Dr. Don Colbert is on a mission to save the body of Christ ... from its bodies. Colbert, an Orlando-area physician and best-selling author of health and nutrition books such as the "Bible Cure" series, Toxic Relief and Stress Less, says Christians are some of the unhealthiest people in the world.
He aims to give pastors some crucial tools to turn the tide, while at the same time helping clergy, whom Colbert dubs "an endangered species," enjoy reductions in illness, depression and general burnout.
"The church is supposed to be a living epistle of Christ, a light to the world," Colbert says. "The world should look at us and see Jesus; but all they're seeing is a fatigued, beaten-down, haggard, obese group of people.
"In order to bring health back to the bride, it's going to take the church learning what it's doing wrong and simplifying ways to regain its health," he continues. "We don't want to take everything away, but I want to start exchanging some of its bad habits for good habits."
To help get the church back in shape, Colbert and his wife Mary are co-hosting a new DVD study series called The Seven Pillars of Health. Based on Colbert's new book of the same title from Siloam Press, the series is designed to span a study period of 50 days and can be utilized by entire congregations or weekly small groups.
The pillars, which Colbert emphasizes are a lifestyle rather than a diet, involve adequate consumption of healthy water, sleep and rest, "living food" instead of processed and sugary foods, consistent exercise, regular detoxification, careful use of nutritional supplements, and stress reduction.
Because of the poor health observed among many churches and their members, Colbert is concerned that ministry fruitfulness is being compromised and falling short of its potential. Church leaders will undermine their callings through failing to take care of their own "temples."
"Churches need to understand that their leaders' lives will be cut short with disease if they don't start addressing this," Colbert urges. "Their ministries will be cut short. A little bit of service for this body will enable us to fulfill the calling and purpose that God has given us.
"If we neglect it we're not going to have the energy to get the message out," he says. "There's a lot of pastors out there that people won't even listen to because they're so overweight. Some pastors are dull because they don't have the energy since they're not getting any rest or they're sick."
Colbert says that these problems are particularly important for pastors because they have the most influence in the church.
"Without the pastors, this program can't truly work," he says. "As the head goes, the body goes. If the sheep continue to see their pastor's bulging waist line and see him not having enough time to exercise, the church is going to do the same."
Recent research would support Colbert's concerns. A 2002 survey of 2,500 pastors, conducted by Duke University's Pulpit & Pew research center, reveals that 76 percent of clergy are overweight or obese, compared with 61 percent of the general public.
The same study discovered that 10 percent of those surveyed reported being depressed (about the same as the general population) and 40 percent said they were depressed at times, or worn out "some or most of the time."
Beyond the benefit of their own health being restored, Colbert says pastors of congregations that embrace the seven pillars can receive the gifts of fewer funerals and hospital visitations.
"I'm sure they're sick of doing hospital visitation," he says. "It's going to take a lot of burden off of them by just having a healthy church."
In the DVDs, the Colberts unpack all seven pillars through 30-minute segments, offering numerous educational tips along the way.
"We teach them primarily by telling stories and keeping it simple, with not a lot of medical jargon," Colbert notes. "I don't use PowerPoint or anything like that. My wife and I interact with one another, and therefore it's easy for people to receive the message."
Colbert connects particular scripture verses to each pillar as well.
"For example, with stress reduction I include the verse, 'You will keep in perfect peace him whose mind is steadfast, because he trusts in you' [Is. 26:3, NIV]," he says. "The best treatment for stress is keeping our minds on Him and reframing. I put the Scripture in everyday language so people can learn to cope with stress. There's nothing better for coping with stress than the Word of God."
The textbook version of The Seven Pillars delves into revealing details such as what types of commercial water brands are safer than others, which unexpected toxins are found in our normal diet and lifestyles—often due to the commercial use of pesticides and growth hormones—and how to make the best supplement choices by focusing on a few key building blocks.
But the doctor does not limit his concern to the health of Christian adults. Vacation Bible schools, church camps, weekly children's ministries and youth groups are infamous for serving cheap, easy-to-make processed foods, along with sugary snacks, sodas and greasy dishes such as pizza.
Colbert says churches urgently need to consider what they are feeding their kids. Recent research demonstrates that one in five children is projected to develop type 2 diabetes by 2010 because of dietary and lifestyle habits.
"I'm tired of seeing just as much heart disease, cancer, depression and divorce in the church as in the world," Colbert says. "We should stand out."
He says the church needs to follow the example of the prophet Daniel, who even as a teenager didn't want to defile his body. He fasted for three years eating vegetables and beans and drinking only water, and he appeared healthier than all the other young men of Babylon.
"An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure," says Colbert, emphasizing one of his favorite mottos. "Wouldn't it be a whole lot better to prevent cancer, Alzheimer's, heart disease and hypertension instead of developing it and then having to treat it?"
Implementing the seven pillars does not have to be a humorless exercise full of somber discipline. Colbert encourages churches to have fun and get imaginative with the program.
He says one church prepared examples of recommended foods, with bottled waters ready for members at the meetings. They also made skits about the difference of living food.
"When churches get together and implement this program, it's important to be creative, to make it fun and to share ideas," he says.
Small groups studying the seven pillars should talk among themselves and see what is working for one another, Colbert suggested. It also is essential for groups to encourage their members to make measurable progress on each of the pillars.
"The book is a 50-day program. They're going to have seven nights and days of homework," he says. "The group leader will need to pull them into accountability to make sure they're doing their homework. They'll have a workbook they'll write in and record in."
As The Seven Pillars joins the multiple options of Bible and topical studies marketed non-stop to Christians every day, Colbert believes pastors can cut through the clutter and make healthy living a priority by simply getting on board.
John M. DeMarco is a Florida-based writer, speaker and organizational development practitioner.