How does food expose the activity in a pastor’s soul?

By: Brian Croft

As a Southern Baptist Pastor, I try to attend the annual convention every year. It is important to be there, and I am able to see pastor friends I never see apart from this annual event. Besides, the Southern Baptist Convention always contains an unpredictability that is at times entertaining. For those unaware, this convention draws about 5,000-7,000 pastors and members of SBC churches all around the country. There is a portion of the convention that gives time for an open mic. In other words, anyone can get up on a mic and speak to a motion or issue. Anyone. As you might imagine, some interesting, sad, and contentious words have been said throughout the history of this denominational meeting.

One conversation on the open mic floor sticks out to me. It was a year where the older generation who had historically seen alcohol as a sin and destructive in every way was defending its position against a younger generation that didn’t have the same convictions. In fact, the younger generation saw alcohol consumption as a gift from God if it was done responsibly and in moderation, citing no biblical command against alcohol, but drunkenness. The conversation became intense and heated as one side spoke, then the other side responded. It felt like it was about to get out of hand, until a young thirty-year old pastor went to the mic and said:

There is no one in this room that understands the devastating effects of alcohol like I do. I was raised by my dad. Single parent. He was an alcoholic. I had to take care of my dad as a child and watched him drink himself to death when I was fourteen years old. I wish I could forbid the use of alcohol, but the Bible doesn’t allow me to do that. I do not want to shout where the Bible is silent.

Then, he bravely went where no Southern Baptist dares to go…

This conversation saddens me. As I look around this room it appears an over-consumption of alcohol is not our major problem, but an enslavement and over consumption of food.

And with those piercing words, the elephant in the room of the largest protestant denomination in the world was escorted into center stage. There exists a massive obesity issue in the SBC, particularly with the pastors within the convention. In the eyes of some, being extremely overweight is endearing in a pastor as it is a sign they are loved and fed well, as in a similar way being fat in certain cultures is a sign of wealth. Nevertheless, it is a significant problem and doesn’t just speak to the eating habits of pastors, but to the state of their soul. This article will consider the pastor’s eating habits and how those habits can and do affect his own soul.

Two Kinds of People

Here’s a gross generalization to make a point. There are ultimately two kinds of people in this world and how they deal with stress: Those who eat when they are stressed and those who don’t eat with they are stressed. Food and what we use it for can be a very insightful gaze into the state of our souls. It does for me. I come from a long line of stress eaters. Those who stress-eat cross the line of eating for enjoyment and providing nutrients for the body, to slide into that dangerous place of allowing food to be a means of comfort. I am convinced this is the main reason for the major obesity problem in America. As a result of the intense levels of stress pastors constantly endure, I am also convinced this is why so many pastors are overweight and unhealthy.

Let us also not miss the other side of this issue: those who avoid food to deal with stress. This soul exposure is more hidden because it doesn’t parade as an obese, overworked pastor likely enslaved to food. Nevertheless, it causes a pastor to deal with the difficulties of the ministry in a way that is unhealthy for his physical body and ignoring the cry for help in his soul.

Caring for the soul

How does a pastor come to realize not just his eating habits, but how food exposes the activity in his soul? Here are four ways to consider.

First, grow in awareness. Self-awareness is the most important tool for us to grow. Without knowing what the real problem is, we cannot address it. First, become aware of your family history and how you were taught to view and consume food. Was food a reward? Was food something used for comfort in difficult times in your home? Then each of us needs to be aware of how we use food now. It was a profound truth for me to realize food was a means of comfort for me in stress and anxiety. Until that realization came from God, I would just eat too much and not know why. It also brought a helpful insight to the other side of the spectrum when I was caring for women in my church who were struggling with eating disorders. The first step is coming to the realization that the way we view and consume food can reveal much about our souls.

Second, keep a close eye on your weight. I once heard Pastor Al Martin address a group of pastors and he shared this simple, but important truth for pastors: “What you eat and what is not burned off that day goes here, here, and here (referring to parts of his body).” My weight has become a very helpful gauge on how well I am doing with my battle to find comfort in food. When my weight goes up, it could mean a number of things. But, what it almost always exposes is that I am under more stress and eating more as a result. The managing of my weight becomes a gauge of not just stress level, but how I am coping with it. For the pastor who is fifty to one hundred pounds overweight, that might expose an even greater turmoil in the soul that cannot be ignored.

However, weight does not tell the full story. I once talked with a pastor who battled overeating, and yet was very skinny. He lamented how hard it was to battle overeating, and yet hear often, “You are too skinny. You need to eat more.” Likewise, there are those who are overweight because of a thyroid or metabolism issue, not because they overeat because of stress. Despite these exceptions, our weight can tell us a lot about our souls. Keep an eye on it.

Third, care about your personal testimony. Keeping one’s weight down and staying in shape becomes harder the older we get. I’m not suggesting a person who has a bit of extra weight and doesn’t exercise as often as they wished they did is in danger of marring their gospel testimony. Nor am I advocating that we are to somehow pursue an attractive exterior for our message to be heard. We are all broken vessels being used in the Master’s hands. But, for any Christians to appear utterly enslaved to any kind of substance, whether it be drugs, possessions, or food, risks harming their testimony of freedom we have in the gospel. This was the elephant in the room at the convention that particular year that got exposed. The gospel provides freedom from sin and the world in Christ and the power of that message can become confusing when it is shouted by a man who is one hundred and fifty pounds overweight and gets winded walking to the pulpit to preach. Self-control is part of the fruit of the spirit that needs to be born in our lives to affirm our testimony. The Apostle Peter calls all pastors to be examples to the flock (1 Pet. 5:3). Be mindful of your personal testimony.

