A pastor preaches — and practices — healthy living
by Tammy Warren | Presbyterians Today
When she thinks back on her preteen and teen years, the Rev. Phanta Lansden, senior pastor of St. James Presbyterian Church in Greensboro, North Carolina, remembers battling obesity, anxiety and self-doubt. Back then, mostly in elementary and middle school, she was harassed by bullies because of her weight.
Lansden’s involvement in sports — basketball, softball, volleyball and track — kept her active. During those years, her young mind reasoned that she could lose weight by cutting back on the amount of food she was eating. “I thought I had arrived,” she said, not realizing that when she returned to familiar eating patterns, the weight would return.
By the time Lansden was in her mid-20s, she weighed nearly 300 pounds. With her blood pressure rising, and with a family history of diabetes, she knew something had to be done. “I remember going to the gym in the apartment complex where I lived. I got on the scale and saw how much I weighed. I didn’t feel good. I just didn’t feel my best, as far as being able to walk up the stairs without breathing hard. It got to a point where I was like, ‘This is enough. This is absolutely enough.’”
Lansden tells her story of getting healthy not to brag, but to raise awareness for clergy to care for their bodies and model this care to those they are called to serve.
Over the years, clergy obesity has been on the rise. A 2015 Baylor University report found that more than a third of American clergy were obese. Pew sitters didn’t fare better. A 2011 study by Northwestern University linked regular church attendance by young people and obesity in middle age. The study tracked 2,433 men and women for 18 years and found that, of those aged 20–32 with a normal body weight who attended a religious function at least once a week, 50% were more likely to become obese by their 50s than those who were not religious.
More recently, in its 2019 “Investigating Denominational and Church Attendance Differences in Obesity and Diabetes in Black Christian Men and Women,” Duke University’s Samuel DuBois Cook Center for Social Equity cited that Black men attending church were three times as likely to be obese than those who never or very rarely attend.
While stress and lack of time to exercise are culprits in clergy obesity, the prevalence of food, and often unhealthy food, in the church is also a problem. What is coffee hour or a pastoral visit without cookies, or Bible studies and meetings without sweet treats? And what church dinner doesn’t come with a dessert table filled with pies and cakes? Lansden has navigated all this — and more.
“When people hear and discover the story that I have, and how I’ve been able to lose the weight, or other things in transformation, people come to me and ask, ‘What did you do?’” she said.
Finding the strength within
“Before I began my weight loss journey, I knew it was going to be the hardest thing I’d ever done in my life to that point,” Lansden said. “I knew that I didn’t necessarily have the strength within me to face that mountain and move it out of the way by myself. But I knew that with God I could do anything.”
Any sort of transformation begins in the mind, Lansden says, and as a person of faith, it begins with prayer. “And it’s not like you pray one prayer. Pray all the time — a constant prayer. When the days get hard, pray. When you’re frustrated because you may not see the changes you want to see, keep praying through. Look for the glimmer of light whether there is small progress or large progress, hold on to that until the next piece of the journey continues to unfold — until you reach your goal.”
Even though she lost over 100 pounds, Lansden did not set an initial 100-pound goal. “I set five pounds as a goal,” she said. “Once I hit the five, I celebrated; then I said, ‘I’ll do five more.’ When I got to 30 pounds, I said, ‘I’m going to buy myself a new outfit.’”
“God gave me the strength to do it,” Lansden said. “As the Scripture says, speak to that mountain, and it will be moved and cast into the sea (Mark 11:23). So, in faith, I prayed, asking God for strength. God gave me the strength as I moved forward in faith and did the work.” Referring to James 2:14–17, she said, “Faith without works is dead.”
Creating healthy congregations
One of Lansden’s passions and goals in ministry is caring for the whole person: the health and wellness of those within the congregation at St. James Presbyterian, just as she cares for herself and her own family.
St. James Presbyterian’s vision states that the church will “raise and renew a healthy people to touch lives through Jesus Christ.” This year during Holy Week, the church launched a weekly 30-minute prayer walk at noon on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Older adults take part in Golden Rays fitness classes at the church, which were paused during Covid, but will be resuming soon. St. James also participates in the CROP Hunger Walk each October. The walk raises funds to fight hunger in Greater Greensboro and around the world.
