Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Guest post from Ryan Cleveland: How to Hide Mt. Everest: a Diary of a 300 pound Pastor (sort of)

Last week we heard from Gary Thomas, who told the story of a 300 pound pastor figuring out his need to lose weight if he was going to minister well. My good friend, Ryan Cleveland, dropped me a note about it and we started talking back and forth and I thought, "Ryan has some good thoughts here, I'd love to have him share this with the gang at my blog." I asked him if he would be willing to do a guest post, and he graciously agreed. I love Ryan. He's a great man who stands by his convictions, has a deep andy growing relationship with Christ and isn't afraid to sit and talk with me about Green Lantern, comic books and movies. I feel certain you will enjoy Ryan's heartfelt and vulnerable post. You can learn more about Ryan's ministry here, or follow him on Twitter.

After waking up early this morning (thanks kids) I picked up my Blackberry (it’s a smartphone…used to be popular in Moses’ day) and checked my twitter app, and I saw a link to Gary Thomas’ guest post on Matt Mikalatos’ blog entitled, “The 300 pound Pastor.”

My heart sank.

As a missionary who currently weighs 330 pounds, I had several thoughts go immediately through my mind. Did Gary come down with an acute case of fataphobia? Did Matt betray me? (For I had recently shared with him and others about my struggles with my weight.) But really the thought and emotion that came out on top was despair. Not again.

 But because of some recent victories in my life, I felt like I was in a place to share about my own journey and struggle with my weight, and was happy to take the opportunity to post on Matt’s blog.

How to Hide Mt. Everest

Over the years, I have developed a highly scientific and effective tool to deal with my insecurity about my weight. I hide it. Yes, you heard me. HIDE IT! How do you hide that mini-Mt. Everest you are carrying around your waist, you ask? The only way I can—humor. By making jokes about my size, I am trying to seize control of the situation. I do this in many areas of my life. I can get up on a stage and be a goofball as long as it is my idea. Try and force me, and I run like Carl Lewis. In fact I remember having to get on a stage at a conference with some fellow team leaders a few years ago. Part of the act was to wear white T-Shirts. I didn’t have one and was lent one from someone else, a 180 pound someone else. I was at the verge of tears when I took control, and started making jokes and acted like a fool. Everyone laughed just as they should. If you know someone who seems to make light of their weight, it may very well be their desperate way of coping with their fears and insecurity.

Seeking a Better Reputation

For pastors and other spiritual leaders, being obese bodes a problem because we are God’s stewards of hope for betterment in the lives of those entrusted to us, and we run (okay maybe not “run”) in to the problem of hypocrisy. But is it hypocrisy? If we broaden our spiritual walk with God to an all or nothing thing, then an obese pastor preaching “God’s good, you’re not, do better” has a credibility problem. A pastor who preaches “we all have things that we struggle with; some of us have things that are visible, others invisible, let’s go on that journey together can do so and maintain his credibility because I believe that to be the biblical message behind true spiritual growth and development.

I appreciated Gary’s thought that we should not choose leaders by BMI, but I wonder if that is exactly the message we unintentionally reinforce when we talk about other people’s weight and how it damages their reputation. As an overweight person I have heard this often, and there is no question that people often evaluate me in light (yeah, I said “light”) of my weight. I think there may be a slippery slope at play here. Our culture likes pretty skinny people. We are enamored with them. I can lose 100 pounds, but can’t make my face any prettier. Trust me on that one, not unless I got some handy dandy plastic surgery. So here is my question, “Should I get surgery to make my face look “better” so people would be more apt to listen to what I have to say about Jesus?” Of course not. But even discussing the idea of "lose weight, gain reputation" seems off to me. That feeds my insecurity and is super demotivating, and I wonder if it unintentionally feeds our culture’s thoughts on image. For women, this takes on a whole new direction of eating disorders and depression, reinforced by our culture’s absolute right and wrong view of our bodies. As much as I don’t like it though, image does affect reputation. But should it? I wonder. I wear a suit when I perform a wedding ceremony and I don’t feel bad about that. Splitting this hair is most challenging for sure.

