Why are so many ministers fat?

In the week that Dame Sally Davies, the Chief Medical Officer in Britain, declared that obesity is now so common that society is ‘normalising being overweight’, I attended a ministers’ meeting where two-thirds of those present were grossly overweight. I was shocked – and at the risk of alienating a good number of friends decided to write a blog on obesity.

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 am 6 foot tall and weigh around 14 stone – I could certainly do with losing weight. I love good food – and enjoy a decent bottle of red wine. BUT I do exercise. For years I have belonged to a gym – every Friday morning I am doing penance on the treadmill. At seven o’clock on a Monday and Thursday morning I go for a three mile walk – and if I am feeling energetic, on another morning I will do the same walk alone.

  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 of us have only to look at food, and we begin to put on weight. But we cannot just put all the blame on genetics. When I look at the pictures of my maternal great-grandparents they were enormous in size – my grandparents were both overweight – and my mother throughout her life has struggled with diets. But genes are not the only factor. Most of us through exercise and self-discipline can compensate, at least in part.

  3. I am conscious that some of my overweight fellow ministers may have medical conditions, and if that is so, then I trust that they will ignore my comments.

So, why are so many ministers (in the West) fat? At this point I have to confess that I have no objective evidence for the British scene – I can. However, a 2001 Pulpit and Pew study of 2,5000 American clergy found that 76% were overweight or obese compared to 61% of the general population at the time of the study. In 2010 Erik Raymond, then pastor of Emmaus Bible Church in Omaha, 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 everyday…..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 particular 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 life style. 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, and when we are tired we ‘graze’. Many en evening I have come back from a meeting or a visit, sat down in front of the television with a glass of wine and some cheese. 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. We talk about doing all things to the glory of God (funny that the verse actually talks about ‘whether you eat or drink’, 1 Cor 10.31). However we compartmentalize our lives to exclude food.”

My mind goes to 1 Cor 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. Hence fasting is a most excellent weapon for the Christian, while gluttony is an outstanding pit of Satan!”

Is fasting a discipline which ministers in particular need to recover?

Or what about the modern discipline of dieting? In 2011 Rick Warren, the pastor of Saddleback Community Church in California, became so concerned with the obesity epidemic in his church that he devised the so-called ‘Daniel Plan’. Based on the opening story of Daniel 1, where as a result of eating vegetables and drinking water, Daniel and his companions “looked healthier and better nourished than any of the young men who ate the royal food” (Dan 1.15 NIV), the Daniel Plan advises how to eat healthier foods, encourages workout routines, and urges participants to join small groups. At the end of the first year about 15,000 people had registered for the programme and 250,000 pounds had been lost!

Or what difference would it make if churches were to offer their ministers a free gym membership? One dietician had her doubts: drawing upon her professional experience of dealing with pastors she wrote that:

“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.

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