Four years ago, Siiri Branstrom was afraid to attend First Lutheran Church, Duluth, Minn., where she was a member. After her divorce, worship there felt strange and uncomfortable. “I would just get so sad in the sanctuary,” she said. “I was in a really [rough] place.”  

On Sundays she hid in the nursery, where she cooed over the babies and served as an attendant. It wasn’t until she started yoga classes at nearby Elim Lutheran Church, Duluth, Minn., that her anxiety dissipated and her heart began to heal.  

“I don’t hide anymore since participating in Yogadevotion,” she said. “What it did was give me more of a true connection with my faith as a Lutheran.” 

Wellness programming is becoming a common sight in ELCA churches. Daily, congregations open their doors to members and neighbors who stretch, dance, lift, sweat and pray together. While many come to get physically fit, Branstrom’s story and others like it show that these activities offer additional benefits. 

Holy community 

In 2011, Chris Shaver approached leaders of St. Enoch Lutheran Church, Kannapolis, N.C., hoping to use their space to teach a fitness class to the community. The hourlong REFIT class incorporates dance, weights and Christian music and closes with a devotion and prayer. 

“I wasn’t a member there and they didn’t know me at all,” Shaver said. “They were so gracious and offered me the use of their fellowship hall free of charge, and I was completely blown away.” 

Today Shaver teaches REFIT at St. Enoch three times a week. Participants range from 14 to 84 years old and come from varied faiths—Pentecostal, Baptist and more. 

Lutheran Debbie Shepherd has taken REFIT since the beginning. Her work as a private caregiver is demanding and incorporating time for self-care helps her recharge. What she loves most about the class is the community: “From the time you walk through the doors you feel a sisterhood. No matter what size you are, what shape you are, you feel welcome.” 

Exercisers support each other through it all—celebrating whenever someone gets a promotion and bearing one another’s burdens, she said, adding, “There’s so much joy, even in our darkest times.”  

When Shepherd’s son went missing after a drug overdose, she was terrified. That evening at REFIT, the class prayed for her family. “I have never got that from any other group before outside of church,” she said. “It means the world to me.” 

Shepherd is in touch with her son, who is in recovery. She is grateful for her REFIT community that continues to support her family, especially Shaver, “one of the most awesome women I’ve met in my life.” 

In strengthening the health of others, Shaver herself has benefited. “This congregation has blessed my life,” she said. “This humble act of faith led my husband and me to join this body of Christ, and we are so glad we did. They have wholeheartedly supported this ministry, and I am truly thankful they opened their hearts and arms to us.” 

“You want to participate in the church”  

Miles away in Temperance, Mich., exercisers are building community while marching to the beat of a different drum—their own.  

Twice a week Lynda Currie can be found at St. Luke Lutheran Church drumming an exercise ball set atop a 17-gallon bucket. For 45 minutes she and her classmates groove to songs like “Rockin’ Robin” or “Cotton Eye Joe” while following instructor Abby Holmblad’s routines. “It’s the best thing I ever discovered,” Currie said. “Abby has so much energy, she makes you want to participate in the church.”  

Although the class isn’t expressly religious, Holmblad is an active member of St. Luke. When she initially started cardio drumming, only a handful of parishioners attended. As word spread, the class and congregation began to grow.  

“Several of the drumming participants have expressed interest in the church, attended services and became members,” Holmblad said.  

That’s true for Currie, who first heard about cardio drumming—and St. Luke—at her YMCA. She began attending classes, then checked out Sunday worship. “I’d been looking for a church for a long time,” she said. With welcoming members, a mix of traditional and contemporary worship and an established friend group, St. Luke was the perfect fit.  

A few months after Currie and her husband became members, he died. As she grieved, her cardio drumming community was there to comfort her. “They were kind of my support group. … It’s just a wonderful group of women,” she said. “Somewhere up there [God] had an idea for me and it worked out just fine.” 

Committed to exercise—and each other 

A similar sense of friendship is shared by the women and men of Wholy Fit at First Lutheran Church, Moline, Ill. 

“Half of our class is widowed, and I think it’s good for them to be part of something,” said instructor Chris Sederstrom. “It gets people active and moving and in conversation.” 

Participants range in age from 60 to 93 and appreciate the opportunity to exercise among friends, added First’s secretary Debbie Coffman. 

Initiated four years ago by First’s parish nurse, the program’s hallmark is its wholistic approach to wellness. Held every Tuesday morning, Wholy Fit incorporates exercise and health education, plus time for fellowship, devotions and prayer.  

Sederstrom and her co-instructor lead a 50-minute routine, offering participants modifications based on fitness level and opportunities to use props. “Anyone who wants to hula-hoop can hula-hoop,” she chuckled. 

