In the week that dame Sally Davies, chief medical officer in Britain, declared that obesity is now so common that society is “normalizing being overweight,” I attended a ministers’ meeting where two-thirds of those present were grossly overweight.
I was shocked. Before I begin, however, let me make three preliminary remarks:
1. Although my belly does not sag over my trouser waist, I am not svelte in shape.
I could certainly do with losing weight, but I do exercise. Every Friday morning, I do penance on the treadmill. At 7 a.m. on Monday and Thursday, I go for a three-mile walk; if I am feeling energetic, I’ll add a third morning.
2. I accept that God has made us all different.
My father-in-law could eat all the wrong food, but to his dying day remained fit and lean. Others only look at food and begin to put on weight.
But genes are not the only factor. Most of us through exercise and self-discipline can compensate, at least in part.
3. Some of my overweight fellow ministers may have medical conditions, and I trust that they will ignore my comments.
So, why are so many ministers (in the West) fat?
I have no objective evidence for the British scene. However, a 2001 “Pulpit and Pew” study of 2,500 American clergy found that 76 percent were overweight or obese compared to 61 percent of the general population at the time of the study.
In October 2010, Erik Raymond, lead pastor of Emmaus Bible Church in Omaha, Neb., blogged: “One thing that has always intrigued me is overweight pastors. If you want to get a gauge on how prevalent this is, you just have to visit a pastor’s conference. I am not saying that everyone is rockin’ the elastic waist pants but, there are a lot of guys that, well, are fat.”
Raymond goes on: “Let’s face it, the bottom line for the expanding waistline for some guys is that they are lazy. They sit around at their computer, drink soda, eat chips, then go out and eat burgers and fries every day. … Fat pastors unwittingly let the air out and deflate the gospel tire of its power by rocking their own spare tire.”
Clearly, obesity is a problem both within and without the church, but are there particular reasons why some of us ministers have particular problems with our weight? Three possible reasons come to mind:
1. So many church activities include eating.
Prayer breakfasts, seniors’ lunches and Alpha dinners are but the tip of the iceberg. Eating together is part of the Christian lifestyle. Every church celebration involves food.
2. Pastoral visiting inevitably involves drinking a cup of tea or coffee – and almost always there is an offer of a cake or biscuit.
3. The demands of pastoral life cause tiredness. When we are tired, we “graze.”
The fact is that after a busy day most of us need to make time to switch off before we go to bed – and food can be a form of comfort therapy. It’s a tough life being a minister – but so, too, are other jobs.
Raymond accuses pastors of being hypocrites: “Being a fat pastor is probably a symptom of a bigger spiritual issue. Pastors preach and teach about being disciplined and self-controlled. … However, we compartmentalize our lives to exclude food.”
My mind goes to 1 Corinthians 9:24-27, where Paul speaks of the need for “self-control” by drawing upon the analogy of the athlete’s self-control. The Christian life is by definition a disciplined life.
For many Christians, one of the classic spiritual disciplines has been fasting.
Martin Luther, for instance, wrote: “The pious Fathers declared that whoever desires to serve God, must root out, above all, the vice of gluttony. That is a prevailing vice which causes much trouble.”
“If this vice is not altogether extirpated, it makes the soul dull even for divine things, even if it should not lead to unchastity and debauchery as among aged men,” Luther continued. “Hence fasting is a most excellent weapon for the Christian while gluttony is an outstanding pit of Satan!”
Is fasting a discipline that ministers in particular need to recover? What about the modern discipline of dieting? What difference would it make if churches were to offer their ministers a free gym membership?
One dietitian had her doubts. Based on her experience with pastors, she wrote, “They tend to be some of the least motivated and most resistant to making changes. These aren’t guys who can blame it on genetics or age, they simply are eating too much, eating unhealthy foods and not exercising.”
Obesity is not just a cosmetic problem. It affects energy levels in the here and now; and it significantly increases the risk of such things as coronary heart disease, high blood pressure, strokes and Type 2 diabetes.
We need to be good stewards of the bodies God has given us.
Paul Beasley-Murray recently retired after 21 years of ministry as the senior minister of Central Baptist Church in Chelmsford in the United Kingdom. He is currently serving as the chairman and general editor of Ministry Today U.K. and as the chairman of the College of Baptist Ministers. He is the author of numerous books and articles; his writings can be found at PaulBeasleyMurray.com, where readers can register to receive his weekly blog post. A longer version of this article first appeared on his website and is used with permission.
Paul Beasley-Murray retired after 21 years of ministry as the senior minister of Central Baptist Church in Chelmsford in the United Kingdom. He is currently serving as the chairman and general editor of Ministry Today U.K. and as the chairman of the College of Baptist Ministers. He is the author of numerous books and articles, including “Living Out the Call,” a four-volume series on pastoral ministry.