An Interview with Gary Gunderson

Beginning July 1, Wake Forest Baptist Health welcomed Dr. Gary Gunderson as the new Vice President of the Division of Faith and Health Ministries at the Medical Center. Dr. Gunderson will also serve as the Professor of Faith and Health of the Public at the School of Divinity beginning this fall and deliver the Fall Convocation address on Tuesday, September 4. The following is an interview conducted with Dr. Gunderson by CareNet Counseling on his work and ministry.


(CC) Why is the Division of Faith and Health Ministries significant to Wake Forest Baptist Health?

(GG) I think the better question is to ask, what does the combination of those have to do with the health of the people who live in the community? The overall organization is 11,000+ persons, in a nationally recognized health infrastructure, in service of something bigger: the health and wholeness of the community as God intended us to live – full of life. The Division is a tiny, but highly influential part of that big thing, so we should be thinking both about our own program, but the impact of the larger thing, too.

Faith and science both know there should be far more health than we see right now. The forces of disease and despair have out-organized us. We simply must do better at mobilizing all our assets.

As a hospital system, we tend to measure ourselves by client hours, medical services provided, medicine dispersed. But these process indicators don’t hold accountable to the possibilities of God.

The Division of Faith and Health Ministries is a part that helps the whole of the system – deepening the accountability of what’s possible.

We tend to think of faith and health ministries as tradition, legacy, and an anchor. But I would challenge that we are the wind and sails. We are about what is possible and whatcould happen not just the past.


We have heard about the model you implemented at Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare in Memphis. What is the most significant lesson you learned from that experience that you will bring with you in your role at Wake Forest Baptist Health?

The biggest challenge is that humans are way more complicated than a hospital is organized to deal with. The medical literature now speaks of the “socially complex patient” but our faith partners also know they live in a “socially complex neighborhood,” which includes poverty, race, and disparity. Every patient – even the rich one! – is socially complex and comes from a complicated family. We need to appreciate that people are complicated. This is not a disease; God made us this way. And we are designed to be in complex social relationships.

There is a positive shock to a hospital, when we realize everyone is complicated, and we can respond. Wake Forest Baptist Health as a whole, CareNet included, is at a moment for which we’ve been preparing for 100 years. So we are not anxious because the Division of Faith and Health lives in in a web of complicated networks – our boards, our churches partners and talented providers. We are all experienced in the very complexity with which the hospital has trouble.

We do not have to rely on our staff to solve this problem; instead, we turn to our alumni, partners, and congregational partners. We know the partnerships are where the power is; they are our greatest gift.

In Memphis, our teaching hospital became a teachable hospital. That humility enabled us to develop a covenant with 500 congregations, constructed that they (especially the women of the church) could lend their power and intelligence to a common mission.

They taught the hospital how to be present in the lives of the patients, which had a dramatic impact on the health journey of each person.

The hard data shows patients connected to a covenant congregation had half the mortality rate than those who were less connected. Those not connected stayed in the hospital 39% longer. The average patient returned to the hospital every 306 days, but for those in connected congregations, their return was every 426 days.

In Memphis, we realized the congregations had learned not to trust, and we gradually earned their trust by being trustworthy. The congregations learned their generosity and care was not wasted. Together, we were able to demonstrate something great. And we continually give them credit for their great contribution.


What is it about CareNet Counseling, in particular, that is attractive to you?

CareNet is a national leader in the whole field of spiritually sensitive counseling. CareNet has specific licensed skills that enhance the lives of thousands a year. They are finding the path for the next generation of practitioners. We have an enormous opportunity to lead the nation by doing, not talking. It fits into the core competence of health – recognizing the complex nature of human beings.

CareNet provides specific services, but it is just the tip of the iceberg of the partnership relevant to the lives of the patients and community centers. We already have a scattering of hubs around which congregational networks could be built.

North Carolina looks wealthy compared to Memphis, but the unemployment rate is high. It doesn’t look broken on the outside, but there is deep anxiety, fear and disparity. We can’t just treat that with a pill. The primary healing will be through relationships.


How does mental health/behavioral therapy fit into or expand the Memphis model?

I am not a mental health professional, though I have served as the Chair of the Board for the World Counseling Services. I believe that the physical, social, mental and spiritual aspects of a person are not separable. They are integrated, and it is how we describe the health of life. CareNet has always understood the danger of being contained – as just a mental health provider.

As the model of health shifts to a more holistic, integrated model, CareNet will become even more useful for the whole, the breadth of the system. CareNet models the sophisticated, holistic model, as it becomes mainstream. Carenet is showing, not just describing, how to live this out.


Any final thoughts?

What is the congregation’s role in health? We are “path-finding,” not just providers of a specific service. Our partners will teach us how. I believe this will unfold rapidly with the collective energy at Wake Forest Baptist Health and the Faith and Health Ministry partners. There is good work that is about to happen.


The interview can also be read on CareNet’s website.


About Gary Gunderson

Rev. Gary Gunderson, MDiv, Dmin, DDiv (Honorary) graduated from Wake Forest University with a BA in History in 1973, ran a construction company and then went to seminary at Emory University. On graduation he initiated a ministry in the basement of Oakhurst Baptist Church called Seeds, which mobilized and equipped congregations and religious networks around hunger. That led his curiosity to focus on Africa and ways of generating socially relevant economic development. This led to The Carter Center and its Africa Program of democratization. The Center established the Interfaith Health Program in 1992 which under Gary’s leadership developed a new paradigm for religion and the health of the public. Gunderson was one of the three principals who launched the Africa Religious Health Assets Program in 2002 which has developed a new language and logic finding traction among global organizations from WHO to the Gates Foundation. He served seven years as Senior Vice President of Methodist LeBonheur Healthcare in Memphis, TN and helped invent the “Memphis Model” of very large scale congregational networks which has attracted White House and HHS interest as it now serves as the secretariat for a network of health systems, including Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center seeing to serve the poor and transform their communities. He became Vice President at the Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in July 2012. He has authored five books, most recently Religion and the Health of the Public: Shifting the Paradigm (Palgrave, 2012). He is Professor of Public Health Science at the Medical Center and Professor of Faith and the Health of the Public in the School of Divinity.

About CareNet

The CareNet counseling network has been providing high quality outpatient counseling services across North Carolina since 1972. Since then, it has gone on to become the largest hospital-based program of its kind in the nation and has served clients in 88 North Carolina counties.

The CareNet system builds on a strong tradition of clinical education for ministers and chaplains that began with the School of Pastoral Care at Baptist Hospital in 1947.

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