On the fourth Tuesday of the month following class, Wholy Fitters share lunch and conversation. “Whether it’s a sign-up list for a salad bar, potato bar, homemade soup or gourmet grilled cheese, sharing food has become a highlight of the program,” Coffman said.  

No matter the day’s agenda, participants’ abiding commitment to showing up for themselves—and each other—is evident. Wholy Fitters support each other with rides and call to check in when someone can’t make it, Sederstrom said. “At certain ages,
it’s hard to go and make new friends,” she added. “This is the Holy Spirit working in this.” 

Wholy Fitters often invite friends, neighbors and even grandchildren to join them for workouts. Because of this, First has gained a couple new members and attracted interest from other churches. “We’ve been contacted by some women from other churches in the last year and a half,” Sederstrom said. “They’re thinking they’d like to do it. … [We’re glad] to share our agenda and format.”

Fitness in and for the community  

At First Evangelical Lutheran Church in Muskegon, Mich., you’ll find chair yoga, cycling and even pickleball on the monthly calendar. But its most unique and visible wellness program is a one-time event combining three forms of exercise. For nearly 15 years, First has hosted a triathlon in August.  

Coordinated by First’s pastor, Bill Uetricht, the event attracts an average of 20 athletes from the congregation and community. Racers compete individually or in teams to complete a 1-mile swim, 11-mile bike ride and 2-mile run around Muskegon’s Bear Lake. 

An avid triathlete himself, Uetricht was inspired by one of First’s youth to start the event. “We were having a fundraiser for our building campaign; it was called the Iron Man and involved men ironing shirts,” he recalled. “One of the kids thought it was going to be a triathlon. I said to him, ‘Let’s plan one!’ He was 12 around then.” 

At First’s last triathlon, the same young man won, Uetricht said. 

In addition to fostering relationships at First, the event has given the congregation a larger profile in Muskegon, thereby attracting some newcomers. But bringing in new members isn’t really the point. “[The triathlon] is part of a wholistic approach to ministry that says the body is not insignificant for who we are as God’s people,” Uetricht said. “In fact [our bodies are] integral to who we are.” 

In Uetrich’s eyes, stewardship of the body is a faith issue, which is why First is committed to offering year-round wellness programs. Though others might shy away from it, the congregation is “willing to talk about the significance of our bodies and what that means for our faith and life together,” he said. 

Healing bodies and souls  

When Cindy Senarighi had a “deeply profound experience of God’s presence” following a yoga class, the former nurse, ELCA pastor and registered yoga instructor knew she had to share it with others. The experience stirred her to develop Yogadevotion, which combines the Hindu practice of yoga with Christian devotions. The class, hosted at over 35 congregations in the Twin Cities, incorporates movement, prayer and meditation. 

Senarighi said it helps participants make connections between their physical and spiritual health. “We have the highest theology of the body in the Christian church and the lowest practice,” she said, listing off the incarnation, crucifixion, resurrection and baptism. “Yoga helps you love your body whatever shape it’s in and treat it the way God would have you treat it.”  

She is quick to note that Yogadevotion is not “Christian yoga” but an opportunity for Christians and others to practice yoga and experience “God’s healing presence.”  

Although she began teaching the classes in 1999 while serving at St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Mahtomedi, Minn., today Senarighi runs Yogadevotion LLC full time. It’s a practice that’s touched the lives of many—including Branstrom and Joyce Reimers.  

A member of Amazing Grace Lutheran Church, Inver Grove Heights, Minn., Reimers counts Yogadevotion as vital in her recovery from colon cancer. “I’ve almost died twice in my life,” she said. “I’m healed. … I do believe it’s because of prayer and working out and yoga.” 

A spry, strong and joyful 74-year-old, Reimers believes her life outlook has shifted dramatically since she began attending Yogadevotion. The reflections and stretching help her let go of things and become “a more peaceful person.” 

Though, like Branstrom, Reimers first began practicing Yogadevotion outside of her home congregation, she fell in love with the program and asked her pastor to bring it to Amazing Grace. “We’ve been doing it [at Amazing Grace] over a year now,” she said. “It’s just a marvelous thing.” 

Reimers especially appreciates the distinct sense of community in her Yogadevotion group. “Sometimes it feels like the whole group is experiencing something at the same time,” she said. “I believe it’s the Holy Spirit.”   

 

We thank everyone who responded to the reader call for this story. We regret that we’re unable to highlight every response. Read the sidebar to this story, “The gym pastor,” and download a study guide for this article.

Erin Strybis
Strybis is a content editor for Living Lutheran and member of Resurrection Lutheran Church in Chicago. When she’s not writing, editing or chasing her toddler, she loves practicing yoga or getting lost in a good book. Find more of Erin’s stories on Instagram (@erinstry) and her blog, www.erinstry.com.

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