ATLANTA/MACON – Mercer University’s School of Theology and School of Medicine have partnered with the Georgia Rural Health Innovation Center to support the physical, mental and spiritual health of five rural Georgia counties by coordinating the efforts of clergy, physicians and health care professionals.

“Recognizing that in many rural counties religious leaders and health care professionals serve an important role in the well-being of the population, we want to bring these two groups together for the purpose of better serving in a holistic way the needs of the community,” said Greg DeLoach, D.Min., dean of the School of Theology.

The three-year project will proceed with three initiatives: assessment of areas of need and opportunities for collaboration, collaboration with existing sites for holistic care modeling and student training, and creation of relationships between medical professionals and local clergy for synergetic work.

Faculty from both the School of Theology and School of Medicine will lend expertise and facilitate mutual learning, understanding and best practices.

Students from both schools will be recruited to participate in two- to four-week rotations at clinical sites where they will learn skills such as screening for emotional spiritual needs, listening and talking about spiritual issues and documenting cases, and addressing health literacy within communities.

The goals of the project are to improve access through creating a model for holistic screening of needs in rural health care, to provide clinical training to health care and ministerial students, to research the prevalence of emotional spiritual needs in the selected communities, and to increase communication between spiritual leaders and medical professionals to improve health literacy in rural communities.

“Historically medicine and religion were closely intertwined. Re-establishing this alliance is critical to achieving a health system that is patient-centered and embraces the concept of a healthy community,” said Jean R. Sumner, M.D., dean of Mercer University School of Medicine.

Paul Byrd

Paul Byrd will serve as project director, organizing collaborative efforts in order to identify and develop tangible and systemic responses to better serve the health needs of communities.

Byrd earned his bachelor’s degree in music education from Mercer in 1989 and Master of Divinity from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in 1993. He completed his chaplaincy residency at the Emory Center for Pastoral Care in 1994. 

He has nearly 30 years of experience as a chaplain in children’s hospitals in Birmingham, Alabama, and St. Petersburg, Florida. He serves on the faculty of the Pediatric Chaplains Institute and is the 2021 recipient of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship’s Carl Hart Award for Excellence in Chaplaincy and Pastoral Ministry.

He is married to Terri Byrd, who serves as mobilization pastor at Johns Creek Baptist Church in Alpharetta, and they have two children, Turner and Evann.

The Georgia Rural Health Innovation Center was established through special funds Georgia lawmakers dedicated to confronting the complex health care challenges and wellness disparities facing rural communities. Mercer’s School of Medicine was awarded grant funds in 2019 and formally established the Georgia Rural Health Innovation Center on the University’s Macon campus.