KINGSPORT, Tenn. (Aug. 19, 2016) -- When Rev. Richie Hayes finally decided to lose weight, he waited until after Mother’s Day because he knew it would be a big day of food and obligations at his church.
Then he went on a “farewell tour” of his favorite restaurants. “I love you,” he said over his favorite meals at Waffle House, Harbor House, and Burger King. “Thank you, but this is goodbye,”
After finally topping out at 383 pounds in May 2014, Hayes dramatically changed his lifestyle. He strictly followed a weight-loss plan to drop 100 pounds in 127 days.
He went on to lose another 60 pounds and added regular exercise into his schedule.
“I was eating all the wrong things and eating on the run,” says the 54-year-old pastor at Glen Alpine United Methodist Church in Kingsport, Tenn. “But if I kept on going like that, I wouldn’t have gone on much longer.”
More than two years after he started his personal transformation, Hayes finds that he’s often approached by others struggling with obesity or addictions. He also looks at his ministry through a new lens.
“Our church has a partnership with Second Harvest, and we distribute food to people who drive up in their cars,” he says. “The last time we did it, I gave out five bags of potato chips. That’s a conflict of interest for me. Potato chips are really not what people need.”
People were not created to eat junk food, he says.
TOO BUSY TO CHANGE
Hayes said he was a “sprinter type” in school who didn’t have weight issues until he attended seminary. He was a data-processing employee at a bank and member at the former Wooten’s Chapel United Methodist Church in New Market, Tenn., when he answered the call to ministry in the 1990s.
“That lifestyle -- spending so much time studying and sitting -- is when I first started gaining,” he says. Hayes attended Asbury Theological Seminary from 1992 to 1994 and took his first pastoral appointment at Midtown Valley United Methodist Church in Harriman, Tenn.
Later, the stress of relocating from church to church and taking care of his congregations led to additional weight gain. He loved peanut butter sandwiches and Mountain Dew and didn’t always feel like he had time to change his eating habits. “I had things to do,” he remembers
However, it bothered him when he “sat on the lawnmower and the steering wheel cut into my stomach” or when he felt unsteady at his daughters’ basketball or volleyball games: “You’re standing on the bleachers and feel like you might wobble off.”
Over the years, Hayes tried different diets and lost at least 40 pounds each time. “And then Christmas would come, or Easter or Thanksgiving, and then 50 pounds came back,” he says.
When his doctor told Hayes he was close to being diagnosed with diabetes, something finally clicked.
“I was really desperate for change, to get it right.”
STICK TO THE PLAN
Hayes noticed that some Facebook friends had experienced success with a program called “Take Shape for Life.” He stresses that he doesn’t endorse any particular diet. What’s important, he said, is to pick a healthy plan and to stick to it without modifications.
“If you get to the point where you would rather eat cardboard than stay where you are at, you will do well with this program,” he says. “That is my response when someone asks me about the food I eat. It was how I felt at the time of reckoning for me.”
The plan involves eating nutritional bars, lean proteins and green vegetables and drinking lots of water. At first, Hayes thought it was expensive ($400 a month), but then realized how much he was previously spending on restaurants and groceries.
The weight came off quickly, and the pastor shared his journey with his congregation along the way. At the time, he was serving two churches in Abingdon District: First United Methodist Church of Mountain City, Tenn., and Trade United Methodist Church in Trade, Tenn.
“By being transparent with my congregation and family, God opened up doors to conversations about addictions of all kinds, daily disciplines, and deliverance,” he said. At least three people shared their private battles with alcohol, while a few clergy friends called to share their struggles with obesity.
The pastor’s doctor was overwhelmed with his success, hugging him three times in one visit. Hayes was able to stop his blood-pressure medication. When he had lost a total of 160 pounds, Hayes went to the gym and delighted in doing physical activities he hadn’t done in years.
STEWARDSHIP OF CLOTHES
“To be desperate is to want a power greater than ourselves,” Hayes said recently at Henderson Settlement, where he was invited to share his journey. “What responsibility do I have in light of what God has done for me?”
God has given him his health and a new story, the pastor says. “The story is mine. Everyone has theirs. But when God rescues you, you can’t keep it all to yourself. God wants to deliver us all and wants to deliver other people.”
In addition to reevaluating the kinds of foods we should (or shouldn’t) be sharing with neighbors in need, Hayes says he’s also pondering “the stewardship of clothes” and a prejudice he detects toward overweight people.
“I lost 16 inches in waist size,” he says. “I apologized to my wife many times for how many wardrobes of clothes I had spent money on through the years.”
Every time he dropped a size, Hayes donated his clothes to the “Unique Boutique,” a clothing ministry at First United Methodist of Mountain City.
The journey is ongoing. Hayes is working on losing a few more pounds and maintaining what he’s accomplished.
In the meantime, “I see that overweight people are often isolated. I didn’t really see it before, but it’s amazing how different your approachability is after you lose weight.”
Survey finds clergy's worries add on pounds (UMNS, 2012)
Food fight in the church kitchen (UMNS, 10/24/12)
Rotund reverends, pudgy preachers, and fat pastors (The Call, November 2008)
Annette Spence is editor of The Call, the Holston Conference newspaper.