The Travails of a Fat Pastor

Last week I got a call from Bob Smietana, the religion reporter at the Tennessean. It seems like Bob is always calling looking for some sort of response on the latest study or some political happening, so I wasn’t surprised to hear that he was looking for comments on a recent study out of Duke on the unhealthiness of clergy folk. I hadn’t read the study, but replied that I wasn’t very surprised, talking about how the pressures of schedule lead to bad eating habits, and a general aversion to exercise. Along the way I made an off hand remark that my running from place to place often leads me to too many McDonald’s drive-through runs. I didn’t think much about it . . . I was just talking to Bob . . . until the story came out the next day and I find myself as the poster child for clergy unhealth.

For the record, I know that I am beyond pleasingly plump, and at the boundaries of morbid obesity. Weight has been an issue all my life, a struggle that I have never mastered. I know what I need to do, and have sometimes been successful at controlling my weight in the past. But even though I see myself and the 75 pounds that I need to lose clearly, I still struggle with maintaining a lifestyle that leads to loss.

There is a tendency among some to see this as simply a choice. But no one chooses to be fat. I know that my success in ministry is limited by the image others have of me, and that weight tarnishes that image. I know that I feel like I have to work harder to influence folks in their faith than my svelte, well trimmed and handsome colleagues. That, of course, leads to greater stress, which makes finding the discipline to eat well and exercise more even harder.

Today the lay leader at a large church in the city wrote a letter to the editor suggesting that I simply needed to eat better and that I should donate what I spend on fast food to the local food bank. Frankly, I didn’t need that word — I hadn’t asked for the publicity about my struggles nor was looking for either sympathy or assistance with the lifestyle that comes with being a pastor. And while I appreciate the concern, it isn’t like I haven’t tried many of the things that she suggested along the way.

What I need is what all of us need — not someone to comment from afar but a supportive community who is willing to walk beside me, who doesn’t judge but rather encourages, who is willing to not only share words but is willing to give the time to walk with me — literally.  Those of you who are in congregations, your fat pastor needs more than love and affection, they need to be encouraged to take time to be healthy . . . and it wouldn’t hurt to throw in a gym membership as well. Know that they are probably beating themselves up mentally for their inability to get their weight under control, and more than anyone else see it as a failing in their lives.

Yes, I am a fat pastor, who needs to be transformed like all of us. God is working on me, just like God is working on you, and some day I will move on toward perfection enough that I can leave the weight behind me.

11 thoughts on “The Travails of a Fat Pastor

  1. Amen, brother, preach it. Mine excess weight is more in the order of 100 pounds. Covered dish dinners, lunch with the pastor, sponge cake at the nursing home, etc. just make it HARD.

  2. Jay,
    I didn’t see the letter to the editor, but I have had people say the same kind of thing to me and I agree it is not helpful. I have even had Doctors tell me I just need to make the choice to eat healthy, but it is not that easy for some of us.

  3. jay, excellent piece about our propensity to judge, our obsession with body image & how we can really be helpful to each other. hang in there, and know that in many ways your ministry influences people.

    blessings and peace,

    ken carter

  4. Jay,
    Of the “hazards” of ministry, among the most difficult are too many meetings, too much stress and too little supportive community. Unlike you, I struggle with a sedentary work life. Too many sit down meetings that last into the late night and on weekends, meals in hotels or on the run in airports. Makes me wonder if we who talk about health and wholeness truly understand what we are saying. Like you, I’m not complaining but I do think about how unhealthy my lifestyle is. My own metabolism doesn’t lead to obesity, but this lifestyle leads to other bad health effects.

    It’s good you understand and are forthcoming about this. It’s a good step forward. I need to take several steps myself, real steps. Exercise steps. Which I’ll do first thing tomorrow.

  5. I don’t believe your appearance has ever lessened the impact of things you’ve said to me. And without discouraging you from trying to be healthier I really think that the things you have shared about your weight and the ways you’ve tried dealing with it have been helpful in a not-pretending-to-be-perfect kind of way. While it may not be what God wants, he can use your weight for his purposes.

    As a fairly sedentary food addict who doesn’t look like it I think it’s incredibly unfair that you get judged while so many others of us don’t.

    I trust God’s working with you at his pace and on his priorities and it’s sure not up to me to tell him to change them. If you’re over this way this week feel free to come by for some vegetarian Indian food (it’s a really big pot of dal), I’d offer to come walk with you this week but I may have broken my foot at youth.

    With much love and enormous respect (while I try to think Christian thoughts of the letter writer and website commenters)


  6. Hello, my name is John, and I am fat.

    It is a spiritual issue. We need each other and God to overcome it.

    Good word, Jay.

  7. Dude. we are twins! And since my wife can not work out with me due to her being born without hip sockets, I need a partner to work out with, and right now I just do not have that. love ya!

  8. Jay,

    Methodist pastors in NC have been getting it with both barrel when it comes to these Clergy Health studies, since it’s coming out of Duke. And it is important work. But I enjoyed your response to this letter; someone who has never struggled with weight simply can’t understand it, in the same way that I cannot really understand the struggles of my alcoholic brothers and sisters.

    One of the most interesting and disturbing things to occur to me, at times when I have lost weight, is that friendships are either altered or lost. I had friends actually tell me, “I miss the fat version of you.”

    Our system is set up to get the results we are getting. That includes daily habits and “choices,” however formed by poor habit these are, but it also includes those with whom we share our time and friendship.

    Thank you for this.

  9. I agree it’s not easy. But lots of things in life are not easy. because of my bad eating habits, I now have diabetes Type 2 and so now I have to eat properly. It reminds me of the scripture that talks about putting a bridle on a horse and making him do such and such. I wish 20 years ago, I had eaten healthier. But now I have a bridle on to make me eat healthy. I don’t think it’s a good witness whether you are a pastor or not, because the Bible talks about the sin of gluttony…so gluttony is a sin. SIGH. I’m not condemning anyone, because I have my bridle now and once in awhile it chafes, but now I’m forced to eat correctly. So eat correctly before you are forced to eat correctly. And walking is free. Lifting weights is free except for a couple or three different size weights. One doesn’t need a gym membership to exercise. It takes a Christian principle – discipline which I wish I had more of, but then it’s a choice. Either be a couch potato or a Slim Jim, or in my case female Slim Jim.

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