Pastor's Corner: It takes sheer courage to go to church (also to join a gym)

There are few things I dislike more than getting in shape.  Sure, after a month of beating your body into submission, training the will and expanding your lungs, running and lifting feels slightly less torturous, and you can start appreciating the occasional endorphin high. It’s those initial days of stretching out your joints, which have rusted into place after eating cheese and re-watching the first season of “Glee”repeatedly, that are brutal.

As it is for most people in their 20s, my last several summers have been completely dedicated to weddings.  While I love dressing up, it’s a reality check to log onto Facebook the following Monday to find that you’ve been tagged in multiple picture, all showcasing your untoned arms. One summer with that sort of thing on your record and the motivation to exercise comes much easier. I do not want my Facebook legacy to be “fat bridesmaid.”Still, even though my motivation was there, the thought of going to a gym left me feeling really unsettled. I put it off for a long time because I had visions of walking in and encountering the cast of “Jersey Shore”— sculpted, tanned, toned and teased. Rather than suffer such comparisons, I made some feeble attempts to get in shape on my own.  But that quickly left me bored. You can only do so many pilates from YouTube before you lose motivation, and besides, it’s hard to push yourself in the comfort of your own home, when no one is watching. Clearly, a gym was my only hope for actually getting in shape.

Much like the kids who are afraid of kindergarten, because they don’t know how to read and people who think they are too sick to go to the doctor, it was illogical of me to think I had to be in shape to join a gym. So I finally just went and found that while there are some people who approach spinning with the intensity of an Olympian (calm down, please, your bike is NOT MOVING) many are like me: pasty, average and hoping very simply to shed a few pounds to look good for the summer.  Furthermore, there’s a camaraderie that among the people, all working toward a similar goal that you just can’t achieve by watching “Buns of Steel” alone in your living room. A little competition, after all, encourages intensity.

Many people approach religion or church with the same hesitancy. Just as I feared encountering a level of fitness that I couldn’t live up to, some people expect, I think, to encounter a sanctity that will make them feel inadequate. They think church is just a place for Mother Teresa and Billy Graham to have coffee and doughnuts and that there’s no place for real people with real problems and sin. 

But much like I could never have changed my body if I didn’t take that initial plunge and allow myself to be challenged by trainers and those around me, our souls cannot change if we attempt to do it all on our own.

Any church community you go into will be almost certainly full of people who are very advanced in their walk with God, as well as those who are just starting out. Holiness is not a competition, of course, but we do benefit from witnessing how others have handled the same challenges we face — much like I was motivated by those who could run faster and lift more than I could.In the Gospel of John, Christ reminds us, “Remain in me, as I remain in you. Just as a branch cannot bear fruit on its own unless it remains on the vine, so neither can you unless you remain in me.” (John 15:4-5).  Taking the steps to be connected can be intimidating, but unless we are connected to Christ we cannot grow.

Alison Griswold is the director of Youth Ministry at St. Francis By the Sea Catholic Church and can be reached at Follow her on Twitter at