Part 1: Is it a ministry or just big business? (Story created: 7/1/01)
In a nation searching for a weight-loss miracle, Williamson County resident Gwen Shamblin has become the high priestess of diet.
Her Christian-based Weigh-Down Workshop has attracted thousands of followers with a simple message: you don't have to count calories, take diet pills, or even exercise.
"I get them on simple principles -- don't focus on it, focus on God, focus on his will," Shamblin tells NewsChannel 5 investigative reporter Phil Williams.
That message has found a home with 30,000 Weigh Down groups meeting in churches across the country.
And it's made Shamblin a best-selling author.
"It's been a life-changing message for me," one tearful participant tells her in a revival-style testimonial..
"I'm from Denver, and I've lost 196 pounds," another says, breaking down into tears as the Weigh Down audience applauds.
"Is this a ministry?" Phil Williams asks Shamblin.
"Absolutely," she replies, "it's a ministry."
'The Churches Were Our Outlet'
"My initial impression when I came in was that this was a ministry," says former employee Tonya Cardente.
Cardente was one of the true believers. She even appeared in a Weigh Down infomercial.
But Cardente says her attitude changed when she went to work at the Weigh-Down headquarters in Franklin as a phone counselor.
"I was instructed that this indeed was a business, that there was a product here that was to be marketed and the churches were basically our outlet," she explains.
Behind the scenes, Cardente says, the first priority was helping customers lighten their wallets.
"My first recommendation to you calling in -- if it was your first time or your 100th time -- was, do you have her latest book, do you have these products?"
Shamblin insists she doesn't worry about sales.
But her magazine, as well as her web site, push a wide variety of products that followers can buy: videos, CDs, shirts, even key chains.
"Because I believe in my products," Shamblin explains. "I believe that I can say it better than the next person, and when you do there's nothing wrong with that."
On CNN's Larry King Live, Shamblin faced a tough question about the for-profit nature of the Weigh Down Workshop.
"Simply put, you are about money, madam," a caller insisted.
In response, Shamblin hinted she takes very little for herself.
"This money -- half of it goes to the government, the other half goes to keep it going so someone else can be helped," she told King.
"Half and half leaves nothing for Gwen Shamblin," Phil Williams notes to Shamblin about her comments on Larry King Live. "That's not completely true, is it?"
"Yes," she replies, "it's completely true."
'Between Me and God'
But under oath in a videotaped testimony obtained by NewsChannel 5, Shamblin puts a different face on the Weigh Down Workshop.
Q:"Has the company actually earned a profit?" A: "Yes."
Over and over, she expresses concern about sales:
A:"If you took away religion, then we wouldn't have a business."
A: "You need to be able to support both the author and the product, or you will diminish sales."
And, Shamblin admits, she and her husband profit from the sales.
Q: "Where does the money go?" A: "The money goes to Weigh Down, and then the money is going to go to David and I, the shareholders."
As for how much they make:
A:"I would say that's between me and God."
The deposition was taken in conjunction with lawsuits filed by several former employees.
"I'm not out there being indulgent of myself," Shamblin insists to Phil Williams. "I don't teach others to not be indulgent and then be indulgent myself."
But property records show the Shamblins bought a sprawling $2.3 million plantation in Brentwood six years ago. The pre-Civil War house comes complete with pool and tennis courts.
Inside, the house is elaborately furnished.
"There are tapestries, antique furniture, works of art," Cardente says.
"So there's no vow of poverty in this case?" Williams asks.
"Absolutely not," the former employee replies.
Shamblin insists there's nothing wrong with what she's done with the money from her ministry.
"That house is used totally for the will of God. Drive by there any time," she insists.
"What about your Mercedes?" Williams asks.
"Is there something wrong with driving a car that works well and I can depend on? There's not, Phil."
"And prayed about, Phil. Prayed about."
As for her statements that "this money -- half of it goes to the government, the other half goes to keep it going so someone else can be helped," , Shamblin makes no apologies. She says she would sell her belongings to keep the ministry going.
"If it was needed, I would sell that car. I would sell that house."