GARNER — Faith congregations in this suburban community have worked together for years. In the summer, they unite to fix people's homes as part of the Operation Restoration service project. In the fall, they hold a joint Thanksgiving service.
So it seemed entirely in keeping with the town's cooperative spirit that four Garner churches recently challenged one another's members to lose weight.
It didn't hurt that a local chiropractor was willing to offer weight-loss strategies (including some low-fat recipes), or that each participant would be required to donate $10 to Garner Area Ministries to help people who are less fortunate.
The idea was for Christians to hold each other accountable for the ways their overindulgence in food and leisure has dulled their outreach to the world.
"The whole premise is to get people moving and be intentional about what you're putting in your mouth," said Betsy Youngblood, wellness coordinator at Garner Chiropractic and Wellness Center and a member of St. Andrews United Methodist, one of the participating churches.
The 90-day weight loss challenge began Sept. 14 and will conclude Monday, when 123 participants officially weigh in. The four churches are split into two teams, and the church team that loses the most weight wins. The losing team then has to prepare a healthy meal for the winner.
Leaders of the challenge said the idea was not to starve for the sake of the competition but to make permanent life changes so that participants don't end up rebounding and gaining the weight back. The recommended goal was to lose no more than a pound a week, or 12 pounds each. Some contestants were less ambitious, others more so.
The Rev. Randy Maynard, pastor of St. Andrews, took the challenge as an opportunity to show people he was serious about being a physical model, not just a spiritual one.
At 243 pounds, he knew he needed to shed some fat; his blood pressure told him so.
"I enjoy competition, especially when I can help Team St. Andrews compete," said Maynard, 56. "It reminded me of when I played team sports back in the day."
Maynard has already lost 43 pounds and his blood pressure had returned to normal. First thing to go, he said, was the two-liter bottle of Coke he drank every day. Though he doesn't like water as much, he's found that he can substitute low-fat yogurt to make up for some of the liquids.
Congregants have also found that the focus on healthy eating led them to modify their Wednesday night supper menu -- usually loaded with fattening processed food such as hot dogs and macaroni and cheese -- as well as Sunday morning fellowship snacks, which typically included doughnuts and other sugary quick breads.
"They're saying the people on the health challenge won't be able to eat this," said the Rev. Mike Deal, pastor of Lord of Life Lutheran Church. "They're more conscientious about cooking healthy."
At Poplar Springs Christian Church, the weight loss challenge is linked to an emphasis on exercise.
Each Tuesday night the church hosts a step aerobics class in the fellowship hall. The class has drawn women of all ages, including 85-year-old Rossie Horton, the oldest person participating in the challenge, and her niece, 77-year-old Erma Phillips.
"So much is going on these days with diabetes and heart problems," Horton said. "People need to stay healthy."
Tracy Bell, the assistant pastor at Popular Springs, said the challenge has allowed him to show skeptics that churches care about people, and not just their pocketbooks.
But the biggest reward of the lifestyle challenge is that it brings churches together for a common goal. And that common goal, a healthier life, frees people to do the work God has intended for them, serving others, the pastors said.
"This continues to bring us together, not only to help us get healthy but to help us make disciples," Maynard said. "That's what we're about -- making disciples for Jesus Christ."