AKRON, Ohio — The Rev. Mark Ford was offended when a few of his fellow clergy insinuated he should do something about his weight and stop burning the candle at both ends.
"I got mad and I thought, 'My mental and physical health is none of your business.' Now, if they wanted to talk about my character, that was one thing. But my body was none of their business," said Ford, executive director of Love Akron. "Then I went home, and the Holy Spirit went with me. God spoke to me very clearly, saying he sent those brothers to admonish me, so that I could be a better servant."
That was three years ago. Now 50 pounds lighter, Ford is ready to run the 26.2-mile Akron (Ohio) Marathon on Sept. 24. He hopes his participation will encourage other clergy to commit to a healthy lifestyle.
"For me, this marathon is doing something extreme to express in a tangible way my concern about pastors taking care of themselves," Ford said. "Pastors are caretakers and many times, caretakers are so busy taking care of everybody else that they forget to take care of themselves."
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Ford said he was encouraged to run the marathon after reading an article last year in the Akron Beacon Journal about Chuck Gough, a Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, man who had lost 135 pounds in a little more than a year after bariatric surgery, and ran in the 2010 marathon as part of his quest to get healthier.
Like Gough, Ford trained in the 17-week Marathon 101 course at the University of Akron. And as Gough was an inspiration to Ford, Ford now wants to be an inspiration to leaders in the religious community.
Last week, Ford stood before a crowd of nearly 100 church leaders during Love Akron's quarterly prayer gathering and shared his vision for a health and wellness initiative for local pastors. The gatherings, which help local church leaders build relationships through prayer, are typically held at churches.
This time, the event was at Akron General's Health & Wellness Center in Bath Township, Ohio. And instead of wearing a suit and tie, Ford showed up in his Marathon 101 T-shirt, sweat pants and a baseball cap.
The visuals and Ford's message were well received.
Dottie Achmoody, chief executive at Akron's OPEN M (Opportunity Parish Ecumenical Neighborhood Ministry), said she was encouraged to get back into her walking routine. OPEN M is a faith-based ministry that feeds the hungry, cares for the sick, nurtures children and strengthens families.
"In the last two months, things have been really busy and I've kind of fallen off the wagon, not walking like I had been," said Achmoody, 62. "Attending the gathering helped redirect me. I can get so focused on work that I eat, sleep and drink OPEN M. I was reminded that I have to be in good shape to help others and I'm hoping to get back on track."
The Rev. Mark Ruppert, pastor at Akron's First Presbyterian Church, said he is better able to help others when he is healthy. Ruppert said he is getting back into his running routine after recovering from an injury last fall.
"Staying healthy has always been important to me — I was a high school and college athlete," said Ruppert, 55. "Eating right, exercising and getting enough rest helps me better deal with the pressures and strains of being a caretaker."
Ruppert and the Rev. Benjamin Drone agree that being a pastor is a 24-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week vocation. Physical activity can help increase energy and can serve as an outlet for some of the stress.
Drone, pastor at Akron's Faith Temple Church of the Living God, quipped that his weekly golf outing with the Tire Town Golf League serves as a stress reliever "if I'm playing a good game."
"It does relieve stress and it gives me an opportunity to take time to laugh and talk with a group of positive people," said Drone, 65. "As pastors, we have to learn to balance the spiritual with the physical. We have to be physically strong and healthy because we are here to serve others. If we are sick, we can't do what we need to do for others."
In addition to helping pastors become physically fit, Ford hopes that a wellness strategy for clergy will include mental health and spiritual health components.
"Just like those brothers who came to me because they were concerned about me, I am reaching out to my fellow clergy and expressing that same kind of concern," said Ford, 59. "In many ways, this marathon is symbolic of my life.
"I joke that I'm going to start on Sept. 24 and hopefully end by Dec. 24 to get back in time for Christmas Eve service. I really hope to finish by one o'clock (it starts at 7 a.m.). But time is not an issue for me. One of my goals in life is to finish well, and that's what I want to do in this race, finish well."