“Trinitys.” “Satan Stompers.” “Crawl from Sin.” No, those aren’t names of Catholic rock bands. They’re workouts done by the Fit Shepherds, a group of Catholic men who meet twice per week at St. Mary Mokena to grow in their faith and bond through rigorous exercise.
The group meets rain or shine. No excuses. Workouts have been held in subzero weather, heavy downpours, and thick snow. During the fall and winter, the 5:00 am Wednesday and 7:00 am Saturday start times often mean warming up before dawn. Following an intense workout, the men gather for a spiritual talk meant to help them become better followers of Christ.
These faith, fellowship, and fitness benefits have drawn men from miles around, some commuting thirty minutes or more for the unique experience.
Fit Shepherds is the creation of Father Mark Bernhard, who began it at Our Lady of Mercy Parish in Aurora and brought it to St. Mary Mokena last year. It is now growing beyond these two churches. As members leave and join new parishes, they are encouraged to start chapters there. In some ways, the growth of Fit Shepherds mirrors that of the early church. Each member is a disciple who spreads the message and mission of Fit Shepherds further into the world. Today, there are even a couple of chapters in Wisconsin.
“Fit Shepherds ultimately aims to get every man in the best spiritual shape of his life through demanding workouts, fraternity, and discipleship,” explained Father Bernhard. “It’s a shallow entry point to a life-changing encounter with Christ, which is the ultimate goal.”
No Pain, No Gain
Each Fit Shepherds workout is different, but they all have one thing in common. “They’re designed to be very challenging and push guys to their limits,” promises Father Bernhard. One common exercise involves lifting cinder blocks to add weight and resistance. There is even a Fit Shepherds tradition where departing members receive a personalized cinder block that everyone signs.
Besides exhausting workouts that leave many men gasping by the end, the other challenging components are the early start times and the no-cancellation policy.
“…Everyone is in the warm-up circle in the pouring rain ready to begin the workout.”-Tom Bushnell
When Tom Bushnell woke up one morning and saw a downpour outside, he was expecting Fit Shepherds to be called off for the day. When the cancellation message never came, he showed up. “Sure enough, I go to the workout and everyone is in the warm-up circle in the pouring rain ready to begin the workout,” he said. “Talk about grit and commitment; this was a defining moment in which I realized these men are legit.”
Despite the intensity, men are encouraged to go at their own pace depending on what their level of fitness allows. Members are expected to be supportive and encouraging of one another. There is no room in the group for pride or negative peer pressure.
From Fitness to Faith
Many men at Fit Shepherds admit that the fellowship and fitness aspect is what initially drew them to the group, but then it became more. “I first got into it for the comradery and the physical aspect,” said Mike Abete. He soon realized that it was about more than breaking a sweat before sunrise. “It’s all about men lifting other men and helping them become better leaders and followers of Christ.” He added that Fit Shepherds even changed his podcast listening preferences to include more spiritual and faith-based programs.
Another regular attendee, Bob Wade, described a similar experience. “I joined Fit Shepherds because I was looking to get involved in the church, and the workout aspect was the initial draw,” he said. “Later, I saw it was a community of men I could learn from to become a better husband and father.”
Tom Bushnell was looking for a church group he could join after coming home from college. “It’s funny because I thought Fit Shepherds was just a name for the workout group that sounded nice,” he said. “But, after coming to these workouts and interacting with these men, it has given me the opportunity to see examples of good and faithful shepherds. These men are great leaders of their family and in the community.”
All of this is by design. “The thing that’s unique about Fit Shepherds is that it’s not just a good workout (which it is),” explained Father Bernhard. “The goal is to bring people closer to Jesus from the workout.”
Changing Hirelings to Shepherds
As members of Fit Shepherds grow in their faith, they are encouraged to share that faith and become leaders and role models in their families, friend groups, and communities.
In describing the mission of Fit Shepherds, Father Bernhard referenced the Bible passage in John 10: 11-15 where Jesus says,
“I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd lays down His life for the sheep. He who is a hired hand, and not a shepherd, who is not the owner of the sheep, sees the wolf coming, and leaves the sheep and flees; and the wolf snatches them and scatters the flock. He flees because he is a hired hand and does not care about the sheep. I am the good shepherd, and I know My own, and My own know Me, just as the Father knows Me and I know the Father; and I lay down My life for the sheep.”
According to Father Bernhard, secular society pushes men to be “hirelings” instead of “shepherds.” In popular culture, men are often portrayed as slackers who are comfortable in their mediocrity. Instead of being leaders who exemplify the Christian life to those around them, they take a backseat, choosing to focus instead on worldly pleasures and selfish desires.
“Doing challenging exercises together builds a bond between the men and encourages them to come out of themselves and become leaders.”-Father Mark Bernhard
Father Bernhard hopes Fit Shepherds can help undo this narrative. “The shepherd lays down his life when the wolf comes. Doing challenging exercises together builds a bond between the men and encourages them to come out of themselves and become leaders,” he said. “Furthermore, developing discipline through tough workouts helps us men stay disciplined against sins like anger and lust and grow in our relationship with Jesus Christ.”
In fact, one of the key aspects of Fit Shepherds is that each man is expected to eventually design and lead a workout. “The toughest situation is when you’re asked to lead,” said Bob Wade. “Many guys have trouble sleeping the night before they lead because there’s a lot of anxiety, nervousness, and excitement. Then, once you’re leading, there’s a large group of men looking to you for direction.”
Yet the experience changes the men. “After you’re done leading, you gain a confidence that wasn’t there before,” explained Wade. “My wife even noticed that I was carrying myself more confidently. It’ll help you become a better husband, a better father, and a better member of the community.”
The Future of Fit Shepherds
Fit Shepherds has become an active ministry at St. Mary Mokena. Around 75 men belong to the group altogether, and between 30-40 come every week. All men and boys ages 16 and older are welcome, although there are many instances where fathers bring their younger sons, which is permitted.
Despite its growth, Fit Shepherds is still in its infancy. As members like Mike Abete move or switch parishes, they plan to start the group at their new church. “Since I’ve seen how helpful Fit Shepherds has been for me, I think it can help other men as well,” said Abete.
For Father Bernhard’s part, he plans to launch the group at Notre Dame Church in Clarendon Hills when he begins his new assignment there. Meanwhile, he is leaving the St. Mary chapter in the capable hands of his most trusted “shepherds.”
“I’m extremely confident that Fit Shepherds will continue to thrive at St. Mary,” said Father Bernhard. “The men are top-notch. I’m blessed to have had one year with these guys. I know I will see them again—maybe when my new parish and St. Mary come together to compete!”