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Shaping Up

Chaplain Ricky Van Pay shifts his focus to keeping churchgoers fit.

In 2012, Ricky Van Pay became an ordained Assemblies of God U.S. Missions triathlon chaplain, focusing on reaching endurance athletes who tend to worship the outdoors rather than God.

While based in Boulder, Colorado, Van Pay encountered more residents hiking, mountain climbing, biking, or running on Sunday mornings rather than inside a church sanctuary. Van Pay saw his objective as building relationships by meeting people on their own turf, discipling them, and then being a bridge to local Bible-believing churches. Van Pay served as a new breed of chaplains taking the gospel to people who have never gone or have stopped going to church. In Van Pay's case, that meant visiting the gym, swimming pool, riding trails, or walking track.

But as he interacted with AG ministers, Van Pay grew more concerned with the physical health of those preaching the Word. In addition to aiding those who work out excessively, Van Pay began to teach those who didn't exercise at all.

In 2014, Van Pay moved to Waxahachie, Texas, home to his alma mater, Southwestern Assemblies of God University. He has implemented fitness plans with both SAGU Lead Program and the AG North Texas District, using The Oaks Fellowship in Red Oak as a base camp. Lead Pastor Scott Wilson is among those who have committed to be a "fit pastor" under Van Pay's tutelage.

As the founder of Fit Pastors, Van Pay sustains himself by preaching and teaching at churches. Van Pay works with pastors, church staffs, and congregants who are struggling to eat less and exercise more. Van Pay notes there are more AG churches in Texas than any other state -- and a lot of the people attending are overweight or obese.

Van Pay knows the road from experience because of an early adulthood bent toward comfort food. Whenever he felt discouraged, he visited a Mexican café and ordered a huge plate of fajitas with extra fattening food on the side.

"I was hurting and it made me feel better," Van Pay says. "Deep down I was craving chips and salsa more than Christ."

As a 25-year-old, 225-pound youth pastor, Van Pay had a wake-up call when a physician told him he was a candidate for an early grave. Also suffering from high blood pressure and high cholesterol at the time, Van Pay knew he had to get in shape when he could no longer fit into his suit coat soon after the birth of his first child.

"I was preaching self-control, but I was a hypocrite because I had no discipline in eating or caring for my body," recalls Van Pay, now 36. "What kind of example was I setting?"

Van Pay can empathize with the overweight people he is trying to help. He has experienced the stress of an office job that leads to a sedentary lifestyle. But he believes the strain of working out and resisting fattening foods is preferable to the back pain, shortness of breath, and higher medical bills that accompanied his chubbier days -- before he lost 75 pounds.

By being in great shape himself, Van Pay, who blogs regularly, gains credibility. He has participated in more than 20 triathlons and completed three Ironman triathlons, a grueling event that can take 17 hours and involves a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bicycle ride, and a 26.2-mile marathon - all done consecutively without stopping.

In his ministry at churches, Van Pay preaches sermons about health from a biblical perspective. He keeps the apostle Paul's advice in mind: "I discipline my body like an athlete, training it to do what it should. Otherwise, I fear that after preaching to others I myself might be disqualified" (1 Corinthians 9:27, New Living Translation).

Van Pay also believes it's important to stay in shape for the sake of family. He and his wife Amy have been married for 13 years and have three children, Camden, 10; Cale, 8; and Ainsley, 2.

Besides coaching individuals in wellness clinics, Van Pay conducts 12-week once-a-week "huddles" throughout the year. In these he engages face-to-face telephonically with several pastors simultaneously in intense accountability one-hour sessions. The ministers must keep a daily online food log for Van Pay to review. He teaches a great deal about nutrition and how to develop healthier lifestyle habits that will take and keep the weight off. So far, he has trained a dozen coaches to do the same methods nationally.

In addition to all his other activities, Van Pay is the team health and fitness leader for the AG's Church Multiplication Network.

Chris Railey, senior director of Leadership and Church Development for the AG, says he joined Fit Pastors network in an effort to not be so tired, ill, and overweight.

"To a large degree I have regained my health," Railey says. "I've lost 30 pounds, have more energy and confidence, and haven't been sick for 18 months!"

Railey believes it's important for pastors to be spiritually, emotionally, and physically healthy because they represent Christ.

"If people see we don't take care of our body, it may discredit our message," Railey says.

Railey, 38, also says staying in shape for his family motivated him. His wife Cara has started working out with him, and the couple's three sons join them on runs.

Pictured (L-R): Chris Beard, Ricky Van Pay, Tim Hager, Kyle Dana

John W. Kennedy

John W. Kennedy served as news editor of AG News from its inception in 2014 until retiring in 2023. He previously spent 15 years as news editor of the Pentecostal Evangel and seven years as news editor at Christianity Today.