About Me

The Life Abundant: Fitness As A Spiritual Discipline (Part 1)

We are obese and it’s getting worse. Americans are more than 50% more likely to have high blood pressure or diabetes, almost twice as likely to have heart disease, and 2½ times more likely to have arthritis than people in other developed countries. The reason is our obesity rate. If the US could improve its population’s health to have the same levels of chronic illness as Europeans do, Americans would save between $1,200 and $1,750 per year each on medical bills.

America is suffering from an obesity epidemic, but I’m not simply talking about Americans, I’m talking about Christians. Before you get offended, give me a moment to explain.

Earlier this week, in a private, pastors-only Facebook group, someone asked, “How many of you preachers are over weight. Fat. Obese. Or as the Bible calls Gluttons.”

The question stung! And you could tell.

The firestorm was immediate. Some members found the post humorous, as the member who posted it suggested it was intended, and others were offended. The conversation raged! Instantly there was talk of lactose intolerance, thyroid issues, the fact that some members exercised everyday and ate healthily yet never lost weight, and some members shared hurt feelings because they’d struggled with their weight their entire lives but felt like they were losing their battle. What was immediately clear is that obesity is both a terribly important and an intensely sensitive subject.

Obesity also happens to be a subject the church is not talking about…and it’s killing us.

Last year a good friend of mine went to a denominational gathering I’ve never attended. I asked about his perceptions of the event, in particular, the attendees. He said, “If I were on the outside looking in at our denomination, I’d say we were old, white, and fat.” Just to be clear, he was not saying this as a compliment. In addition, this past week, as I attended another large denominational gathering I was astonished that so many of my fellow ministers – of all ages and theological stripes – are obese. Brothers and sisters, we have a problem. We are unhealthy and it’s time we dealt with it.

My Story:

My own fitness journey began 2 years ago with an article about clergy burnout in the NY Times. About the same time, I went to my doctor. I was overweight and overwhelmed, but didn’t know it. My doctor said the same words to me, that my acquaintance posted on Facebook. “Sean, you’re obese. You’re pre-diabetic, your cholesterol is too high, and you shouldn’t leave today without me putting you on high-blood pressure medicine. Do you think you could lose 15-20lbs in the next 3-months? If so, I won’t prescribe anything and we’ll see where we are then.” In essence he said, “Sean, you’re fat and getting fatter. Change now or live miserably and die early.” 

Wow! That conversation was like a frying-pan to the face. It hurt. I knew it was true, but it hurt. I was in horrible shape and I was providing a poor witness for my family, church, and community, because I clearly lacked a level of self-control and discipline. I was, like some members of my Facebook group, hurt and offended. Yet, it was the very thing I needed to hear, even though I didn’t want to hear it. The mirror and medical tests weren’t lying. I was fat and getting fatter. So I took my doctor seriously, began a new diet and began to exercise regularly.

Besides telling me to lose weight, my doctor prescribed a book, The Self-Compassion Diet: A Step-by-Step Program to Lose Weight. He said people in “helping professions” look after everyone else, but rarely care for themselves. He was right.

In the early days of my fitness journey, I also began to notice some things about our world and obesity. I noticed a lot of pastors are fat. I also observed that the most well-known and recognized pastors and Christian writers, both inside and outside of my denomination, aren’t obese. For the most part, the women and men on stage at large gatherings and events, and pastoring the most well-known congregations, aren’t overweight.  For good or for ill, weight and appearance matter, even when they shouldn’t and when we wouldn’t expect it. I bet the same is true for your industry; for the most part the leaders aren’t overweight.

I also became convicted it was high time for me to take the stewardship of my body seriously.  When the scriptures call our bodies “temples,” it envisions more than who we have sex with and whether or not we put on ring on before we do.

I decided to make a change. I’ve dropped 90lbs since that conversation with my doctor. I’m down over 100lbs from my heaviest. But it’s not just about pounds lost. My family life is better, my preaching and writing has never had more impact, my marriage is flourishing, and my schedule is full with speaking and writing commitments. I am more useful to God because I have more energy, greater clarity, less shame, and more confidence.

Losing 90lbs has increased my contribution to the Kingdom of God!

I’m not saying this is right, in fact it’s quite wrong, but when the world sees an obese person, many of them see someone who is out-of-control and sloppy. It’s not a true assessment of a person, but it is the way it is. Though we are often quick to grab excuses, Christians need to consider that our families and ministries would be better if we were to get fit.

Churches and Christians must realize that physical fitness is a spiritual issue.

Tomorrow: What’s Wrong About Christians, Food and Fitness. Make sure to come back!

**Want to learn more about my personal fitness journey? Use the “Contact Me” page to learn how I did it.

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  • Kim

    Sean,

    I saw you speak at Summit. Excellent. Thank you! I am a huge fan of America taking better care of ourselves. Our church began a wellness ministry nearly 6 months ago. It includes nutrition classes taught by nutritionists who volunteer their time, and fitness classes, taught by certified fitness instructors, all at no charge to the community. I am often asked, what in the world do Jesus and fitness have in common. I have only one answer, EVERYTHING! I will go back to Jeremiah, “For I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future… Jesus and fitness are the Hope and Future. He brings us back from that captivity, the hopelessness we carry around with us, the dread, the unworthiness, the despair, the heart ache, deep wounds that the world has thrust up on us. He brings us back to Hope where we have a future, a future where we are healthy, and whole! I am not a preacher, but I am a believer and I love His church deeply. I want to see it prosper also. Thanks for writing this Sean!

    • Exactly, Kim. I get into why it matters to Jesus a little more in upcoming posts. Thanks for reading and thank you for your kindness about Summit.

    • Kim — I am interested in launching a health and wellness ministry at our church. Can you tell me about yours — or who is over it?

      • Kim C.

        Sarah I would love to tell you all about it 🙂 We used a ministry called Revelation Wellness. http://www.revelationwellness.org/ We added the nutrition classes to ours, just wanted to have the full package available. You can email me at kcook@singingoaks.org and I can go into more detail.

  • Rob Thomas

    Sean, I’m inspired by your transformation. It’s a great point when you refer to the top preachers, pastors, and writers. That said, Rick Warren comes to mind… and it’s great to hear him echo some of the same things you talked about. He’s brought his weight down and sees it in the same way you see it.

    Food is a drug and I’m addicted. I feel like the last 10 years I’ve been living in that addiction. In the last year, I’ve also changed some of my habits and am around 12 lbs. off. I have a ways to go. Pray for us who struggle with this, that we might struggle well and fight hard.

    PS. I’m killing you with our FitBit steps. 😉

    • You’re KILLING me with Fitbit! Anyway, I have some hopefully, helpful practical steps people can take/ use in the upcoming posts. Come back.

  • Donna Fentanes

    Thanks. This is something I need to hear too. Not fond of frying pan therapy though..LOL.

  • Jason Martin

    Man, you aren’t kidding. We are old, white, and fat. I was blessed to lose 80 lbs in 2011, although I’ve regained about 20 since then. I realized how much my weight was holding me back not only physically, but emotionally and spiritually as well. I never would’ve guess. And it’s remarkable that the church doesn’t talk more about this. I don’t know that I’ve ever heard a sermon about it, and the only church classes I’ve seen are the Christian Watchers groups

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