The 300 Pound Pastor
When Mark Bejsovec, a youth pastor, saw the scale creep over 300 pounds, he gulped. During his high school football playing days, he carried just 186 pounds on his six-foot-two frame. In his early thirties, however, Mark started gaining weight steadily. At first, he rationalized it and even began using it like a tool. It made him seem funnier. He could push out his stomach until he looked like he was pregnant, and the kids in his ministry would laugh: “You look like you got twins!”
When he hit 300 pounds, though, Mark began to sense God speaking to him about his physical condition.
“I looked into Scripture, specifically at the men in the Bible who assumed leadership roles, and wondered how they must have looked. I couldn’t find anyone in leadership who was overweight.”
This wasn’t about vanity, but rather about being a better steward of his body and his calling: “If I was addressing only spiritual issues but not the physical ones, I considered I would be less useful to the Lord in my ministry. If I was going to remain in ministry, I needed to honor God with all my heart, all my soul, all my mind, and also all my body.”
By definition, we can’t be a leader in secret. Somebody is following us. And the bodies we are leading with aren’t hidden.
A friend of mine, who works as a senior director for a major Christian development organization, recently shared with me the battle he faces with eating and exercise. On a recent business trip, he ate twenty-four restaurant meals in a row. He’s concerned about his health habits, and like many, he lives with a constant sense of failure that he could be doing more about his weight. What he doesn’t see are spiritual leaders taking this struggle as seriously as he does. “We’ve been taught in the evangelical tradition about adultery and lying and stealing and coveting,” he says, “and about lust and alcoholism and smoking and drug abuse. But many evangelical pastors who preach against these things are visibly overweight or obese. I don’t say this to judge them—I struggle with the same thing. But sometimes I wonder. Sure, they may have conquered the online porn, but it seems like they’re ‘medicating’ with food; I get that, because I do the same thing.”
For his part, Mark decided to quit his former eating habits cold turkey. When his weight started coming off, Mark experienced a rush of positive energy. “I started feeling more affirmed, my self-esteem went up, and my relationship with God grew. It’s not that my previous life didn’t honor God, but now it felt like I was living like God designed me to live.”
When I asked Mark what changed most about his life since he lost seventy pounds, he responded, “Let’s be honest: there were times I was discredited because of the way I looked. When I talked to kids about self-control in other areas, they could look at me and understandably ask why I wasn’t addressing my issues with food. But now, when I share my story, there’s an added inspirational element. If I can do it, anyone can do it, and my weight loss has become an effective tool in my ministry.”
As a writer whose most prominent books relate to marriage, I take it as a personal challenge to maintain the integrity of my own marriage. I can’t write and teach on marriage if my own is falling apart. As a pastor, however, when I talk to the church about self-control; when I preach on the necessity of personal discipline, good stewardship in all areas of life, and, above all, when I teach out of 1 Corinthians 6:20: “You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your body” I am going to completely undercut my message if I’m preaching out of a body that denies this.
It would be convenient if being a leader didn’t require also being an example, but that’s not the case. Paul writes, “Follow me as I follow Christ.” (1 Cor. 11:1)
Leaders, let’s ask ourselves, “Is my body serving or thwarting my message?” If you’re a pastor, you may well have accepted financial sacrifice for the privilege of being in the ministry; if you’re a leader of any type, you have readily accepted the sacrifice of your time, tranquility, and even reputation, as leadership assaults all of these. But will you also accept bodily sacrifice—watching what you eat, and putting in the effort to get appropriate exercise? Will you recognize that the body out of which you lead can either support or undercut the message that you carry?
I am not suggesting that we pick leaders by how thin they are, or that we make a direct connection between a person’s BMI and his holiness. That would be ridiculous, ignorant, and unfair—some bodies aren’t designed to be thin, other bodies seem to naturally stay thin regardless of how they are cared for or fed, but leaders, we know our own journey, we know whether this area of stewardship is feeding or hindering our maturity and ministry. Don’t all of us feel better, stronger, more energetic, when we’re being faithful in this area? And don’t we all know that there are negative consequences when we get careless?
So, in a spirit of encouragement and grace, let’s admit that this is something we need to start talking about. Just as we seemed eager to denounce the opulent affluence and money-raising scandals of the 1980s televangelists, let’s not be blind to our own contemporary challenges at the dawn of the 21st century.
For more on this topic, check out Gary’s book Every Body Matters: Strengthening Your Body to Strengthen Your Soul.