New Worshiping Community Housed in Gym Promotes Physical and Spiritual Wellness
July 8, 2016
Michael Plank has put the cross into CrossFit. The bi-vocational and decidedly entrepreneurial pastor of
Underwood Park CrossFit, a new worshiping community in Albany Presb ytery, pursued his call to ministry at
McCormick Theological Seminary while discovering a passion for physical fitness.
“There was a woman for the Lutheran seminary [in Chicago] who had a grant to do personal training with any seminarian as a part of what she called her ‘wellness ministry’,” Plank explains. “She was convinced that clergy people needed to know how to take care of their bodies, and a lot of them didn’t.”
Plank’s experience of physical fitness during seminary was so compelling that not only did he become a certified personal trainer, but he also started a wellness ministry at First Presbyterian Church of Hudson Falls, New York, where he was called as pastor in 2010.
Later he discovered CrossFit, a worldwide fitness phenomenon, about which he made several observations that were relevant to the 21st century church.
“CrossFit does a tremendous job of building community,” says Plank. “In CrossFit gyms around the world, you will see people not only excited about gathering together at the gym, but also developing close friendships outside of the gym, bringing meals to each other when someone is sick or grieving, going to each other’s graduations and weddings. Because this is all the kind of stuff I have heard that churches can be and that churches used to be, I started asking myself the question ‘What is it that separates a community like that from a community of faith?’”
So, after four days of intense conversations with friends, presbytery colleagues, and the executive in the Synod of the Northeast—who advised Plank that grant money was available to start a new worshiping community—Plank was ready to answer what he identified as “a pretty heavy call.”
But first he and his wife, Lauren Grogan—his partner in life, business and ministry—had to navigate a series of personal, vocational and logistical challenges.
In June 2013, Plank and Grogan lost a child to stillbirth.
Then First Church, after discussing whether it would feasible or wise to reduce Plank’s hours from full time to half time in order for him to start a CrossFit ministry, approved his new terms of call.
In October 2014—three months after welcoming their second child, a son, into the world—Plank and Grogan started their new venture, a worshiping community that combines spiritual practices with physical workouts.
Underwood Park CrossFit, which offers classes Monday through Saturday, is unique among CrossFit gyms in that it holds worship as an optional activity every Friday at 6:30 p.m. Plank describes the roughly hour-long weekly service as “blending elements of traditional CrossFit classes with elements of Reformed worship.”
Plank chose to structure the gym’s worship service around the Benedictine Prayer of Examen, which starts with a “desolation” piece.
“Since everybody comes in with baggage,” says Plank, “we first touch base on where things have been difficult during the week.”
The service then alternates times of prayer and proclamation with physical movement, even a high intensity workout. Worship then concludes with a “consolation” prayer, celebrating joys, followed by a benediction.
“At the end of the service, we stand arm in sweaty arm and offer one thing to the gathered community,” says Plank. “It can be anything, but it has to be honest, like ‘My name is Michael; if you need someone to cook dinner, let me know’ or ‘My name is Lauren; if you need a ride, let me know.’”
What most excites him is that the CrossFit ministry is now fully sustainable, even after exhausting its first couple of years of grant money. “Now it’s really vibrant,” he says.
Throughout the entire process, Plank has valued the support of the 1001 New Worshiping Communities movement. “What it means is that we have a number of folks we can connect with,” he says. “Being able to share experiences is critical.”
He adds, “As the church seeks to define its identity in the midst of a sometimes unfamiliar landscape, I am tremendously excited by the New Worshiping Communities initiative, and I earnestly believe that the ensuing shifts in perspective are paving the way for innovation that allows us to continue to do God’s work in the midst of an ever-changing culture, in a context that is radically different than it was even a generation ago.”
Emily Enders Odom, Communications Strategist, Presbyterian Mission Agency
Let us join in prayer for:
Rev. Shannon R. Vance-Ocampo, Transitional Presbyter
Elder H. Daniel Rogers, Stated Clerk
Carlie D’Annunzio, Financial Manager
Rev. Dr. Tim Coombs, Associate for Congregations
Jennifer Schoenfisch, Office Administrator
Kim Deal, Communications Manager
PC(USA) Agencies’ Staff
Let us pray
Christ, we thank you for being the Word made flesh. As you ministered to those around you through touch, sight and sound, teach us to make use of our whole selves—body, mind and spirit—to do your work. Give us the courage to take action and the grace to welcome all with a loving spirit. Amen.