enhance their leadership skills.
Do you have any advice for churches that want to improve their leadership development program?
We formed a learning community with leaders from other churches, facilitated by Rev. Eddy Alemán. It was helpful to hear the challenges of other churches that were similar and different to the problems we experienced. Knowing that other people have similar challenges energizes you to address these challenges with faith in your ability to overcome them in the future.
What connections do you see between your work in the healthcare system and your work at Highbridge?
What we do in the health system … [we] have to bring it into the community. And that’s what I do—I partner with the community to determine how they can help us and how we can help them. In doing so, we can build a greater presence in Brooklyn, we can build a greater presence in the community, and we can be seen as part of the community as opposed to just being a provider for the community. You’ve got to be in the community.
Because I’m in the ministry, I’m able to partner with the pastors and clergy of the communities and really get another aspect of needs and assessment other than just from the community organizations and elected officials.
Are there any improvements to hospital chaplaincy that healthcare systems would benefit from?
When New Brunswick Theological Seminary had their chaplaincy open night, where people would register for their Clinical Pastoral Education [CPE], I would attend with our director of chaplaincy. As a result, we would have a waiting list of students who wanted to come into our hospitals for their CPE credits. They said, “For you to come as a VP and sit here and talk about your CPE program, we felt that meant your organization really embraced the CPE program and the need for spiritual intervention in patient care.”
So that buy-in from health system leadership is really important?
Absolutely. All hospitals have “Code Blue,” which means someone is critical distress and you must respond right away. We have also incorporated “Code Lavender,” which means somebody’s in spiritual distress and we need a chaplain right away. Spiritual interventions are integrated into our patient care.
What about the gospel story inspires and motivates your work?
I love the stories of Paul—his travels to spread the gospel and plant churches were inspiring. Yet in many instances, shortly after he left, they would forget the embodiment of unity of the church. … Those stories are so relevant to how life is today—when you’re there, people are excited, and then when you leave, it can become a vague memory in almost no time. It’s important that we put foundations in place for them to continue to grow. That’s what we have to do in the ministry—you can’t put something in place and then leave. You have to put something in place, nurture it, and continue to remain connected.