Part 3: 'This isn't just about weight loss' (Story created: 7/1/2001)
Gwen Shamblin built her multimillion-dollar weight loss business through some 30,000 churches that offered her program.
But critics say Shamblin is now trying to draw members from those same churches.
"We are a ministry that's helping people to turn toward God, and the churches recognize us as that," Shamblin tells NewsChannel 5 investigative reporter Phil Williams.
But a former Weigh Down employee has a different take.
"I think it was her intent from the beginning to use Weigh Down as a vehicle for a religious movement," Tonya Cardente says.
Cardente worked inside the Weigh Down headquarters in Franklin as a counselor, taking the calls that the company did not advertise -- callers saying, "I'm doing everything that you're telling me to do, and it's still not working."
To those callers, Cardente says, she had to give Gwen Shamblin's answer.
"If you are not losing weight then there's something wrong with your heart," the former employee explains.
"You were told to tell them that?" Phil Williams asks.
"That is correct."
In videotaped testimony obtained by NewsChannel 5, Shamblin admits she struggled over why the testimonial stories weren't being realized by everyone who tried her diet program:
A:"I was looking for a cause and effect of people perhaps gaining their weight back."
So Shamblin decided those struggling Weigh Down members just weren't hearing the right message in their own churches. That's when she and her supporters decided to form their own church, the Remnant Fellowship.
"The restoration of the early church is what I was going after," she says.
That's led to a whole new range of products... and plans to establish Remnant Fellowships across the country.
The Weigh Down founder was asked about that in the court testimony:
Q:"What is it that's going to keep weight off at Remnant Fellowship that won't keep weight off at the Church of Christ down the street?" A:"It would be an emphasis that God's grace teaches you to say no to your own desires."
"We're not playing games here," Shamblin tells Phil Williams. "This isn't just about weight loss. This is about taking a message."
In addition to her videotapes, Weigh Down's web site also trumpets Shamblin's teachings on various theological issues. It even urges participants to question their own churches.
"She has used the mainstream churches to get her message in, and the hook was weight loss," Cardente argues.
Shamblin insists there was no deception.
"Is God deceptive that Jesus went into the synagogues and taught the Jewish people what he wanted to teach them? I don't think so."
Because of her theological views on the Trinity, Shamblin recently lost a book contract with Thomas Nelson Publishers. And Lifeway Christian Bookstores announced it would no longer carry Weigh Down products.
Now Cardente and other former employees have filed lawsuits, saying there were forced out of Weigh Down because they would not leave their own churches and become a part of Shamblin's Remnant Fellowship.
"It was mandatory that you attend," she says.
"Absolutely not," Shamblin replies. "Why would I do that?"
But internal Weigh Down documents filed in court refer to "new requirements" for certain positions to be filled by those who have expressed a "genuine interest ... in Remnant Fellowship" and in "helping to establish other fellowships throughout the country."
Shamblin insists she has not seen that document. She says she only wanted her employees to be supportive when answering questions from callers.
Still, the Weigh Down founder says anyone who questions her techniques is questioning God's own plan.
"To accuse me of being deceptive is very strong language because I've been led by God to do this."