They’ll know we are Christians by our love and by our bulging waistlines. And the larger the middle, the more likely you are to be pastor of a church.

Obesity is a growing epidemic claiming some 300,000 lives each year. Defined as being overweight by 20 percent or by 25 to 35 pounds, physicians agree that being too fat is hazardous to your health.

While the secular community is sounding the alarm over the evils of obesity, Christian churches have not gotten the message. Many don’t consider or don’t want to consider that over eating is a sin as is sexual promiscuity, murder and greed.
When it comes to the fattest of the fat, Christians weigh more than other religious groups and un-churched people, according to Kenneth Ferraro, a sociologist at the University of Purdue.

His analysis of data from two national surveys, published in the Review of Religious Research, showed that regardless of the religion, religious people tend weigh more than their nonreligious counterparts.

While his discovery applies to all major religions in the United States, American Jews, Muslims and Buddhists on average weigh less than American Christians.

States with a high rate of religious affiliation such as Mississippi, Michigan and Indiana also have higher rates of citizens who are overweight. Conversely, the more secular the state—Massachusetts, Hawaii and Colorado—the less its citizens weigh.
Among Christian denominations, Southern Baptists have the most overweight and obese members.

While there is little information on obesity in ministers, Ferraro’s data is similar to the results of a 1997 study conducted on ministers during the Southern Baptist Convention in Dallas. Of the 969 people surveyed, 60 percent of the ministers and their spouses were overweight which corresponded to the national average. More than 47 percent were obese—a rate similar to the national average. The difference was that those who were obese were very obese.

The problem lies not only with how much these ministers eat, but also the quality of the food they eat.

While only a small percentage eat breakfast, 61 percent reported they eat donuts and pastries—foods that are high in fat with little nutritional value. Forty-eight percent eat lunch in fast food restaurants at least twice a week. Seventy-five percent reported eating fried foods for dinner—their largest meal—four nights a week. Forty percent snack two or more times a day on cookies, chips and candy.

While alcohol and tobacco are out for Baptist preachers, coffee is definitely in with 25 percent drinking six or more cups per day.

Even though Baptists are noted for their covered dishes and fried chicken, job stress may be the major culprit. And, while Baptist ministers may hold the heavyweight title, other clergy may not be far behind. Stress requires ministers to eat whatever they can get whenever they can get it. People with high levels of stress tend to eat more.

Kate Harvey, executive director of the American Baptist Ministers Council, said clergy put exercise, weight control and other self-care matters on the back burner for more immediate issues. She noted that ministers are constantly faced with high stress loads like church conflicts, while serving in isolated areas where there are few support groups.

“Pastors are hounded by work pressures. If the church doesn’t grow, the finger gets pointed at the pastor,” Harvey said. “Low morale, the eroding position of the clergy in society and low compensation are more important. Some of them are barely making it on what the church pays them. ”

“I can only give you anecdotal information and I don’t have any data to back this up, but there does seem to be an inordinate amount of heart attacks and heart conditions among our clergy,” Harvey said.

Long work hours every week of the year takes its toll. John C. LaRue Jr.,vice president of research and development for Christianity Today International, reported findings from a study he conducted that ministers are working long hours and working six days a week.

“Though Sundays tend to be long days for pastors, Wednesday is typically their longest day. Throughout the week, pastors spend four evenings in ministry activities and take four phone calls at home after 6 p.m.,” LaRue discovered.

“Forty percent of the pastors in our study said they are working more hours each week than they were five years ago. About 40 percent said they’re working the same amount. And only 15 percent are working fewer hours than in 1992,” he reported. “Furthermore, 75 percent of the pastors who came to the pastorate from another career said they work more hours in ministry than they did in their former jobs.”

Long work hours seemed to be correlated with job security.

“Working more hours appears to be one way to increase job security. Pastors who work 50 hours or less each week are 35 percent more likely to be terminated,” LaRue said.

In a survey of Episcopal clergy in the United States, 38 percent of clergy identified burnout as the greatest danger to them and their families, 80 percent named isolation as the number one problem that they face and 80 percent said their occupation negatively affects their families.

The Episcopal Diocese of Eastern Newfoundland established a Clergy Wellness Commission in 1997 and reported their recommendations in June 1999. The Committee concluded that, “Ministry must be a mutual exercise, and we need to understand the stress that Christian Leadership places ordained clergy under.”

Concerned over the large numbers of inactive priests, Episcopal Church officials have instituted a Web site and program for clergy wellness.

The Missouri Synod Lutherans have an entire department designated for health-related issues in the church and for clergy. The department provides printed and other resources to ministers.

The Fuller Institute of Church Growth Pastors Survey confirmed pastors’ concerns:

  • 33 percent said that “Being in ministry is clearly a hazard to my family.”
  • 75 percent reported a significant crisis due to stress at least once in their ministry.
  • 50 percent felt unable to meet the needs of the job.
  • 90 percent felt they were not adequately trained to cope with the ministry demands placed upon them.
  • 40 percent reported a serious conflict with a parishioner at least once a month.
  • 70 percent of pastors do not have someone they would consider a close friend.
  • 37 percent have been involved in inappropriate sexual behavior with someone in the church.
  • 70 percent have a lower self-image after they’ve pastored than when they started.

Christian ministers may be heavier and less physically active than the general population, and it may be due to a lack of discipline or gluttony. However, the real culprit may be the stress of being in the Christian ministry.

Ray Furr has been certified personal fitness trainer for more than 10 years. He and his family live in Virginia.

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