How Acupuncture Became a Church Health Ministry

How Acupuncture Became a Church Health Ministry

Dr. Tilton (on right) placing needles in the ears
of Church Trustee, Suzanne Thomas
The ancient Chinese believed there are channels of energy that run through the body and over its surface. These energy channels can be influenced by needling acupuncture points to unblock obstructions to movement of energy. These obstructions are believed to result in illness. The modern scientific explanation is that acupuncture stimulates the nervous system to release chemicals in the muscles, spinal cord, and brain. These chemicals will either change the experience of pain or trigger release of other chemicals which influence the body’s internal regulating system.

The Health Ministry of The First Congregational Church of Wellfleet, UCC believes this modern treatment based on ancient practices can help those who are recovering from substance use disorders, living with mental illness, or simply coping with life’s many stresses.  This ministry, named Living Water Acupuncture, began in October 2019 and is aimed at promoting health and wellness by empowering self-healing.

“Acupuncture has been used to help reduce cravings associated with discontinuing opioids, tobacco, and alcohol,” said Margaret C. Tilton, MD. “There are different protocols for addictions, anxieties, PTSD, etc., and can be used as a method of encouraging the body to promote natural healing and to improve functioning, and it works wonders with stress and anxiety.”

Tilton is Board Certified in Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation and in Neuromuscular and Electrodiagnostic Medicine and is a member of the American Academy of Medical Acupuncture, with over 20 years of experience in medical acupuncture. She’s also a member, a deacon, and on the Board of Missions and Outreach of the Wellfleet church.

“I’m committed to grow our church, in the sense of having it be central to the community, not necessarily filling up the pews on Sundays,” she explained.  “Our mission as a church is to use any of the resources we have to help the members of the community.  That’s how we show what Christians are about.  We show it in action, in doing, and in caring. I wanted to take the economics out of the equation and offer my skill as a free service to the community through the church.”

Health and Wellness for the Community

“Health and wellness ministries are often how we care for the people in our congregation, and they are also how we care for our neighbors,” said Debbie Ringen, SNEUCC Minister of Health and Wellness. “But they look different for each community depending on the requirements and resources available.  This is a great example of meeting the need and using the resources.”

“I recently retired from my job as a mental health counselor at a hospital and the last few years were extremely stressful at work, given Covid and its impact on people’s lives. My body was starting to break down given the workload,” said Carmine Conte.  “I stopped in at the church ministry acupuncture clinic and immediately felt the warmth and selfless care Margaret expressed towards me and others during and after my first treatment. She became very familiar with my situation and medical history and tailored strategic needle points to improve my overall health. I’m sleeping better, my energy has improved, and my body tensions have lessened.  I feel more in my body, relaxed. I’m thankful our paths crossed and I’m sure others in the Wellfleet community feel the same.”

Initial access to Living Water Acupuncture is through referral from a primary care, mental health, or recovery services provider or agency. Tilton gives presentations at the various agencies to help explain the ministry to clients and encourages them to make appointments to attend the clinic. Clinic hours are available at the church on Tuesdays and walk-ins are accepted if there is availability.

“In the outer Cape, like many other areas in the Conference and beyond, we do have quite a problem with substance use disorder, opioids, and alcohol,” said Tilton.  “There are resources in the community to help, but there’s a need for much more.  I wanted to partner with local providers dealing with this issue and utilize this tool to support those efforts.” 

Jack McCauley, a weekly participant who has been attending for six months, said he began his recovery journey in late April 2022, and acupuncture was one support offered during an initial meeting with a recovery coach from Outer Cape Health Services.  "I had no prior experience with acupuncture but was open and willing, and am happy I welcomed the opportunity,” he said.  “I am sleeping better, have an increased capacity to sit quietly and meditate for extended periods of time. I am less anxious and much more able to pause before I respond, especially to situations where I would once be quick to anger or have a short fuse. The practice has welcomed an increasing inner calmness. I do feel more at peace.”

The Process

The clinic setting looks similar to an after-Worship coffee hour.  Round tables are set up with four chairs and people sip a special herbal detox tea during the process.


