It’s the New Year, so many of us are once again resolving to lose a few pounds … Join a health club ... Walk instead of drive … Cut back on the breadsticks.
A handful of Holston pastors, however, are way ahead of the rest, having started their workouts several months ago. And they’re busting moves and biceps that look more at home on a cinema poster than in the pulpit.
Andrew Amodei, Kristen Burkhart, Lew Kizer, and Tim Kobler are engaging in a fitness program known as CrossFit. Some people will recognize it as the trendy workout for celebrities: Think Channing Tatum, Jessica Biel, Paul Ryan.
Pastor Amodei describes CrossFit as a “combination of Olympic weight lifting, gymnastics, calisthenics, and traditional weightlifting.” The fitness company was founded in 2000 and has expanded to a community of more than 4,500 gyms worldwide, according to its website.
“My day typically starts at 4 a.m. with a workout at 5 or 6,” says Amodei, pastor at Cherokee United Methodist Church in Johnson City, Tenn. He works out four to five days a week, in a class combining personal training session and group training. “I haven’t just lost weight,” he says. “I’ve changed my life for the better.”
Amodei, age 34, joined a CrossFit gym in June 2012. This first summer, he dropped 35 pounds. His waist size is now the same as it was in high school, and his shoulders “are bigger than they’ve ever been.” Amodei’s strength increased 200 percent, from lifting 115 pounds to 325.
Burkhart, age 34, is also pleased with her results. After joining a CrossFit gym in June 2014, she lost eight pounds and dropped two sizes. “I also took over 6 minutes off my 5K running time this year, which is amazing,” says the pastor at Mount Zion United Methodist Church in Afton, Tenn.
Kizer, pastor at Salem United Methodist Church in Blountville, Tenn., started his CrossFit regimen in November 2012. “I am 33 years old and am stronger than I have ever been,” he says.
Kobler, who got started in July of this year, is also feeling pretty spry. “My blood sugar and cholesterol levels had been elevated, but both have fallen to a normal range,” says the director of the Wesley Foundation, University of Tennessee in Knoxville. “At 49, I feel like I’m in the best shape of my life.”
Lest they all sound like they’re testifying for a New Year’s diet advertisement, the pastors said they were attracted to CrossFit not only to gain muscle and lose their muffin tops. Kizer and Burkhart said they like sharing the high-intensity workouts with their spouses.
All said that participating in a community outside of their clergy responsibilities filled a deep need.
“Changes work better if everyone is all in,” Burkhart said. “I like the cardio and [husband Phillip Archer] likes the weights. This has both, plus the benefit of guidance and overall fitness.”
The life of a pastor is stressful and isolating, and CrossFit offers encouragement and camaraderie that Burkhart said she wishes was more evident in the church. If a participant is having trouble finishing his workout in her gym, the others will cheer him on -- or even perspire alongside.
“I have found a group that lets me be me, and we lift up each other and work together on the task at hand. No one gets left behind,” Burkhart said.
Ashlee Kizer, age 27, has lost 30 pounds since she started CrossFit with her pastor husband. She’s now a CrossFit instructor at two different gyms.
“As someone who works in the fitness field every day, I don't see too many clergy or clergy families. It seems to me that a lot of times we as clergy and their families tend to focus a lot on others and not always ourselves,” she said. The community spirit embedded in CrossFit’s DNA “is almost like a way that we can focus on ourselves but still show love for others in the community.”
For Lew Kizer, his 6 a.m. CrossFit class has become an answer to a prayer. “Each day I began counting on the same people being there, and we became great friends,” he said. “They challenged me, and I challenged them.”
Instead of being the preacher in charge who everyone looks to for advice, he’s just “Lew” who’s checking off his hand-stands, push-ups, muscle-ups and pistols like everybody else. “It’s very liberating,” he says.
CrossFit “isn’t for everybody,” Amodei admits. A membership costs $110-120 per month, and experts warn that the required intensity increases injury risk. Some industry experts believe that -- like Tae Bo and Bowflex –- CrossFit will eventually be replaced by another fad.
However, Holston’s CrossFit clergy encouraged their colleagues to find a health and fitness plan that works for them.
“Even the experts began as novices,” Kobler said. “Set realistic goals and scale things to your ability. Having someone to whom you can be accountable to is an enormous help.”
“If we don’t take time to take care of ourselves, we cannot take care of others,” Burkhart said. “Don’t say you can’t work out or be healthy because of your job. This is part of your job.”
For Amodei, the development of personal discipline is as much a spiritual exercise as physical. “The fad may be the means, but the transformation taking place is making a significant impact on people’s lives.”
For example, Amodei believes that being trained to push beyond his personal limits has fortified him to navigate the future of a local church formerly in debt and (as former board chair for Buffalo Mountain Camp) the future of a flood-damaged camp.
“Maintaining a particular diet, exercise protocol, schedule, and accountability is about as Methodist as it gets,” Amodei said. “I found this in CrossFit, not in the church. It seems to me that this begs the question. If people are seeking accountability and discipline in spheres like CrossFit, Spartan Races, and Tough Mudders, who is to say they do not have equal expectations of the church?”
"Rotund reverends, pudgy preachers, and fat pastors" (The Call, November 2008)
"Pastor loses 200 pounds, finds new ways to reach the hopeless" (The Call, Feb. 21, 2011)
Annette Spence is editor of The Call, the Holston Conference newspaper.