Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Faith and "excess avoirdupois"

"Faith takes over when willpower fails." When my husband and I facilitated a support group for addictions recovery at our church, we often heard this sentiment from people wanting to kick alcohol, drugs and cigarettes. The same can be true for weight loss seekers. A spiritual outlook on the road to weight loss can be a powerful motivator. In my last post, I shared the story of Sandy Ward's success using the biblically-based First Place program.

As early as the 1950s, Presbyterian minister Charlie Shedd published Pray Your Weight Away, a bestseller that rebuked gluttony as a sin. “When God first dreamed you into creation, there weren’t 100 pounds of excess avoirdupois hanging around your belt,” he wrote. He suggested doing karate moves and sit-ups while reciting Scripture. (Not sure I want to visualize that!) He preached his message well into the 1970s, when he published The Fat Is in Your Head.

About that time, Carol Showalter, a Presbyterian pastor’s wife in Texas, founded 3D: Diet, Discipline & Discipleship, the first nationwide church-based weight loss program. Other programs followed: First Place, Free to be Thin, Overeaters Victorious, Thin Within, Lose It for Life. Some programs piggybacked on national crazes, such as the Believercise aerobics program of the 1980s. Today, Christians can choose Christian yoga and Christian pilates, among other faith-based diet and exercise regimens.

If churches are turning to weight control programs, it may be because church-goers struggle mightily with weight. In several studies, Dr. Kenneth Ferraro, a professor of sociology at Purdue University, found that religious people are more likely than nonreligious people to be overweight. The findings surprised him.

“In the 1990s, all the evidence showed that being in a faith community was good for your health,” Dr. Ferraro says. “In terms of smoking, alcohol, and high-risk sexual activity, religion seemed to promote health. But weight is a different story.”

Food, Dr. Ferraro suggests, is often the only acceptable vice left to an otherwise teetotaling and smoke-free congregation. In addition, he guesses, faith communities are welcoming groups in which everyone finds acceptance. And, the culture and traditions of some denominations may worsen your plight—Southern Baptists, he finds, lead the way in obesity (church suppers! prayer breakfasts! fellowship breaks!), while Jewish and non-Christian religious groups are the leanest.

Getting the message, some churches are literally breaking new ground. In Raytown, Missouri, First Baptist Church has built a $14 million community and fitness center and staffed it with personal trainers and volunteers who organize sports leagues with an enrollment of 500 participants. “We want people to have a better quality of life,” says Dave Foster, the center’s director.

In Davenport, Iowa, St. Mark Evangelical Lutheran Church has an active Wellness Committee, started 10 years ago by a parish nurse. Its outreach programs include blood pressure screenings, flu clinics, exercise and weight loss groups, classes for caregivers and new mothers, healing services and newsletter articles addressing health issues.

For his part, Dr. Ferraro plans to study the role of pastors in modeling fitness. If ministers are fit and incorporate fitness opportunities into their ministry, he wonders, will congregants follow their lead? In later posts, I'll talk with some pastors who have led the way after dropping their own excess avoirdupois!

Monday, February 8, 2010

Sandy Ward: In First Place

Can there be anything more disheartening than to have to quit as the leader of a weight loss group because you’ve gained too much weight? Sandy Ward was determined it wasn’t going to happen to her.

Sandy struggled with weight most of her life. She enjoyed those blissful early years of childhood without a thought about weight, but in her teens, she began a cycle of gaining weight and then thinning out as she grew taller.

With marriage and the birth of her son, Sandy’s weight continued to plague her. At her highest, she reached 234 pounds. She tried many times to get it under control and successfully got down to 140 at one point.

After her son went off to college, Sandy became a partner in a sporting goods store owned by a friend. They thrived in the niche market of skating and skateboard equipment. But over the years, her weight crept back on. Five years ago, having sold the business and retired, she wanted to do something to help herself. One Sunday, she found her opportunity.

“I was sitting in church waiting for the service to begin when I saw an ad for a First Place group that was starting up at my church,” she says. “The ad just clicked with me somehow. I guess I was just ready for it.”

Sandy went to the first meeting and liked both the people and the program of Bible study and group prayer, as well as the nutritional program of dietetic exchanges. Over the course of the 13-week program, she lost 40 pounds. But when it came time for the second session, the leader had moved away, and the group had dwindled to just three women. They decided to continue anyway. And Sandy made another decision.

“I’m not the kind of woman who gets up in front of everyone and speaks,” she says. “But I thought that becoming the leader of this group might be a good ministry for me.”

Eventually, even as the group's leader, she began to put on extra pounds. In January 2007, she had another decision to make.

“The First Place people told me that often when leaders gain weight, they just quit, and I didn’t want to do that,” Sandy says. “I made a vow to God that I was going to take that weight off. I made a date and when that date came, that was it. Vows to God are serious!”

Returning to the First Place plan, Sandy cut back to a 1,200-calorie daily diet. She and her husband switched to mostly organic foods, and their menu became fairly simple. Gone now are the extras she enjoyed. “No more desserts and no more fancy Starbucks coffees!” she laughs. She walks and exercises to a DVD included in the First Place member kit.

This time, Sandy's weight loss quest wasn’t a matter of a silent vow. She was still a First Place leader. “I had to do it in front of everyone,” she says. “It’s hard to face your own demons and the people who have seen you fail.” Yet, in six months, Sandy lost 37 pounds.

Today, the First Place program is thriving at Berwyn Baptist Church in Maryland. Sandy says that usually around 20 people are signed up. Sandy often offers the program for subgroups like diabetics. To Sandy, First Place is more than a weight loss group. Group members make a commitment to deal with anything in their life that is out of balance. During one session, three people successfully quit smoking. And, Sandy feels that as a leader she benefits even more than the group’s members.

“God has given me such a love and compassion for people with weight problems,” she says. “When I see them, I just think, ‘Oh, bless your heart,’ because I know the humiliation of it all.”