Last year, I attended a conference supported by a Faith and Health Initiative of the American Heart Association entitled “How Faith-Based Organizations Can Influence Congregations to Live Healthy Lives.” The conference audience reflected various faith-based organizations, but the church was mostly represented because organizers strategized that the church had more direct week-to-week impact on how people live their lives. The focus of the conference was mostly on the health and wellness of minority populations (Hispanic, African-American, and other brown people). Studies found that, for people in these particular groups, health was declining rapidly, and the American Heart Association was looking for ways to educate and help these particular groups do a better job with their health and to stay well. One of the assumptions was that because the church was central to their lives, its pastors and leaders could model healthy living. The moderator of the conference guided the conversation, asking how pastors, as leaders of the church, could influence their people to change their diets and lifestyle by eating more fresh fruit and vegetables and include physical exercise.
Conference leaders talked about strategies and tools that would help to make it possible to transform old habits of eating into new habits of healthy eating and exercising. The conference wanted to intentionally work toward making a difference in the lives of the people who were losing the battle to diabetes, lupus, high blood pressure, heart disease, and cancer due to lack of information on the best practices for staying healthy. The topic was real, and the conference was very insightful. The participants left with the charge to become proactive in helping people, and particularly these targeted groups of people, to change to a well-balanced and holistic way of eating and to include some form of physical activity into their daily living. While the conference addressed how the pastor could be a role model, I asked the question: how does the spouse of the pastor influence and shape the habits of the people? This is an important question. I believe pastors’ spouses can have just as much or more influence on the congregation and can model healthy living as well. I believe pastors’ spouses influence healthy living and lifestyle by the way they live before the people. Believe it or not, there are many people in the congregation who watch what the pastor’s family eats, wears, and does, and even more surprising, many will follow in their path.
Pastors’ spouses who help with the planning of meals for church meetings and events by choosing wholesome nutritional foods show congregants what healthy eating looks like. Some spouses work on developing health programs that include cooking classes, exercise classes, and informational classes on how take care of the whole body. Making exercising classes available during hours when most members can participate is a great way to help them with physical activity. Yoga, line dancing, Pilates, and walking in a large open place will do the body good. Many people have a hard time keeping an exercise commitment by themselves. By creating group support in the church, the support will help participants maintain a regimen. Informational classes could include speakers from the American Heart Association, local hospitals, or fitness centers that have developed programs for managing health conditions. It also would be helpful to have a health fair once a year. A friend of mine who is a pastor’s spouse has developed a class for women to teach them about cooking healthy meals for their families. She also does a class on self-esteem for women who are weight conscious and teaches them how women should conduct themselves inside and outside the church, as well as caring for their bodies. She has been very effective, and her classes are always full because people like what they see in her and want it for themselves.
Dr. Joyce Scott Thomas is the Associate Director of the Academy of Preaching and Celebration.
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