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. The 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 things were about to get out of hand, until a young 30-year-old pastor went to the mic and spoke about his own father’s battle with alcohol. He concluded with these unforgettable but sobering words:

“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 world’s largest Protestant denomination was escorted to center stage. There exists a massive obesity issue in the SBC, particularly with the pastors. In the eyes of some, being extremely overweight is endearing in a pastor as it is a sign they are loved and fed well, similarly to the 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.

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 itself 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 ignores the cry for help in his soul.

Caring for the soul

How does a pastor come to realize that food and his eating habits have strong implications for his soul? Here are four ways to consider.

  1. Grow in awareness. Self-awareness is the most important tool for our growth. Without knowing the real problem, 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? 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 amidst 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 realizing that the way we view and consume food can reveal much about our souls.
  1. 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 50 to 100 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.
  1. 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 substance, be it 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. The gospel provides freedom from sin and the world and the power of that message can become confusing when it’s shouted by a man who is 150 pounds overweight and gets winded walking to the pulpit. Self-control is a fruit of the Spirit that needs to be born in our lives to affirm our testimony. Peter calls all pastors to be examples to the flock (1 Pet. 5:3). Be mindful of your personal testimony.
  1. Find your comfort in Jesus. It’s 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 amidst this world’s sufferings. 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.

Be honest about food

Pastors, be honest with the place food has in your life. It took me 30 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 you truly seek.

This article was originally published at Practical Shepherding.