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Building "Fit" Families

Robb and Ruth Brandt have turned their empty nest into a retreat for mentoring couples.

What to do when the nest is finally empty?

Pack away all that marriage and parenting experience, never to be accessed again?

Or try something brand new? A ministry that imparts that knowledge and relates those experiences—good and bad—to the next generation of couples?

For Robb and Ruth Brandt, retiring from their medical careers certainly didn't mean retiring from active ministry. In fact, over the past dozen years they've thrown life into overdrive with a simple ministry idea: bring younger, Christian couples into their home for a weekend and mentor them. Help them refocus their marriages and parenting. Feed them. House them for two nights.

It all adds up to something the Brandts call Family Fitness Retreats. They say the idea has worked wonders in families while being intensely fulfilling for the two of them as leaders.

"After the children grow up, there's a diversity of attitudes—'I'm going to go play golf,' or just, 'I'm glad that's over,'" Robb says. "But in the context of the kingdom, it's such a waste to have made all those mistakes raising children and then not pass on what you've learned."

A perfect match

Robb and Ruth were born on the same day: September 16, 1935 (Robb delights in pointing out that he is two hours older). They met in seventh grade and have been "madly in love" ever since. Robb was a surgeon, retiring early because of lingering knee injuries from a car accident. He still does medical consulting for hospitals around the United States. Ruth was a registered nurse. They have four adult children and 10 grandchildren. And they've also experienced a parent's worst nightmare, having lost an 8-year-old son in an accident in 1969.

The idea for Family Fitness Retreats germinated in 1994, Robb remembers. He and Ruth were recent empty nesters. On the couple's 154-acre Christmas tree farm near Pittsburgh, Robb climbed a hill one morning as he was praying for several young couples in their church.

"It occurred to me that there was a coincidence here: us having had a fairly intensive parenting experience, and these young couples having needs," he says. "Many of them grew up in families where they didn't have Christian parents. I looked down on our house with its four empty bedrooms, and there seemed to be a natural match. We had the time and the space and the experience, and they had the needs. So that was the beginning of the idea."

As he and Ruth talked and prayed about it, they also knew what they didn't want to develop.

 "We'd been to a lot of marriage seminars," Ruth says. "One of the things that we thought was frustrating was the lack of communication between spouses. It is so necessary to include time for that. Robb always says when we go to some of these other seminars that it's like drinking from a fire hydrant. And then you go home, you put it on the shelf, and you don't do anything with it."

So they set about developing the blueprint for Family Fitness Retreats (see How It Works, page 28). Robb's spiritual gifts are in administration and leadership; he developed the schedule and the teaching format. Ruth's primary gift is hospitality; she worked out details such as meals and sleeping arrangements.

Living what they teach

The Brandts had been among the founders and charter members of their Evangelical Free church in Beaver Falls. They'd opened their home together for various ministries. But they'd never taught as a couple. The two had just been so busy with their own schedules that it hadn't ever been practical. "We've always just been open to moving where God wanted us," Ruth says.

   "We have a wonderful marriage and everything," Robb adds, "but I think we're both strong-willed and competitive. These Family Fitness Retreats have been a common ground, hand in glove. Everything is we, us, and our. It's been a really nice coming together."

"They work in harmony," agrees Pam Sear. She and her husband, Mike, have been married 6 years and have two kids, ages 4 and 5. They attended a Family Fit-ness Retreat last September and were impressed by the way Robb and Ruth played off each other as they taught.

"Sometimes," Pam says, "when Robb would try to explain something he would go off into immense and intense detail, God love him. Ruth would smile and give a simple explanation to the group. And we'd all sigh with relief. She was never undermining Robb, but giving an understandable explanation to the group. They both hold each other in high regard."

Previously, the Sears had attended seminars and workshops that seemed "too serious and formal." As relatively new Christians who didn't know the Bible very well, they had felt lost and confused.

They found the Brandts' weekend to be the opposite.

"We laughed and joked and all of us, no matter our background, felt what we had to offer was important," Pam says. "Robb and Ruth really explained Scripture and asked for our input. For us, it was a relief to be able to ask questions without being judged or feeling inferior."

They also were struck by the Brandts' genuineness. "They live what they teach," Pam says. "We loved hearing their stories and methods of how they've always incorporated the Lord into their marriage, raising children, relationships, and everything they do. They also acknowledged that it's not easy. They were empathetic to the realities of life but taught that as believers we need to endure and persevere."

Robb and Ruth draw from their life and medical-career experiences, but they have no formal training as counselors. The weekends are not intended for couples in crisis, or as a substitute for marriage counseling. Rather, the Brandts simply share biblical principles from their own experiences.

"In fact," Robb says, "in our recruiting for these retreats, we always exclude people who would otherwise be considered candidates for counseling. What we advertise is that we give biblical principles for families."

Go and do likewise

The Brandts' next goal is to "pass the baton." A few couples have latched onto the idea of Family Fitness Retreats; Robb and Ruth would love to see more.

"We think the Lord has given us an idea, and a good one, which we've now had the opportunity to prove as a valid, practical, cost-effective method to minister," Robb says. "Our greatest thrill now would be other people doing this—maybe attending a retreat at our house and then wanting to go back and do it in their community."

That's exactly what Ed and Annie Knotts are doing. They attend the same church as the Brandts and live about five miles away. When they built a log home several years ago, Ed says, they knew one of its purposes would be to host Family Fitness Retreats. The retreat that Mike and Pam Sear attended was hosted by the Knotts and taught by the Brandts.

"It's amazing to watch how it evolves into life friendships," Annie says. "With one particular group, we've had several get-togethers since then."

Robb and Ruth recommend that an interested couple work with their local church—both for credibility and accountability. Their church promotes the retreats and recruits the couples. A committee approach, rather than a single couple, works best.

"For instance," Robb says, "maybe there's a couple that has a really great house for a retreat. That might be a different couple than the couple who would be good as leaders. Maybe others are gifted with childcare, catering. There are all different ways to divide this task."

Another attractive point: This is not a full-time, all-consuming commitment. The Brandts lead between three and six Family Fitness Retreats each year, some at their farm, some at others' homes—usually in the spring and fall. "It's not like being a Sunday school teacher where you have to show up every Sunday morning," Robb says. "You schedule these things. People can have very significant ministry, but it's on an episodic basis."

A lasting impact

What has the Brandts so fired up about exporting their ministry blueprint is the feedback they consistently receive. A typical example is a husband who remarked to Robb several years later: "You know, that weekend permanently improved our marriage."

Mike and Pam Sear came to the Family Fitness Retreat last fall feeling like they had been "stuck in a spiritual rut," Pam says. "We wanted to build our relationship with the Lord but really just didn't know how or where to begin."

Today, they hold hands and pray together as a couple. They have family devotional times in the evenings. They're involved in a small group Bible study. They attribute those changes to what they saw modeled and taught by Robb and Ruth.

"They're amazing," Pam says. "We love them both dearly. They don't intimidate or judge. They simply want what's best for your marriage, your family, and your eternal future. They represent marriage and all its glory."

Jim Killam teaches journalism at Northern Illinois University and is co-author of Rescuing the Raggedy Man (Xulon Press).

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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