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Raising Faith Flags

Today's Christian Doctor - Fall 2002

The Saline Solution live seminar taught more than 6,000 healthcare professionals a new paradigm of evangelism in the practice setting. "Faith Flags," central to this new  model, make it known that recipients of the practice 's services are in the presence of people who wish to be known as part of God 's family.  Now the video version of this seminar is teaching many more, worldwide, how to raise "faith flags " as a natural part  of their interaction with patients and others.

In 1993, Bill Peel, Th.M., started working full-time with CMDA as a regional director, anxious to align his energies with Christian healthcare professionals, whom, he assumed, were actively using their practices to spiritually influence their patients. He was convinced that, "...doctors have a potentially greater influence on the hearts and lives of men and women in American than any other group of professionals."

As a long-time student of spiritual influence in the marketplace, Bill was surprised, therefore, to discover that, despite studies indicating that as many as 75 percent of patients would like their doctor to talk with them about spiritual things, very few CMDA members were broaching this subject effectively with their patients. "I met doctor after doctor," Bill recalls, "that felt frustrated and guilty over their lack of ability to seize this opportunity.  The problem quickly surfaced-no model of evangelism taught widely in America fit the schedule-tight world of healthcare."

With the help of the late Wayne Sanders, then a regional director for CMDA, Peel began to search for "a solution to being salt and light in this professional setting" (hence, the unlikely name of a new model of evangelism: the Saline Solution).  The search led in 1995 to Walt Larimore, M.D., who was then practicing in  Florida. (Larimore is now Vice President of the Medical Outreach of Focus on the Family.) "From the first time we met," Peel recalls, "as I heard Dr. Larimore describe the patients who had come to faith in the course of their treatment, three things struck me. First, he was committed to sharing God's good news with his patients as a central element of their treatment plan. Second, he accomplished this in a way that was not intrusive but welcomed by them. Third, he was as anxious to teach his colleagues how to do this as I was to help them learn."

Over the next six months, Peel and Larimore discussed, designed and assembled the curriculum. Then with a little fear and trepidation, yet confidence that this new model could revolutionize "medical evangelism," the three-Sanders, Peel and Larimore-held the first live conference in the fall of 1995, "to see if anyone would come." Come, they did.  This conference launched a nationwide movement, as over the next several years more than six thousand healthcare professionals and others learned a new evangelistic paradigm through participating in live conferences, nationwide.

The Heart of the Matter

The central tenet of the Saline Solution approach is that "evangelism is a process, sometimes a long process, of helping a person take incremental steps toward Christ," a process in which each medical professional in the practice setting can play a part. In other words, it's not a matter of inviting patients to church or a mass evangelism event, or learning how to use a set of rhetorical questions to manipulate a patient into considering "spiritual" things, but a matter of learning how each person involved in a practice can contribute to an ongoing faith-growing process in each patient's life.

The key word is process. Evangelism, using the Saline Solution method, is not an event (such as raising one's hand in a meeting, or walking the aisle at a revival) but "the work of evangelism is the (usually prolonged) process of guiding an unbeliever, in the power of the Spirit, in making the multitude of mini-decisions that result in the overcoming of many obstacles, toward placing his/her faith in Christ."

"Many doctors who have taken this course testify that it is a life-and-career changing experience-not only for themselves, but also in a very real way for the patients in their care. Every Christian doctor struggles with the challenges of how to be an effective and appropriate witness for Christ to his or her patients. The Saline Solution video series will teach you the way to overcome these challenges with respect, sensitivity and permission."
-Gene Rudd, M.D., CMDA Associate Executive Director

There are some obvious, and some not-so-obvious, implications of this paradigm. The first is that evangelism in a practice setting should be a team effort. Of course, the members of the "team" in question will include the believers among the staff, so in some cases this may only include a doctor and one or more staff members. Occasionally, it will involve an entire staff, which is why some CMDA members have brought multiple staff to Saline Solution conferences.

The second implication is that all the members of the team will make it their goal to try to discern "WIGD" in each patient's life. WIGD stands for "What Is God Doing?" The assumption behind this acronym is that God is doing something is each person's life, perhaps especially through his or her medical situation, and that the goal of "evangelists" (proclaimers of the Good News) is to align their efforts with those of the Holy Spirit in each case. This assumption relieves everyone involved of the pressure that believers sometimes feel to force a "decision" in some situations, because each team member is conscious that it is God who is at work in each patient's heart, both to will and to work for His good pleasure, so the end result is His responsibility.

An assumption of this implication is that the treatment team, including, but not limited to, the doctors, will be aware enough of each patient's concerns and needs to be able to minister to those needs in a manner unique to that individual.

