"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!