Last Sunday, as every third Sunday of the month at Christ Episcopal Church in Columbia, Cynthia Willis offered blood pressure screenings to parishioners leaving the service.

Willis, a retired nurse and teacher of nursing, began her volunteer job as parish nurse two years ago after reading about the opportunity in the church newsletter.

The job is all about "health, healing and the wholeness of people, including the spiritual," she said. In recent years, health ministries have become a growing part of life for many congregations. On Saturday Willis, other parish nurses, ministers and Episcopal leaders will gather in Ellicott City for workshops and lectures at the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland's first Health Care Task Force Conference and Fair.

They will swap ideas for health ministries and discuss ways of increasing access to health care for needy patients through referrals to MedBank of Maryland, a nonprofit program for prescription drugs, and other programs. Participants also will hear from advocates and experts on topics such as universal health care coverage.

"We want to inform ourselves," said Bishop John Rabb, who has taken a leading role in organizing the conference. The diocese has encouraged all of the state's 118 parishes to participate.

One of Rabb's concerns is that an estimated 700,000 Marylanders lack health insurance.

"We are paying close attention to this issue, especially at the state level," he said. The Maryland legislature wrestled with a bill that would have extended health care coverage to some of the uninsured, but in the final hours of the 2004 legislative session, the bill was killed.

The Episcopal Diocese of Maryland has not taken an official position on how to solve the state's health insurance crisis.

"What we have taken a position on is [eliminating] the continuing gap between rich and poor, the uninsured, the number of people who can't get insurance," Rabb said.

The local health care conference comes a week after a nationwide outreach campaign known as Cover the Uninsured Week, which was supported by the National Council of Churches.

Although health care ministries are flowering and church leaders are speaking out about issues such as health insurance, faith communities have had a stake in healing for centuries, said the Rev. Eileen Lindner, a deputy general secretary at the National Council of Churches in New York.

"Most of the early hospitals in this country were founded by religious communities," she said. "And in the New Testament, there are more instances of Jesus healing than teaching."