The third implication is that the practice itself, from its environment in general to its business methods to its respect for patients' rights and time to a variety of other factors, should demonstrate Christian values, or as some might say, it should be a "practice by the Book."

Sometimes these values are proclaimed subtly, as in the type of reading material (magazines, brochures, handouts, tracts, Bibles, etc.) available in the waiting rooms to the kind of music or video playing, if any, to the prominent display of inspirational writings throughout the practice setting, to the exhibition of inspirational art such as paintings by Nathan Greene (see this article's sidebars, this issue's cover, and the ads at the back of this magazine for some examples of resources available).

Sometimes these values are communicated more directly to patients during discussion of treatment options, words of encouragement or moments of prayer offered the patient by the doctor or staff, or through policies governing forgiveness of debt, for example.

When patients experience a life-changing event or illness there is often a unique opportunity for Christian doctors to offer a spiritual prescription.  CMDA is  developing a new series of patient information sheets to address this need called "Prescriptions for the Heart."

These spiritual prescriptions are designed to offer patients biblically based advice on how to cope with major changes in their life such as a chronic illness, struggling with divorce, and coping with the death of spouse or child.  These patient information sheets also provide information about additional Christian resources on these topics that are available through local Christian book-stores or directly from CMDA's Life & Health resources. The net result of all of the above, consistently practiced, is that "faith flags" are raised all over the practice, and the recipients of its services can have no doubt that they are in the presence of people who wish to be known as part of God's family.

Faith Flags-Principles

The term "faith flags," coined by Peel and Larimore, does not describe a list of techniques or phrases designed to draw patients, against their wishes, into a discussion of spiritual matters. In fact, when Peel asked Larimore to come up with twenty or so "faith flags" that he used regularly in his practice, the physician couldn't do it. He had to ask a staff person to follow him around for a day to record faith-flag elements of his interactions with patients, because the whole process had become so natural to Larimore that when he spoke of faith in any given case, what he shared just came out as a part of a conversation tailored to that patient's background and needs.

  1. This is the first principle related to "faith flags"-they occur in the course of natural conversation. "I try to start the day off with quiet time with the Lord," Larimore explains on the video. "I ask Him to help me remember that each appointment is a divine appointment. Then, when I walk into the exam room, I try to find out what God is doing in that person's life. With that kind of foundation and that kind of expectancy, faith flags become a natural part of the conversation."
  2. The second principle is that raising faith flags does not have to interrupt the flow of your day. That would be unfair to your staff and also to other patients waiting to see you. According to Larimore, whose practice was rated as one of the most efficient in the country, "Faith flags should take no more than thirty seconds. In fact, if they take longer, they're faith sermons. Most of my faith flags take five to fifteen seconds. One that I use a lot is: 'Well, it may not be important to you, but it would mean a lot to me if you would let me pray for you. Is that okay?'"
  3. A third principle is that faith flags help identify you as a member of God's family, without getting into specifics such as denominations and so forth. "They define you as someone to whom God, or the Bible, or prayer are important or meaningful," Larimore says. "They don't define your faith; they just toss the idea of faith's importance out there for your patient or friend to consider. Your life, your actions, your words will at a later time further explain what you mean." Larimore adds, "If I've been praying for someone," I may say, 'I've been praying that you would begin to respond to treatment. I'm glad you're better.' "
  4. Fourth, faith flags look for, but don't demand a response. "If you've been in healthcare for any length of time," Larimore explains, "you intuitively read signals from patients with whom you interact. Applying this same idea to faith flags, you look for and mentally note the patient's response to what you're saying.  For example, once I said to a patient who was down, 'Jim, I remember the first time I realized that the Bible has some really neat things to say to people who are discouraged. If you're ever interested in knowing about that, let me know.' 'Wait a minute,' he replied. 'Tell me about that.' 'Let's get together and talk about it  sometime, ' I said."
  5. The final principle is that faith flags will create opportunities and questions, and you need to be prepared. Larimore recalls an adolescent girl who was trying to make some sexual decisions. "You know," Larimore said to her, "I remember when I was your age, I was wrestling with these kinds of decisions. I'm just so glad that I learned early on that the Bible has some incredible things to say about great sex."

The girl's eyes opened wide, "What?" she asked. To which the doctor was able to explain the virtues of abstinence and to provide some materials to reinforce his point.

The Salt of the Earth

Perhaps the key verse behind the philosophy of the Saline Solution is 1 Peter  3:15: "But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.  But do this with gentleness and respect...." In other words, by "salting" your conversation with patients and colleagues with "faith flags" you whet their appetite for more.

