FAN: Healthy church, better disciples

More than 100 UMCs crafting new health plans to eat better, exercise more

By Jessica Brodie

The trainers were trained and the trainings were held, and now more than 100 United Methodist churches across South Carolina are helping their members become healthier, fitter disciples for Christ.

Thanks to the new Faith, Activity and Nutrition partnership between the South Carolina Conference of the UMC and the University of South Carolina, all 12 districts in the UMCSC are working to craft a customized FAN program in participating churches that embraces new ways to eat better, exercise more and increase their knowledge about overall health.

“You see it throughout the Bible—there are so many references throughout on physical health in addition to spiritual health,” said Dr. Sara Wilcox, a member of Washington Street UMC, Columbia, and the FAN project director. “We often think about our spiritual health, sometimes even our emotional health, but churches can sometimes be places that sabotage our physical health in terms of the food we eat.”

Ultimately, Wilcox said, the goal is to make churches healthier in a holistic way—one positive step at a time.

Funded by the Centers for Disease Control, FAN is administered by the Prevention Research Center in the Arnold School of Public Health. Wilcox and her team spent much time selecting and training 17 community health advisors, who will help lead churches in each district in their FAN plan. They also identified churches that wanted to participate in FAN. Then, in April and May, FAN held 21 daylong trainings across all 12 districts. Churches from every district attended the training and are now actively putting FAN into place over the next 12 months.

“We’re not trying to get people to change the whole culture of the church in one year, but introduce a healthy balance,” said Evelyn Fulmore, community health advisor in the Florence District.

Stronger, fitter disciples

FAN focuses on four main areas: 1) Increasing the opportunity for church members to eat more healthily and be more active (which includes everything from Zumba classes and church walking programs to offering more fruit and vegetables and swapping out white flour for whole grains); 2) Getting the message out about the importance of health and increasing members’ awareness and knowledge throughout the church; 3) Supporting the pastor’s health and helping the pastor support the program (such as giving the pastor a fruit basket or pedometer at Christmas instead of a plate of fudge, or providing the pastor with useful health information he/she can share from the pulpit); and 4) Setting church guidelines, practices and policies around physical activity and healthy eating (such as stating, “If we do have events with food or snack, include fruit and veggies as an option”).

“We all think about the dinners at church where we’ve got fried chicken and many unhealthy alternatives for eating, so what most of the churches have done is not eliminate unhealthy foods but offer healthy alternatives. And there’s been a really good response,” said Trudy Easton, community health advisor in the Charleston District. “People are more aware about how to make their favorite dishes more healthy.”

Fulmore has been on her own health journey over the last couple of years—not just losing weight, but focusing on her energy and overall eating and fitness habit—so she is thrilled to be able to help churches do this, too.

“We always in the church say ‘I’m on the battlefield for the Lord.’ Well, some of us might be on the battlefield, but we have no weapons. We’re exhausted, worn out, can’t do more than we’re currently doing, and it doesn’t show well for the church to be sicker than the world,” Fulmore said.

Churches making positive strides

Many churches are making positive strides already. Murray UMC, Summerville, already had a number of healthy opportunities there, Wilcox said, such as a walking program on Saturday mornings, Zumba and other classes, health moments during services and more. But since starting FAN, they’ve stepped it up, adjusting their menu to add more vegetable dishes and salads and developing church guidelines that will promote healthier foods, such as whole grains and replacing fried chicken with baked chicken, etc.

Trinity UMC, Bennettsville, was already doing health presentations and awareness events, but since FAN, they added a 30-minute physical education session for children to their vacation Bible School lineup (called it VBS PE), as well as a session for adults and seniors, plus they held a Healthy Dish Cook-off after worship one Sunday. Trinity is planning to add a mini-gym at the church and add time for physical activity into meetings and assemblies, among other things.

And at First UMC, Winnsboro, after doing health surveys as part of the FAN evaluation and learning how many of its members were overweight, had high cholesterol or had hypertension, the church got on board in a big way. Now, their fifth Sunday breakfasts at church include fruit, whole grain breads and muffins, and cheese instead of doughnuts. The church gave out pedometers to all at Christmas, and they have posted signs around the church encouraging walking and taking the stairs instead of the elevator.

“It’s important to be healthy so we have more energy and more ability to participate in the activities of the church and help others,” Easton said.

Wilcox agreed, noting its good for young people to see church embracing holistic health, too.

“I have children, and I want churches to be a healthy place for our children, too, where they can learn,” she said.

The emphasis on health is not just a South Carolina concern. On Sept. 15 in Atlanta, the UMC is having a Day of Health through Global Ministries, kicking off the church’s Abundant Health. Wilcox and the Rev. Kathy James, director of Connectional Ministries, present South Carolina’s FAN program at the meeting as a model of positive conference health initiatives.

For more on FAN, including who to contact if your church is interested in a future training:

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