On being a “fat pastor”

by Richard on August 23, 2010

Jay Vorhees writes of his struggle with his weight. It’s hard not to admire a blogger who is prepared to be so vulnerable in his writing.

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.

There’s a couple of warnings to the rest of us in this piece. First, don’t make off hand comments to reporters. (Of course, it’s easy to be wise when you’re not the one taking the phone call). Second, don’t underestimate the speed at which strangers will rush to judgment. Many of the comments at the Tennessean are somewhat less than helpful.

Of course, it is easy to be judgmental about the ‘weight issues’ of others. I’ve done it myself. So I’m grateful to Jay for the reminder that what we all need is “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”.

A vision of what the church could be?

{ 18 comments… read them below or add one }


Kim 08.23.10 at 3:45 pm

I agree with the last statement 100%. But there is a lot of bollocks in the piece too. Like:

Proeschold-Bell said that time pressures and bad diet are mostly to blame.

“Bad diet”? Really? I would never have guessed. And “time pressures”? P-lease. As an excuse for crap eating habits?

“There are lots of opportunities to eat rich Southern food,” Voorhees said. “And you can’t say, ‘I don’t want to eat that,’ for fear of hurting someone else’s feelings.”

You can’t? Only if you have no social skills whatsoever.

The article gets nowhere near to dealing with the real and serious problems that lie behind obesity - and not just among the clergy! - and the advice amounts to nothing more than platitudes. Nor, when we are not dealing with psychopathological and/or genetic factors, is there a word about the virtue of self-discipline.

But there was one pertinent observation: the bad theology that colludes in somatic abuse - the same bad theology that colludes in the abuse of the material world: it’s called gnosticism. My money is on a correlation that the more unhealthily fat you are, the less ecologically-minded you are, i.e., the less likely you are to have a sound and ethical doctrine of creation.


Richard 08.23.10 at 4:25 pm

I don’t disagree with you, Kim - but there are good reasons for not being quite so hard on those whose bad diets have made them overweight. There’s some evidence, for example, that human beings are predisposed by our evolution to eat when the opportunity arises. If we live surrounded by high fat, high sugar, cheap comestibles what originated as an instinct for our survival becomes destructive. I’m not saying that individuals are not responsible for their own actions of course. It’s that distinction between explaining/excusing again. But recognizing this widens the circle of responsiblity and to the extent that we collude with and benefit from the systems that supply these damaging diets, the rest of us are drawn in whether we like it or not.


Kim 08.23.10 at 6:26 pm

Now with that comment we could get into some very interesting discussions. Like about the principalities and powers that control (the folk who control) the junk food industry. Stringfellow observes that among the stratagems of the demonic powers are doublespeak and overtalk, exaggeration and deception, and the will to survival at any cost. KFC-speak and the Babel-like Golden Arches?

On the other hand, the gospel affirms that the crucified and risen Jesus has broken the power of the powers, and sends his Holy Spirit to unmask and resist the powers. Get thee behind me, Colonel Sanders and Ronald McDonald !

And your point “that human beings are predisposed by our evolution to eat when the opportunity arises”. Yes, and there are other, quite nasty elements of “human nature” - what Paul calls sarx - that are no doubt hardwired into (fallen) homo sapiens [sic]. Violence, for instance (check the palaeoanthropological records). But again, the crucified and risen One - the noviolent one - sends his Holy Spirit to inaugurate the new creation, to initiate a counter-evolutionary history, to rewire us to live according to pneuma. How else can people be peacemakes and live according to the Sermon on the Mount? How else can we resist the seven deadly sins - one of which, to get back on topic, is gluttony?

Catch my drift?


Richard 08.23.10 at 7:40 pm

Not only catching your drift, but yelling Amen from the back of the church.
He breaks the power of cancelled sin,
He sets the prisoner free,

If we’re going to address this as a theological matter, we have to get beyond “exercise more, eat less, use your willpower” mantras. That’s not to say that those things aren’t necessary, but this is about more than just the individual.


Kim 08.23.10 at 10:57 pm

On thread, may I suggest a new third line for this fourth verse of the great “O for a thousand tongues to sing” (n.b. - “sing”, not “eat”)?

He breaks the power of cancelled sin,
He sets the prisoner free;
His blood can make the fattest thin,
His blood availed for me.



Richard 08.23.10 at 11:25 pm

Blasphemy! Amending Mr Wesley? Woe & fie!


Tim Chesterton 08.24.10 at 12:07 am

Careful, Kim - that’s dangerously close to ‘If you didn’t get healed there’s something wrong with your faith’. I say that as a person who struggles with overweight issues. I have enough guilt about it already, thanks.