Before Peel left CMDA in 2000 for the pastorate, he and Larimore videotaped the Saline Solution conference in order to make it more broadly available for use with smaller groups than might be required to support a live seminar with all its expenses. The video conference, consisting of ten sessions, was professionally produced at Universal Studios in Florida, and funded through grants from the Maclellan Foundation and Monarch Pharmaceuticals. A participant's guide, with leader's notes, was also produced. The four tapes, which comprise the series, and the manual are available through the Paul Tournier Institute, a ministry arm of CMDA, for a cost of $99.95. Individual manuals are $15.00 each or $10.00 apiece in lots of five or more.

Since the video conference became available, many-in the United States and elsewhere-who might not otherwise have been able to attend a live conference have learned its principles. In addition to increasing the seminar's availability and potential usefulness to small groups, having the conference on tape has made it possible for group leaders to design their "conference" to best address their group's needs and preferences.

For example, Dr. "Rick" Payne, pediatrician in practice near Atlanta, sponsored a video conference in the late summer/fall of 2001. Based on his understanding that a series of Saturday meetings would conflict with one of the "gods" of the  South-college football-Dr. Payne felt that two full-day sessions, six weeks apart, might attract the most participants while losing the least. One interesting factor in his seminar was that the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks occurred between the two sessions, which may have rein-forced in the minds of healthcare providers the need to be prepared to raise faith flags in the midst of the fear and uncertainty of those days.

Dr. Payne, who is not comfortable having an "up front" role, said, "... as a facilitator, this conference is not about how well you do in front of an audience. It is about God moving in people's lives. Enjoy seeing what He will do. The rewards are eternal."

Ken Nippert, CMDA Memphis Area Director, echoes that conclusion. Nippert's solution to the conflict with the god of the South was to hold the Memphis conference on a weekend in the dead of winter. Although the leader's guide includes among its many helps a budgeting guide, planning timetable, materials and equipment list, and a schedule for a full weekend retreat, Nippert felt that a Friday night, all day Saturday conference covering selected sessions would work best in his setting. With the help of CMDA, Nippert mailed approximately a thousand brochures to doctors within a 50-mile radius of Memphis, not knowing what to expect, but trusting that the right people would choose to attend. The event attracted about 50 participants, among them a handful of students.  Nonetheless, Nippert was more than satisfied that the group was just the right size, when all was said and done-big enough to carry off the event; small enough for people to make personal connection with each other.

"The most important thing I took away from this seminar was to look for open doors in my patient interactions, and to move at the Spirit's leading. The faith flags were also very helpful as well as refining my testimony."
-Angela Potter, M.D.

This same creativity has been employed internationally, as the video version of the Saline Solution gradually rounds the globe. From Ireland, to Hungary, to Africa thus far, Christians in healthcare are learning to raise faith flags, each in their own culturally-relevant way. Dr. Jeffrey Barrows has conducted two video seminars in Nigeria during COIMEA trips. The first, in 2001, was presented for the Christian doctors working in and around Jos, Nigeria. That audience included several missionaries, plus some national physicians and dentists. In May 2002, Barrows conducted the seminar in Ilorin, Nigeria, for Nigerian medical students, recent graduates, residents and some faculty physicians.

"Both times," Barrows said, "I found it quite easy to facilitate the seminar. We were located in a large lecture hall both times, and had a video projector attached to a VCR unit, with the capability of audio enhancement. The size of the audience in Jos the first year was about 40-50, and the audience this past spring in Ilorin was 40 at the beginning of the sessions, and 70 by the last session. Both times in doing the seminar, I did all 10 sessions over a three day period, which was a pretty intense schedule for those attending. In going through all the sessions, we found that there were two that did not really apply to their situation in Africa-the one on office environment, and the session that talked about keeping good time. Africa runs on its own schedule, and is always about one hour behind anyway. For the most part, the rest of the <i>Saline Solution</i> carried across the cultural barrier without too much difficulty.

"This last spring, when I returned to Jos," Barrows added, "I was happy to find  that two additional Saline Solution seminars had been started by the doctors there, one among the residents at the teaching hospital, and another at the mission hospital. I believe they have really caught the vision."


And that's the whole point, when everything is said and done. "See one, do one, teach one" is one of the themes of the seminar. Multiplication is its goal...multiplication in the sense of 2 Timothy 2:2: "And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable men who will also be qualified to reach others."

What started in the heart of one regional director and took shape through his relationship with a like-minded doctor, exploding onto the Christian medical scene through a score of live conferences nationwide, is now, in a quieter, yet no less effective way, reaching likeminded colleagues worldwide, teaching them to raise faith flags in the midst of disease, suffering and despair, for which the only true treatment is knowing the One whose banner over us is love.

This article is based on a workshop presented at the 2002 CMDA National Conference, facilitated by Doug Fox, Director of CMDA Member Services. It includes comments made by participants, plus quotes from other sources and adapted material from the video conference. It is not intended to, nor can it, substitute for your experiencing the conference itself.
- Editor

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