Hi I’m Katie… and I’m a foodaholic
I am in process toward ordination as a deacon in the United Methodist Church. This is a long and bureaucratic process, involving four major stages (with lots of steps between and throughout, getting various groups and committees to give you their approval):
Stage One: Discernment with a Mentor—examining and clarifying your call, preparing for seminary
Stage Two: Candidacy—usually while in seminary or other theological studies, and sometimes extending a bit beyond graduation.
Stage Three: Probationary Ordination—all of the privileges and responsibilities as an ordained clergyperson, but there is still an aspect of you and the denomination “checking each other out.” Minimum three years.
Stage Four: Ordination in Full Connection—this is for life, unless you commit certain offenses (sexual misconduct, things like that).
Right now, I am seeking to move from Stage Two to Stage Three at the June 2010 Pacific Northwest Annual Conference—the gathering of the United Methodists in Washington and Northern Idaho. I have to get various bodies to sign off on their approval of me, and today I began preparing for the committee meeting I will go to in September to begin this process. I was looking through my Candidacy Guidebook* and came upon a section on “Hazards of Ordained Ministry.”
Most of the hazards included what you might consider the usual—overworking or work aversion, temptation toward sexual misconduct, stress and burnout, depression, etc. Most of this is pretty standard; nothing surprised me until I came upon the “Substance Abuse” section.
Alcoholism and/or other substance abuse is widespread in society. United Methodists seek both to contain and stop the social causes of substance abuse as well as to offer Christian treatment to those who become dependent on alcohol or other drugs or food.
So here I am, reading along, thinking, “yep, I’m with you here, it’s not healthy for ministers to become dependent on alcohol or other drugs or… food?
Wait what? (cocking my head to the side and raising one eyebrow)
Does that really say FOOD?
Are they really saying that as a minister I am supposed to become super human and no longer be dependent on food??”
As you consider your own fitness for … ordained ministry, examine also whether you might become emotionally dependent upon alcohol and/or other drugs, medications, food, or other substances that would hinder your effectiveness as a licensed or ordained minister and as a Christian.
So what they really mean is “emotional dependence.” Not just “dependence” period… because suggesting that we could become “dependent” or “addicted to” something that is actually necessary for our survival is just… silly, right? No one in their right mind would suggest otherwise! Right?
haha… hah… *sigh*
Okay, I’ll stop poking fun now. Let’s get a bit more serious. A local radio station has a “water cooler question of the day” in the mornings, and today’s little tidbit was that women surveyed said they found the following things made them the most happy: 1. sleep, 2. food, and 3. romance. I was not at all surprised to hear that sleep, food, and interpersonal affection were the three things that made women the most happy (I’d be surprised if men surveyed would be much different). These are really basic needs, even the “romance” (which I’m interpreting more broadly as simply “interpersonal affection” which doesn’t have to be part of a romantic or sexual relationship). Food and sleep are pretty basic, yes? We all understand that without these things, our bodies cannot keep living. Some might be more skeptical of the “interpersonal affection” as being necessary for survival, yet any undergrad Psych 101 student will tell you that (some admittedly ethically questionable) studies have shown us that baby monkeys and human babies fail to thrive, and sometimes even fail to survive, without physical contact and affection.
But we’re not talking about sleep and interpersonal affection here, we’re talking about food. Because that’s what this Candidacy Guidebook asserts that folks can become “emotionally dependent” on, and this is pretty much in keeping with a secular social message that is blasted loud and clear.
Really, what is so wrong with occasionally having “comfort food?” We all have a variety of self-soothing behaviors when we become anxious or are in pain, and each brings different risks and rewards. Taking a hot bath with candles, for example, may be looked at as a generally healthy self-soothing technique. Yet if someone is spending hours in the bathtub every day, unable to do other tasks they need and/or want to do, this can become problematic. Similarly, self-soothing chronic anxiety by eating seven or eight doughnuts every morning is not going to be good for our heart, but eating a doughnut or two once or twice a month as a comfort really is no big deal.
So it’s not what you do or consume, it is both a matter of degree and, the classic question for psychotherapists: “is it negatively impacting your ability to function?” And, I would also add, it has to do with how cognizant we are of what we are doing. We all have to make choices, and almost all choices involve some risk. Weighing the risks and benefits of eating a doughnut because I’m sad is very different from feeling chronically sad and eating doughnuts on a daily basis rather than confronting what is making me sad. In one case, the doughnut is a “calculated risk” to make me feel better right now; in the other case, doughnuts become a way of avoiding reality, which isn’t emotionally healthy and, depending on the person’s other habits, metabolism, genetics, etc. may not be physically healthy either.
What I’m pointing out here is that out of all the vast, vast variety of self-soothing behaviors (eating, sleeping, bathing, sexual activity, taking a walk, gardening, playing with a pet or child, sipping a hot drink, watching TV, listening to music, etc. ad nauseum!) food has been paired here with alcohol and illegal drugs, which generally speaking have very little benefit to our health, are not necessary for our survival, and are highly addictive.
We over-emphasize the dangers of “emotional eating” without realizing that within that over-emphasis, there are other dangers.
Danger #1: Exacerbating, or worse, creating the problem. People who eat because they’re feeling sad, depressed, and ashamed are not going to stop eating if you shame them more! Shaming people for eating can lead them into the purging and binging cycle of bulemia (I know this from personal experience). We can exacerbate or even create a new problem where there never was one by shaming people for eating.
Danger #2: We assume that fatness = “over-eating” and/or “emotional eating.” Whenever I have an interview with one of these boards I am afraid (and rightfully so) that the people will assume that I have a “food addiction” when they see me, just because I am fat. Setting aside that I am addicted to food in the same way we all are because we need it to survive, I am actually quite cognizant of where my problem areas with food lie, and for me, it is more often in shame making me not eat when I’m hungry rather than eating when I’m not hungry (actually the thought of that makes me ill… my thin husband talks about accidentally eating too much and I just. don’t. get. it. I so rarely do that; it’s just not a problem for me!)
I am sure there are other dangers, but this post is getting long enough. I just want to wrap up by saying that I am quite disappointed that this mentality about food is so pervasive within my denomination and other church structures. Perhaps it springs from youthful idealism, but I still expect more from my church than from secular society. So I’m disappointed in them, and I want to encourage you, the readers of this blog, that no one else can tell you whether your eating is a problem or not by looking at your body or any of your specific food choices. If you are concerned about your relationship with food, or the possibility of disordered eating, I encourage you to seek out some wisdom and guidance for that. But just because you’re fat, or just because you “emotionally eat” from time to time, doesn’t mean you have a disordered relationship with food! God has purposefully chosen to make this thing we need—food—bring us pleasure, draw us closer in community, and give us emotional comfort in addition to satisfying physical hunger. Let us be thankful for the good gift of food, and its ability to enhance our lives in such a complex and beautiful variety of ways!
* I cannot find this notebook anywhere online to reference it, so the citation is: Hunt, Richard A. et. al. Candidacy Guidebook: 2004 Edition. General Board of Higher Education and Ministry, The United Methodist Church. Nashville, Tennessee. 2004. p. 275.f