But unlike coffee hour, a volunteer clinic assistant takes vitals and helps the patients fill out the paperwork for medical records. Dr. Tilton will go to each patient, chat for a bit, and gently place up to 5 small sterilized disposable needles into specific sites on each ear. The person being treated sits quietly in the group setting for 30 minutes, sipping their tea, listening to relaxing music in the background, while Tilton moves on to other people, returning to remove the needles and insert acupressure beads when the timer goes off. The patient can then be on their way.

“During each session, I have the opportunity to sit uninterrupted, quietly reflect and pivot my attention to focus on what I am grateful for,” said McCauley.  “Each week, I look forward to the sessions and am surprised how quickly 30 minutes of sitting in silence passes. I would highly suggest the practice to others.”

Many people attend 6-12 sessions, while some come more often, and some don’t return at all after their initial visit.  The length of treatment depends on individual needs and is intended to complement and support existing treatment. Their participation is not contingent upon being sober; they are not asked if they are ‘using’ or not.  Tilton reports that there’s been no occasion where people arrived who were impaired or caused any issue.

Any Concerns

When Ringen asked if the church had any concerns about hosting the program, Tilton said she was pleasantly surprised that members were very excited about the proposed ministry. 

“It’s an unusual outreach idea,” said Tilton.  “Culturally a lot of people are not familiar with acupuncture and are not comfortable with the concept because they are unfamiliar with the practice. I wondered if the church would want to open its doors to this struggling population or if folks would worry it would make us vulnerable to liability.  But I didn’t get any of that.  The reality is we all know somebody in the community who is struggling with addiction.  I got enthusiasm and was asked how folks could help.”

The church has a general liability policy that covers all church use, for church programs, and Tilton has full medical malpractice coverage and a Massachusetts medical license so that covers her work as a physician, so the church did not have to be concerned about that liability.

Ringen also asked if there was any concern from the community about going to a church for a health reason. 

“We are not selling salvation through this program, and it is offered to all, regardless of spiritual beliefs, and people see that when they attend,” said Tilton.  “However, we have one patient who goes to the sanctuary to pray and has left a note on the pulpit once to ask the pastor to pray for a family member who was ill.  That’s breaking down a barrier with people who are not comfortable in a church environment on any level.  If they get a foot in the door, they can see it’s not a threatening place.”

“Dr. Tilton’s acupuncture clinic is an amazing asset to the community,” said Brianne Smith, Program Manager, Community Resource Navigators for Outer Cape Health Services.  “It is a much-needed support that it truly appreciated by residents. We can’t thank her enough.”

Tilton can take care of up to 32 patients during the Tuesday clinic, working at 5-minute intervals; but the clinic attendance varies week to week with an average of 20-24 patients.

“Margaret Tilton is a blessing,” said participant Chris Hart.  “She offers much more than just acupuncture. She offers to lend an ear to her clients’ hopes, frustrations, and challenges of their daily lives, with gentle affirmations and caring support within a relaxing and welcoming atmosphere. Her technique has helped me to control my urges and lower my stress levels many times.”

Just Do It

“I’m not pushing this type of health ministry, but this experience has shown me that when you find something that strikes you as a good idea, some inspiration, that instead of shrugging it off because it may seem impractical, share it with your church and see if you can meet a need,” Tilton advised.  “Just try something and see. It’s just a matter of seeing a gap and seeing if you can step in and fill that gap.”

Executive Conference Minister, the Rev. Darrell L. Goodwin, was so impressed about this innovative ministry on the Cape, he endorsed Tilton’s request for a Neighbor In Need grant. Neighbor in Needs (NIN) Funds are used to plant seeds in congregations and organizations for programs that creatively address systemic issues of injustice on the local, regional, national, or international level. Funds would be used to give stipends to program participants and others in the community who would help out at the clinic. Approvals of NIN grants will take place in late Fall.

“Living Waters Acupuncture Ministry is one of the many examples of our local Churches ‘Being Relevant’ to the needs of their local Community,” said Goodwin. “The ways in which this faith community provides healing and restoration is transforming and transformative and aids the SNEUCC in our mission to make love and justice real.”

For more information about First Congregational Church’s health ministries, including Living Water Medical Acupuncture, visit their Community Resource page .


Marlene Gasdia-Cochrane

Marlene Gasdia-Cochrane writes news articles for the SNEUCC website. She is also the editor of the Starting With Scripture newsletter. Contact her if: Your church has a great story to tell about an innovative ministry. You have a prayer request to ...

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