“As a pastor, I challenge people to think of ways we can eat healthier,” Lansden said. When the congregation hosts repasts for funerals, they may serve baked chicken, rice, green beans, salad and some sort of dessert; or maybe they have fried chicken but have baked chicken, too. “It’s just thinking of ways to shift the culture to think healthier and to pattern what is modeled,” she said.
“In our culture we often hear people say, ‘That food was talking to me.’ I tell them, you can talk back to the food, and you can tell it ‘No,’” Lansden said. “You can tell it ‘Why?’ — because you have a goal. If you want it, you can have it, but you have the power to choose the best time to have it, how much and how often.”
Lansden doesn’t teach about dietary restrictions because, she said, “If you tell yourself that you can’t have something, you want it even more.” Instead, she recommends wise choices: “I choose not to eat the cake. I choose not to have the brownie. I choose not to eat the pizza, or whatever. These words give you power. The other way, you surrender your power to whatever it is.” This language, she explained, seems to help people move toward wellness.
For example, consider the goal of increasing water intake, which is increasingly challenging as we age. If someone doesn’t drink very much water all day, Lansden recommends setting an initial goal of drinking one 16-ounce bottle of water, then two bottles of water, then three, and gradually working up to a daily intake — in ounces — of at least half your body weight.
So, someone who weighs 120 pounds would have a goal of drinking at least 60 ounces of water a day. “It’s not a cookie-cutter method: If you do this, the weight will come off and stay off,” Lansden said. “It’s a constant journey. And do you know what? This is just my journey. Other people have certain things they struggle with — everyone has their struggle. This just happens to be mine, but I am determined to do what I need to do to be the healthiest person I can be — in mind, body and spirit. Exercise, sleep and mind care practices are important, too, since stress affects both body and mind,” she said.
“Culture is really ‘caught’ and not taught,” Lansden said. “We can teach these things over and over again, but when you model them is when people begin to really imitate that which the leader is modeling. That’s what I believe works best. I mean even down to some of the ecology things like recycling. If we say, ‘We are going to recycle,’ just shift the culture by saying, ‘I’m going to do it.’ By modeling it, others begin to catch on, and they begin to do the same things.” Pastors and church leaders have the opportunity to impact their congregations for better by teaching and preaching about healthy lifestyle patterns and by modeling health and wholeness.
“Pastors going through personal transformations in caring for their temples, then modeling it before the congregation is very powerful,” Lansden said. “It’s a light that gives the congregation a chance to see this is possible. It’s like, ‘I can actually do this because I’ve seen our pastor modeling something that is doable.’”
“The holistic aspect of wellness isn’t solely spiritual,” Lansden said. “The healing journey manifests in our spirits, minds and bodies. God desires that we live whole. The journey is hard, but it is possible with God and completely worth every sacrifice to live free.”
Tammy Warren is a retired communications associate with the Presbyterian Mission Agency.
Building a heart-healthy congregation
The prevalence of obesity among adults (non-clergy and outside the church) in the U.S. is 42% and trending upward, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Not only does this crisis impact health-care costs, but it also increases premature death from heart disease, stroke, Type 2 diabetes and certain types of cancer.
The Rev. Phanta Lansden, senior pastor of St. James Presbyterian Church in Greensboro, North Carolina, offered some suggestions, based on her experience with adopting healthy lifestyle patterns. These are practical ideas that many people may be able to implement in consultation with their health care provider.
- Exercise at least 30 minutes a day, three or four days a week.
- Drink water. Most dietitians recommend at least eight 6-ounce glasses of water a day, or preferably drinking half your body weight in ounces of water per day.
- Limit or eliminate fried foods.
- Limit eating out and/or make healthier choices when away from home (grilled options, veggies, fruits, salads).
- Reduce sodium intake.
- Cook your food so you can control ingredients and sodium content.
- Eat on a saucer to control portion sizes (8.5 inches or smaller).
- Limit sugar as it signals your body to store fat.
- Pray daily.
- Practice silence with God.
- Walk in nature in silence as you listen to and observe Creation.
- Make time for a daily devotion that feeds your soul.
- Journal daily or regularly.
- Practice meditation/deep breathing exercises to reduce stress and center the mind.
- At the end of the day, do a daily examen (ignatianspirituality.com/ignatian-prayer/the-examen). Where did you see and experience God in your day? What did you accomplish?
- Get enough sleep (eight hours).
“By taking better care of our personal health, we will have more energy to accomplish the purposes God has for us,” Lansden said.
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