By Roger Alford
There’s a good reason for the spring in Jeremy Atwood’s step.
The Glasgow, Kentucky, pastor has lost 240 pounds over the past two years on a quest to restore his physical and spiritual health.
For Atwood, food had become a vice that was sapping his energy and hindering his ministry. Years of unchecked eating had brought him to the brink of 500 pounds.
“I was a fast food junkie,” he said. “I mean, I was truly addicted.”
Atwood, 37, senior pastor of Immanuel Baptist Church, isn’t alone in his struggle with food. Studies have shown that one of every three Kentuckians is considered obese. And pastors are especially prone.
That’s why Atwood, along with an army of others who are fighting through weight issues, have begun sounding the warning about one of the chief occupational hazards of their jobs—overeating.
Facing schedules heavy on weekday luncheons, Sunday afternoon dinners and endless potluck meals, it’s easy for pastors to add inches to the waistband. Studies show that more than 75 percent of American preachers are overweight, many to the point of obesity.
Seymour Wattenbarger, director of missions for the Knox Association of Baptists in southeastern Kentucky, said pastors often joke about their food consumption, but, he says, it’s no laughing matter. Wattenbarger knows.
He dropped 75 pounds three years ago in a push to restore his health after suffering a stroke.
“Our pastors are digging their graves with their teeth,” he said.
It would be the words of a 5-year-old boy in the Great Smokey Mountains to shake Atwood to his senses, putting him on a path to wholeness.
With all the eye-catching sites in the most-visited tourist area in the nation, the child was astonished by Atwood’s girth. With a look of amazement, the child called for his mother to look too.
“I can still see the little boy in my mind,” Atwood said. “He wasn’t being mean, and he wasn’t being malicious. We all know small children can be brutally honest. They don’t have a filter, and they don’t have a volume control. It really stung that this little boy considered me a freak.”
After returning home, Atwood and his wife Cara had gone out to eat with Curtis Woods, associate executive director of the Kentucky Baptist Convention, at Rough River State Resort Park, where they took full advantage of the restaurant’s buffet line. Both men felt guilty about their gluttony that day and challenged each other to do better.
That brought Atwood to a date he remembers well: December 28, 2015. That’s the day he went to the doctor to seek help. That’s also the day he stepped on a scale for the first time in about two years because he preferred not knowing how much he weighed.
“God had really been convicting me, bringing me to the point of complete brokenness,” he said. “I felt awful. I looked awful. I knew I had to do something about it. So, I made an appointment with a doctor to discuss bariatric surgery.”
From the waiting room, Atwood heard the nurse call his name. He walked back to the examination area. The first stop was the scale. She asked him to step on. The dial read 491 pounds.
“I was shocked,” he said. “I knew I was out of control, but I didn’t know it was that bad. Had that nurse not been standing there, I probably would have burst into tears.”
Atwood, a lineman on his high school football team, had always struggled with his weight. He tipped the scale at 250 pounds when he graduated college. He slowly gained year by year after that.
Yo-yo dieting didn’t help. He said it wasn’t uncommon for him to lose 30 pounds and gain back 40. One year, he put on 70 pounds.
“I had lost my prophetic voice,” Atwood said. “How are you going to speak to someone about their sin when you weigh 491 pounds? I knew I had to do whatever it took to lose that weight, to be obedient to Christ.”
After having a gastric sleeve procedure in April of 2016, Atwood nowadays runs and lifts weights to help keep the weight off. He has competed in his first 5K race and is looking forward to a half-marathon. He also plans to skydive.
“For too long, I just existed,” he said. “I want to live life to the fullest.”
ROGER ALFORD is editor of Kentucky Today, a news resource of the Kentucky Baptist Convention.