More clergy members weigh benefits of healthy lifestyle


      It’s an old joke, told with minor variations over the years.
     A Baptist, Catholic and United Methodist die and are met by St. Peter at heaven’s gate. Before allowing them to enter, St. Peter asks each to provide a “physical sign or evidence of your faith.”
     The Baptist woman produces a deeply-creased, heavily-marked copy of the Bible. The Catholic woman pulls out a much-used, worn-down set of old rosary beads.
    Meanwhile, the United Methodist woman is desperately searching through a large bag.
    “I know it is here somewhere,” she says in exasperation.
    “What is it you are looking for,  my daughter?” St. Peter asks.
    “My covered dish.”
    Certainly, at many United Methodist churches, sharing meals and breaking bread is a meaningful, time-honored tradition. But there is a downside to multiple servings of fried chicken, buttermilk biscuits, blackberry cobbler and sweet tea.
        “Weight issues are common for members of the clergy, regardless of denomination” said Karen Fullerton, Benefits Officer for the conference. “There are various health risks in a sedentary lifestyle. When people from the church get together, you know you need to bring a fork. People like to show their kindness with desserts.
        “We have been working hard with the clergy to raise consciousness and focus on wellness and preventative medicine.”
         There is tangible, visual evidence that effort is paying off.
         “Bishop (Mike) Watson helped me make a decision last year to do something about my weight,” said Rev. Richard Winn, senior pastor of Ben Hill UMC. “He has been encouraging all of us to look at our health needs.”
       Winn had gastric bypass surgery in March. He has not only lost 78 pounds in the past four months, but he no longer suffers from high blood pressure or diabetes.
       “I am now eating small meals five or six times a day,” Winn said. “This is not as much about the weight loss as it is a new way of life. It is hard to describe how much better I feel.”
        David Allen Grady, senior pastor of Druid Hills UMC, and his wife, Susan, pastor of St. Paul UMC in Atlanta, are taking advantage of a heavily discounted rate available through the conference at Weight Watchers.
       David has lost 82 pounds since October.
       “The Weight Watchers program has been wonderful,” said Grady. “We got a special discount because we signed up through the office of Pension and Health Benefits.”
            Mike Selleck, Director of Connectional Ministries, and wife, Chris, Administrative Assistant to the Bishop, have also been making healthy lifestyle choices.
      “I used to wrestle in college in the lightweight division, at 118 pounds,” said Mike. “I had gotten into such bad shape recently that I would have qualified for the heavyweight division.”
          The Sellecks have been eating smaller portions, cutting out carbs and walking regularly. Mike has lost 35 pounds since March.
     “My blood work looks a lot better,” Mike said, “my sugar is lower, I am sleeping better and feeling better.”
          When it comes to lifestyle changes and dramatic weight loss, few can match retired district superintendent Warren Lathem.
        “I have struggled with weight issues my whole life,” said Lathem, who served as senior pastor of Mt. Pisgah UMC for 17 years. “One doctor told me I had the slowest metabolism he had ever seen.”
         And for someone with a predisposition toward weight gain, Lathem knew living the lifestyle of a clergy member was not likely to help.
        “I remember talking with Bishop (William) Cannon shortly after I graduated from seminary,” Lathem said. “I said something about my weight problem and he told me that all the great preachers have been fat.”
       Lathem, who has been wheelchair-bound in recent years, had gastric bypass surgery in June 2009. He has since lost 300 pounds.
        “That gives you an idea of what bad shape I was in,” Lathem said. “I think I can lose 50 more.”
       Lathem, who has been faithful to keep a 1,000-calorie daily diet since his surgery, had his second knee-replacement surgery in June and hopes to be back on his feet before long. He has been eating small meals, four to five times a day, and avoiding sugar.
         It has been a dramatic lifestyle change. What has he missed most from his days attending church suppers?
         “Cornbread,” he said.