The Mirror Never Lies 

There is something you need to know about your overweight friend, and especially your overweight pastor or Christian leader. They know they are overweight, and more importantly they know you know it, and it likely terrifies them. About a year and a half ago, I was speaking at my church about our most recent summer mission trip. After I was done, I left the stage and was heading down the aisle to my seat and a gentleman whom I had never met before grabbed my hand and stopped me, pulled me close and said, “Great testimony. But from one brother to another, you really need to lose a lot of weight.” I said “thank you” and walked away. But in my mind I was thinking, “Yes, I have a mirror at home and I am not an idiot.” My interaction with this man just reinforced my belief that everyone who meets me thinks, “he just doesn’t take care of himself, tsk, tsk, tsk." And when I encounter those people, I franticly tell them about hypothyroid disease, and how my mom gave it to me because I did not eat beets growing up, etc., and therefore I am not 100% at fault, and then they have sympathy for me and all is good again. An obese person looks in the mirror as little as possible, and can be undone when others decide they need to be a mirror for them in such a way. They need a different kind of mirror.

Hearing the Truth in Love

Nate, a friend of mine I worked with a few years ago sat me down to talk to me about my weight and getting in the gym. He didn’t care about how I got fat, or what my reputation was. He cared about me and offered to be a friend along the journey. That was incredibly motivating for me, though it was still incredibly hard to hear. Please don’t ever tell an obese person you care about their reputation or credibility (even if you believe it to be true). Tell them you care about them. Check to see if there is a deep love for that person that is driving you speak the truth to them about their health. The conversation will be hard, but that is okay. Love and empathy cannot be faked.

 Why I disagree with Gary, but he is still right

Though I may think differently about some of the premises in Gary’s blog post (I guess I need to read his book now), he is absolutely dead on in his conclusion. Fat preachers need to lose weight. But it has to be for the right reasons. I want to lose weight for the Lord because I am convinced he wants me to. I want to lose weight for my family because I want to be able to live a long life with them instead of dying of a heart attack in five years. I want to lose weight to gain victory over something that owns me unnecessarily and fully enjoy any blessings God in His grace might send my way. Because the truth is right now I can’t. I miss out on so many things because of my health.

Time to lose some weight. Time to go climb Mt. Everest.

P.S. I have read a lot of books on marriage. Some of them can be pretty bad to be honest. Men, if you want to find a good book on marriage, ask your wife. My wife loved “Sacred Marriage ” by Gary Thomas.” Another book I actually have not read—okay Gary, will read Sacred Marriage ASAP!


  1. I am a pastor--and proudly a friend of Ryan's--who used to weigh 310 lbs (I'm 5'10"ish). A few years ago I lost 95 lbs. I'd love to say that's the whole story. I've added about 25 of those lbs back (who's counting??), so I'm not where I used to be on either end. We have our staff meetings in a room that has a full-length mirror (why that mirror is in that room is, like the hypostatic union, a bit of a mystery to me). When I got up from the meeting table yesterday I caught a glimpse of my less-than-svelte body and felt an instant sense of disgust and discouragement--a feeling I have every time I see a photograph/video of myself or walk by one of those mirrored columns in a department store with my wife.

    I've gained/lost/gained/lost, invested great amounts of energy in tackling my weight and then invested very little energy in it. I have struggled with the same questions Ryan poses about in this article--I know I should lose weight, but I'm not exactly sure why, or what my weight really says about me.

    I really appreciate Ryan's transparency on this issue. As Christ followers we need to love one another as Christ loves, and his love is not cancelled by the manifestations of our brokenness; some of which are seen and others unseen to our human eyes, but none of which are unseen to his. His love is incarnational, meaning that he doesn't point out deficiencies from afar (criticism is easy--believe me, I've made it into an art form), but he enters into our broken lives and walks with us and promises to go with us all the way to wholeness. May we truly love as he loves.

  2. Ryan Cleveland4:17 PM

    Thanks "unknown,"

    I appreciate you thoughts on the subject. Perhaps we should avoid "Fudruckers" or "Famous Dave's BBQ for lunch next time. Or at least go with a Turkey Burger, right?

