Kimberly Azelton, MD, DipABLM, MPA

Kimberly Azelton practices family and lifestyle medicine in Lansing, Michigan, in coordination with Pastor Philip Mills and the Lansing Seventh-day Adventist Church (

A Blended Ministry

in Spring 2023   |
Published on 07/01/2023   |
8 min | <<|>>

A providential conversation at the 2018 AMEN conference in Palm Springs redirected my career path from serving overseas as a medical missionary to pioneering a new mission at home.

Pastor Philip Mills, Jr., and his wife Lindsey had come to AMEN looking for a doctor who would be willing to serve with them in ministry at the Lansing Seventh-day Adventist Church. Ellen White’s counsel that physicians and pastors should partner in ministry for saving souls had made a lasting impression on Phil during his teens and now he had a growing desire to implement this counsel in his own church.

At the time I was a family practice resident in South Bend, Indiana. Since we lived within driving distance, I invited Pastor Phil and Lindsey to join a small group study on gospel medical evangelism. As we prayed and studied, our hearts warmed at the thought of relinking the gospel and health in the very place where it had been separated more than a century before. We decided to go forward.

In preparation for this new endeavor, I completed lifestyle medicine boards, a fellowship in health services management, and a Master of Public Affairs degree at Indiana University. This afforded time to study the best business models for gospel medical evangelism in light of the Spirit of Prophecy.

Once my training was completed, I moved to Lansing where Pastor Phil was already laying important groundwork in his church. Dina Coelho was added to the team as leader of company evangelism in harmony with the counsel that small groups are the basis of all Christian effort. Within a year there were 11 small groups in the Lansing church who were engaged in Bible studies and health outreach.

Additionally, we started a Churches Reaching Out to Save and Serve (CROSS) trainers pilot program. Three young people were taught how to give Bible studies, how to go into people’s homes and prepare meals with them, and how to conduct neighborhood cooking programs. They supported themselves by canvassing. This inspired the Lansing church family and generated more interests.

Renové health program initiated
We launched the first church-based Renové series in the fall of 2021. Renové is a remake of the original Complete Health Improvement Program commonly known as CHIP. It was developed by Dena Guthrie, MS, RN, and featured Hans Diehl, DHSc, as video host and lifestyle expert. In my assessment, it was without peer for its evangelistic potential. Renové, like CHIP, is an outpatient intensive lifestyle change program that is hosted by churches while enabling patients to stay in their own homes.

Renové begins with baseline lab work, a physician visit, a personal culinary starter kit, and an individualized exercise plan for each participant. It meets three times weekly for six weeks. The class size is limited to 20 people and, like CHIP, is built around small groups. The attendees have table leaders who support and encourage them. Various physicians (including myself) and other health professionals present the lectures.

Fitness coach Nathan Hyde teaches group exercise classes and also provides individual coaching. This appeals to people in the community who may not be interested in Bible studies but appreciate the opportunity to get in shape.

With all these activities we have outgrown our church fellowship hall. We are praying for resources to build a health education center that would include space for health lectures, hydrotherapy, a teaching kitchen, cooking demonstrations, and fitness center. Next door would be a doctor’s office. We envision what the Spirit of Prophecy terms a treatment room and eventually a small, suburban-style sanitarium and food service.

Our church now offers a combined cooking class and potluck once a week and a more traditional-style cooking class once a month. We’ve also operated several types of mobile cooking programs in homes and at other locations. One of our guests said our church is “the only place in Lansing where I can learn how to eat whole foods, plant based.”

Direct primary care
The next step in our health initiative was to launch a direct primary care micro-practice on January 11, 2022, as a non-profit 501(c)3 having a Memorandum of Understanding with the Lansing Seventh-day Adventist Church. Phil Mills, Sr., MD, Elder Ringstaff and Tom Owiti from the Michigan Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, and Pastor Phil Mills, Jr., who sit on its board, gave oversight to this process.

This set-up allows for financial sustainability, a flexible ministry schedule and ability to scale the clinic’s growth. Debbie Swena, MD, serves as director of culinary medicine. She trains church members to provide in-home follow up for primary care contacts. A similar process is followed for those needing different types of hydrotherapy. Patients are also referred to fitness classes and/or coaching under Right Living with Nathan Hyde and his team of church members.

Creating a spiritual connection
When patients in the clinic or Renové ask spiritual questions, I often refer them to Pastor Phil, a CROSS trainer, or another team member rather than answering the questions myself. That synergy has been so powerful that Pastor Phil is pursuing a master’s degree in psychology and wellness through Weimar University. I refer my patients to him for spiritual care consults, stress management, marriage counseling, and help with family issues and sleep. Likewise, he or other team members will ask me to assist when one of their Bible study interests is sick, which strengthens an open relationship with the contact.

We have learned the power of many points of contact. Ministering to needs is a powerful way to “warm up” contacts who are starting to get cold. We are constantly learning how to bridge these connections and amazed at the synergy it generates both in patients’ or contacts’ lives and the church as a whole.

As part of the Renové Health package, Pastor Phil conducts a spiritual care consultation with every guest in the program. He mingles with the guests at every Renové session and moderates the classes, introducing Bible themes that fit with the lecture topic. In this way he establishes rapport with the patients.

Renové Health results
Approximately ninety percent of Renové participants continue association with the church through participation in church activities or health events. Renové has been a wonderful bridge to forming more spiritual connections.

From the Lansing church’s perspective, Renové is electrifying! Graduates share heart-warming testimonies at church, encouraging church members and community alike to participate in future programs.

Adding the evangelism component
In the spring of 2022 the Lansing church conducted a series called Crossroads. It was patterned after the work of John H. N. Tindall, an early 20th century medical missionary. By following Spirit of Prophecy counsel for reaching the cities, Tindall experienced tremendous success in combining small groups and personal work along with large meeting events.

He later conducted a field training school in San Francisco. One of his apprentices was W.D. Frazee, who applied Tindall’s formula in cities across America. In 1942, Frazee founded Wildwood Sanitarium and Medical Missionary Institute where thousands of medical missionaries have been trained. The connection extends to the modern era as Elder Frazee was an early mentor of Elder Mark Finley.
In the recent Crossroads series we experimented with Tindall’s methods in a variety of ways. For example, concurrent with the evangelistic meetings we offered small group Bible studies, Renové, cooking classes, a finance class, and an exercise class. We are still following up on contacts!

It definitely takes a team to pull an effort like this together. But it’s worth it because blending gospel and medical care disarms prejudice and opens hearts.

While God has currently led me to be a missionary of a different kind, it is a privilege to be part of a renewed effort of fulfilling this vision:

“If ever the Lord has spoken by me, He speaks when I say that the workers engaged in educational lines, in ministerial lines, and in medical missionary lines must stand as a unit, all laboring under the supervision of God, one helping the other, each blessing each.”4

1 The writings of Ellen White as foretold in Revelation 19:10.
2 Ellen White, Testimonies, vol. 7, p. 21.
3 Financial Peace University.
4 Ellen White, Testimonies, vol. 9, p. 169.

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