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."
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 keychains.
"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."
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?"
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."
The Weigh Down Workshop has become a multimillion-dollar business based on a simple concept:
Your weight loss is a reflection of your faith.
Weigh Down founder Gwen Shamblin, who touts her credentials as a registered dietitian, tells her followers: "it's not genetics."
"I don't think there's any debate whether genetics plays a role in obesity and weight loss," Vanderbilt dietitian Jamie Pope tells investigative reporter Phil Williams.
She points to numerous scientific studies of children separated from their birth parents, as well as studies of twins.
"Identical twins that are reared even apart end up being very similar in body weight despite different environments."
But Shamblin counters, "I believe that's described from Exodus 20 where it talks about the sins of the generation."
So what's Shamblin's basis for rejecting the role of genetics?
"Gwen went on to say that there were survivors of the Holocaust who got out of there alive not having had barely any food at all," says former employee Tonya Cardente.
Cardente says Shamblin frequently pointed to the Nazi genocide of the Jews and saw justification for her diet plan. "Clearly you can survive on a whole lot less than you think, look at the Holocaust victims."
"This is not true that I've used the Holocaust over and over again," Shamblin responds. "It's somebody who told you that. I have not."
But on CNN's Larry King Live, this is what the Weigh Down founder said:
"How in the Holocaust did you have all these people getting down real skinny? They ate less food."
And in a videotaped deposition obtained by NewsChannel 5, she explained her rejection of the role of genetics:
A: "What I base the genetics on is documentation in the seige in the Holocaust, that when people were in prison camps and ate less food, they lost weight -- all of them."
"I am offended because I think of the victims," says Rabbi Mark Schiftan of The Temple. His parents survived the Holocaust, but 6 million others lost their lives.
"These were all people who were forced to starve. They were all given a diet of one meal a day often less than 600 calories that wouldn't sustain anyone."
Schiftan says Shamblin's theories reveal an immense ignorance about the Jewish experience.
"Those who did not perish in the crematoria, perished because they didn't have enough sustenance to sustain them."
Here is how Shamblin responded in her testimony:
Q:"Ms. Shamblin, surely you are not making a comparison between the forced starvation of a population and middle-class American's eating habits? Are you honestly doing that?"
A: "I have been for 15 years, and a lot of people have responded."
During their interview, Phil Williams asks Shamblin, "Do you have any idea what the Jewish victims of the Holocaust endured?"
"Oh, just awful, just awful," she replies.
"And you still think it's appropriate to use it to push your weight loss plan?"
At that point, Shamblin's lawyer -- who is sitting off to the side -- interrupts, "That's enough."
"Do you think it's appropriate for you to use the Holocaust to promote your weight loss plan?" Williams asks again.
"She's never used" the Holocaust, counters the attorney who then escorts the Weigh Down founder from the interview.
Shamblin says her main point is that people will lose weight when they eat less food.
But other experts argue that doesn't take into consideration that some folks may have an extremely difficult time losing weight -- regardless of their faith or lack of faith.
"Genetics may not prevent you from losing weight," Pope says. "It's just that how much you can lose and how low you can go may be limited somewhat by genetics."
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."