  3. Ryan Cleveland4:19 PM


    If you end up reading this, I would love to hear your comments on the subject, well my post really since you dedicated a whole book to the "subject." I have a copy of EBM and and working my way through it.

  4. Anonymous4:21 AM

    Ryan, thank you for this post! Your humor and insights opened my eyes to an issue I honestly haven't thought much about. For the record, I would enjoy you as my pastor just the way you are. And you would make an enjoyable exercise buddy as well.

    Pete Kelly

  5. Ryan, thanks for a thoughtful post. Your last paragraph could actually be a summary of my book: "[we] need to lose weight. But it has to be for the right reasons. I want to lose weight for the Lord because I am convinced he wants me to. I want to lose weight for my family because I want to be able to live a long life with them instead of dying of a heart attack in five years. I want to lose weight to gain victory over something that owns me unnecessarily and fully enjoy any blessings God in His grace might send my way. Because the truth is right now I can’t. I miss out on so many things because of my health."

    I say all the same things, with slightly different wording, in various chapters. As a pastor, I would add that I also want to maintain fitness to not undercut any message God has given me, which is the one point I think you're reacting to. Whether it's fair or not, members of the younger generation have consistently told me that they're no longer open to hearing a message on "self control" in one area from a teacher who doesn't seem to exhibit it in other areas. I don't agree with their sentiment (there are no perfect teachers, so by their logic no one could teach)--but as one who cares deeply about the work of the Gospel, I, with Paul want to "make myself a slave to everyone to win some of them to Christ." I'm just trying to raise the issue. As you get through Every Body Matters, I think you'll find we agree with each other about 95% of the time. And I'd welcome any assistance in helping to share this teaching in a way that is redemptive to pastors rather than discouraging.

    1. Ryan Cleveland7:20 PM

      I think it is all in the "delivery" of the message. If a pastor admonishes the flock to have self control yet clearly does not even mention a potential self control issue himself, there is certainly a problem. Also, as I am sure your book will mention at some point, there are real medical issues that can have an impact on weight gain. My hypothyroidism is a factor, and the cause of my weight gain, but does not excuse me from losing weight now that my thyroid is under control.

      Another thought is if person A has a high metabolism and eats garbage yet person B has a moderate metabolism and eats food that is not great, but not the garbage person A eats, who has the self control problem? When I was in the Navy some of the fastest guys to run their 1.5 miles for the semi-annual fitness test did so with a cigarette in their mouth.

      My point is to address the assumptions that stem from our cultural norms. We view based on image and ideals while sometimes forgetting to look at the true measure of the person. We should not look at a person who is overweight and assume there is no self control. Or even if they lack self control with their weight, others may have 50 issues of no self-control that are hidden. Our current Christian culture really cares about the outside, and that seems more like an American culture issue and not as much a biblical issue. I would be curious to see what our African-American brothers and sisters would say about this. My hypothesis is that it is not nearly the issue in that context, which leads me to consider cultural influences a significant factor.

      Having spent the last 11 years working with college students, here is what I have found. The current generation does not like their leaders to be supermen. That goes with another generation. They need to see their leaders sharing appropriate vulnerability and weakness. That is the source of their frustration. Leaders that do not acknowledge their struggles openly are the ones they feel are being hypocritical. Obviously I have not talked to the people you have, and cannot speak to what they told you or not told you. This is again, my personal ministry experience.

      Every pastor is going to have short comings and areas they have challenges. In addition to my weight, I am a fairly loud person and a verbal processor as well. My issues and struggles are very much out in the open to see. Those brothers ans sisters who are internal will always "seem" to have it together initially. The pitfall is to go with that assumption. That is my thought about weight and reputation.

      Gary, I really do appreciate your willingness to dialog about this. And like I said, ultimately agree that fitness matters. I am looking forward to reading Every Body Matters (and a host of your other books since I have at least 4 or 5 that are on my bookshelf unread. Life has been busy these last few years.