Finally, find your comfort in Jesus. It is a powerful thing to realize the impact food has on the soul and that we use food as a means of comfort in this fallen world. But, the solution doesn’t stop by mere awareness. Our souls are nurtured and cared for when we realize our comfort in the stress and difficulties of our ministries is not in food, but in Jesus. We have to own our pursuit or rejection of food before Jesus can come and provide the only lasting comfort in the sufferings of this world. What resonates with the Holy Spirit that resides in each of us as followers of Jesus is that Jesus satisfies in a way the best food cannot.

Pastors, be honest with the place food has in your life. It took me thirty years before I was honest about it. It will always be a battle for me. I assure you, the soul will continue to languish in the pain and sadness that exists that food tries to cover. Remember, God’s grace will meet you in that place of openness and honesty and will give you strength to walk in self-control and victory with the snares that food brings. It will create a space in your soul that will bring the relief and peace that you truly seek.

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3 comments on “How does food expose the activity in a pastor’s soul?
  1. Tommy Peterson says:

    I have to quibble with some of what you are saying here and especially the conclusions you are coming to. My main concern about this post is that you have oversimplified the issue. As a result you have unfairly judged your brothers and sisters, most of whom you do not even know personally.

    I have enjoyed this blog for years, and have benefited from your thoughts, ideas, and suggestions, but this one is flawed. Please do not take what I say as criticism from an opponent. I comment because I believe you are talking about some things that you do not seem to understand. You are painting with broad strokes and judging all people as though their eating habits tell the whole story. They do not.

    Allow me to offer a couple of anecdotes to illustrate. Firstly, my 15 year old son. He eats in the most absurd ways imaginable. He hardly ever eats lunch and would eat sugar cereal every morning for breakfast if I let him. He can down an entire 12-pack box of tacos from Taco Bell all by himself and still be hungry. Last night he chose not to eat anything because his mother was serving spaghetti sauce over broccoli. He does not like broccoli. At the same time, a day before that he ate 6 corn dogs for dinner. What does his body look like as a result of this? His body is ridiculously ideal. He does not exercise regularly or lift weights and he has perfectly cut abs and looks awesome.

    Take another example from a woman I know who has had five children. She has a belly and would fail the government-created BMI test. She has a chronic auto-immune disease. To keep herself well she eats a remarkably careful diet, yet she is not fit. Why is her body not perfect, even though she makes great food choices? Because she had five children and has an auto-immune disease!

    I could go on, but I will not. What is a family to do if all they can afford is to buy the cheapest food? You and I both know that good food which is good for your body at every meal is not cheap. In my case, my job requires me to be in a car 90% of my working day. My options are to ask my wife (a full-time student) to purchase and prepare meals ahead of time, do it myself (which I am not good at), or just eat out cheaply often via fast food.

    Beyond all of this, different people respond to different foods differently. Some people are allergic to dairy or nuts or wheat. Some people can eat like a mouse and still gain weight. Some people eat like pigs and will never be fat. You cannot judge a book by its cover. I remember a guy I used to work with who smoked 2 packs of cigarettes and would drink an entire 2-liter Mountain Dew every day. He was very thin and looked healthy. If I drank sugar soda like that I would be so large after a while I would need two seats on an airplane.

    My point is to say that what and how people eat is intensely personal and may or may not be an indicator as to where they are at in their sanctification. The point is that you do not know. I have read studies that indicate that when some people are stressed out that it almost does not matter what they eat, but that they will gain weight because of the way their bodies process food during times of anxiety. To wrap up, I want to humbly ask (as one pastor to another) that you re-think the argument you are making here. It tears down and does not build up.

    • Brian says:

      Tommy,

      Good to hear from you and thanks for writing. I appreciate your concern and sharing it with me. My intent is not to judge, but to help pastors probe a bit into this issue that is largely ignored, an issue largely ignored in my own life. My intent was not to paint a broad brush and include all people as was largely your concern, but pastors. Yes, this is very personal, which is why I shared about my own struggles in it and could relate to several things you wrote. I too have never fit on a weight chart, even when in great shape because of my natural build. That doesn’t change my need to examine this issue in my life. I also mentioned towards the end of the article that these things I write about is not a measuring tool all the time with all people, there are exceptions. However, I am trying to serve pastors in my ministry in certain sensitve areas that in my experience in working with pastors is a vital issue to examine that most will not talk about.

      In light of that, I can tell I hit a very sensitive and personal chord with you and it was not helpful. I do regret that, however I think you read into my intent a bit too much. This article comes out of hundreads of pastors having been helped by my in-person teaching on this matter and my desire was to hopefully help others in the same way.

      Thank you for sharing your concern. I believe it will help me to be mindful to offer more of a disclaimer up as I address this deeply personal issue and others like it in the future knowing many exceptions exist.

  2. Garrett Walden says:

    Thank you so much for this post, Brian! This is really insightful and exposes some areas of my life that I should consider.

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