Kim 08.24.10 at 7:51 am

Of course I am not suggesting that there is something wrong with the faith of the overweight. As I have said, there may be real psychological issues at work here, not to mention sociological (e.g. class) or genetic factors, and the principalities and powers dimension further complicates the matter. Obesity can be a matter for healing, and when that is the case, the idea that all that is needed is some faith and will-power is facile, counter-productive, and cruel. However, when that is not the case, the idea of personal responsibility and self-discipline certainly come into play. And, theologically, the sanctification of the physical body and the fact that all of me has been bought with a price should helpfully inform the matter, not via guilt but by inspiration.


Earl 08.24.10 at 3:48 pm

Advice on diet and weight control is unconvincing when offered by someone standing in the shadow of a flagpole. The unquestionable merits of self-discipline as the infallible antidote to obesity and the key to societally normed health ring hollow when mouthed to parents/siblings who live with a bulimic daughter/sister.


Kim 08.24.10 at 3:55 pm

Read what I said, Earl - twice.


Richard 08.24.10 at 4:03 pm

I don’t *think* Earl is actually disagreeing. (It had to happen sooner or later!)


Kim 08.24.10 at 4:58 pm

In which case, I apologise unreservedly.


Earl 08.24.10 at 6:14 pm

Much of what passes for thoughtful insight into the issue of weight control and overall health is as person centered and transformational as the “I did it! You can do it to!” affirmations of a 50 yr. old grandmother in a bikini hanging with 20 year old men around a swimming pool. That’s the way it goes in the made for T.V. make-up world of BowFlex and Slimfast commercials. It is not real life. Real life is that sooner or later twentysomethings quit being twentysomethings. Sooner and not later than they’d like, they wake up older than they thought they would ever have to be. And they live with it in a middle world where they find themselves targeted by hucksters of hope offered in easy monthly payments.

The church of the painful truth proclaims to them the toxic gospel that exaggerated exercise combined with self-discipline pushed to the edge of self-destruction has the power to excise away the bulging evidence of their obvious failure. Some manage to escape that fellowship of suffering. Some don’t make it out. From time to time one stands by their monument and wonders what more could have been between the dates.


Beth 08.24.10 at 9:45 pm

Earl - thanks for that. I agree wholeheartedly. Leaving behind my twenties also meant leaving behind my lovely behind - I’m about fifteen pounds heavier than I was five years ago and I hate it. I’m not obese - in fact I’m still smaller than the national average - so why must the extra pounds feel so morally wrong? Why do I feel like a weak person because I can’t shift them?

One of the big problems with eating - as opposed to many of those other problems of fallen humanity that Kim mentioned - is that you have to do it. You can stop taking drugs altogether, or give up alcohol, but you can’t go cold turkey on food. And “enough” is infinitely more difficult to measure than “none”.


Kim 08.24.10 at 11:16 pm

Yes, now we are into another, though of course related, topic - you might call it the funfair mirror image of the pathology of obesity: the pathology of thinness, even the pathology of fitness, health, and so-called beauty, the denial of ageing and, finally, death. This is what you get in a culture of ectomorphic narcissism, with the anorexia and the bulimia and young women looking like life support machines for Botox and implants. O tempora! O mores!

Beth, btw, is gorgeous just as she is, inside and outside.


Pam 08.25.10 at 1:19 am

Anorexia and bulimia are primarily psychological conditions - and serious ones at that. Having suffered from anorexia a number of years ago, I know that this condition springs from self-loathing and a feeling of profound helplessness - there is a perception that the only control you have over your life is to control what you eat. For me, it didn’t have anything to do with fitness, so-called beauty or the denial of ageing. There were much more serious issues at play than that.


Kim 08.25.10 at 11:49 am

Yes, Pam, agreed. Here other forms of self-harming come into play too. I know from speaking with a university counsellor that cutting and anorexia/bulemia are right up there with the main psychopathologies among female students with whom he deals.


Pam 08.26.10 at 8:23 am

Hey, Kim (and everyone) I wanted to share something I read yesterday. From Patrick White’s “Flaws in the Glass” about his belief:
“I am accused of not making it explicit. How to be explicit about a grandeur too overwhelming to express, a daily wrestling match with an opponent whose limbs never become material, a struggle from which the sweat and blood are scattered on the pages of anything the serious writer writes? A belief contained less in what is said than in the silences. In patterns of water. A gust of wind. A flower opening.”
Not bad for an Aussie, eh!

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