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August 11, 2009 / Katie

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.

Ooohhhh, okay.

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

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23 Comments

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  1. Cleric at Large / Aug 11 2009 4:01 pm

    Katie-
    I LOVE your blog title.

    I’m also fat, and ordained, and blogging (occasionally) about the intersections of those things. I look forward to reading more from you.

    • Katie / Aug 11 2009 4:07 pm

      cool! What’s the link to your blog? I’d love to keep up with it :)

  2. Terri / Aug 11 2009 4:04 pm

    Workaholism poses just as great a risk (or greater), but it is associated with men, not women, and is actually encouraged by church structures. How many pastors do you know work 40 hours a week?

    • Katie / Aug 11 2009 4:10 pm

      yeah, I think that burnout (resulting from workaholism) and sexual misconduct are the two prime hazards for ministers. Interestingly, there is also a correlation between the two among counselors. Counselors who work more than full time (25 face-to-face client hours per week plus paperwork and research time) are more likely to become sexually involved with clients. I would imagine that it’s true for pastors too, because I suspect the correlation is from lack of good boundaries. And that is much more worrisome to me than an individual pastor’s food choices.

    • Cleric at Large / Aug 11 2009 5:43 pm

      I sometimes work a 40 hour week… at my 1/2 time job.

      • Gini / Aug 13 2009 1:50 pm

        My contract at my 1/2 time job was just renewed, but not after Human Resources returned it to me with an additional section in which I was to agree to not work more than 40 hours a week. Guess somebody got hold of my time logs and had some concerns. heh

  3. Cleric at Large / Aug 11 2009 5:42 pm

    I thought I had a link in my name- I guess not.
    http://www.revmom.wordpress.com

  4. Brady / Aug 11 2009 6:03 pm

    I love this post! I love that even as you’re interested in becoming ordained, you’re thinking critically and blogging publicly about the ways the church can improve itself. I find this to be such a positive and constructive critique, especially the ending statement: 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 wish that could be taped to the refrigerator of those struggling with eating, even in abundance.

    • Katie / Aug 11 2009 8:04 pm

      Brady–I love the image of that taped up on the refrigerators of people who are struggling with eating. In fact, I may do that myself!

      Also, I didn’t even really think about “blogging publicly about how the church can improve itself” while in the midst of the candidacy process, but I suppose I am taking somewhat of a risk! At least the denomination knows what they’re getting should they choose to ordain me :) (plus in this particular case, the Candidacy Guidebook isn’t any kind of stringent rule or policy document, it’s just an aid as you’re moving through… so we’ll see if I have the same kind of courage if I see areas the church can improve in more “official” ways wrt the ordination process!)

  5. Rachel / Aug 11 2009 6:14 pm

    I really do think that you’re blowing this out of proportion and distorting what is truly meant here (and as an atheist, I have no ulterior motives here in defending the church). When I read the passage I took “emotional dependence” on “food” to mean if someone has an eating disorder of the variety in which one’s ability to successfully do their job and/or relate to others is significantly impacted. In this sense, some people can become “addicted” not to food itself, although there has been research done that shows how some foods alter our neurochemistry more than others, but to the feelings they get from these harmful relationships with food. Someone who is actively battling binge eating disorder or anorexia (which is another form of emotional dependence on food despite the lack thereof) are hardly the ideal candidates to work as an ordained minister counseling others. These addictions can be just as serious and dangerous as an alcohol or drug addiction. And the reason for the food mention instead of, say, an addiction to bubble bathing or gardening is precisely because eating disorders are highly common, especially binge eating disorder. An estimated 10 percent of the population suffers from BED — how many do you think suffer from a bubble bath addiction?

    • Katie / Aug 11 2009 7:23 pm

      Someone who is actively battling binge eating disorder or anorexia (which is another form of emotional dependence on food despite the lack thereof) are hardly the ideal candidates to work as an ordained minister counseling others.

      perfect mental and physical health is not and cannot be criteria for being a minister (or anything else) because everyone is struggles with areas of unhealth. In fact, in seminary we are taught how to be effective “wounded healers” … how to both take care of ourselves by engaging in on-going healing therapies and to use our experience of healing as a catalyst for being a healing presence in someone else’s life.

      And the reason for the food mention instead of, say, an addiction to bubble bathing or gardening is precisely because eating disorders are highly common, especially binge eating disorder.

      If that were in fact the only reason for the mention of food along with drugs and alcohol, then there would also have been mention of other extremely well-known and researched non-drug addictions such as pornography, gambling, and excessive video-game playing. That’s not to mention that of all of these, food is the only one that we actually require for survival.

      An estimated 10 percent of the population suffers from BED

      Exactly. And what I’m saying here is that an over-emphasis on the idea that “emotional eating” is comparable to chemical dependency (along with the implicit assumption that fat people are all over-eaters) actually exacerbates the problem. It did for my ED, and I know I’m not the only one.

    • Katie / Aug 11 2009 8:11 pm

      Also, I overlooked that you were talking about Binge Eating Disorder (which, to be clear, is not as yet a diagnosable condition, and there is a lot that is questionable about it, including that obesity is often listed as a main symptom, when it really has not been demonstrated that so-called overweight and obese people actually eat more than thin people, or have an ED that leads to frequent binging without purging behavior).

      To clarify, in the last line of my reply to your comment, I personally was talking about EDs in general, not BED. An over-emphasis on food as an addictive substance exacerbates and even sometimes creates disordered eating problems.

      • Rachel / Aug 12 2009 6:44 am

        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.

        Other substances can include these other addictions of which you speak, especially since these addictions do, in a sense, act as a drug upon the brain. For example, research has shown that bingeing and purging effects the same kind of reaction to a bulimic’s brain that cocaine does for a drug addict. And perhaps the reason these other addictions are omitted specifically by name is that those wishing to become an ordained minister are more likely to use food as vice than addictions to gambling or pornography, two elements that are taboo in your religion, no?

        And what I’m saying here is that an over-emphasis on the idea that “emotional eating” is comparable to chemical dependency (along with the implicit assumption that fat people are all over-eaters) actually exacerbates the problem.

        I agree that the assumption that all fat people are overeaters or have an eating disorder is disturbing, offensive and harmful to fat people, but that still doesn’t negate the seriousness of BED — which IS up for classification as a diagnosis unto itself in the next revision of the DSM — whose sufferers overwhelmingly tend to be at larger weights than their natural setpoint. What we as a public knows about BED is still in its infancy, but with more research and awareness, hopefully these assumptions will begin to dissipate — and you can’t do that by sweeping it under the rug.
        I do see what you’re saying about “wounded healers” and all, but I don’t think that anyone who is actively suffering from anorexia-induced malnutrition, or who binges/purges 10 times a day, or who is obsessed with weighing themselves 20-plus times a day, or who is always plotting their next secret binge, is in a physical or emotional state to follow through with their duties as a minister, much less to counsel others. Some people with an eating disorder remain surprisingly effective in their professional lives (I did) and certainly one’s ED experiences can make them more empathetic and compassionate to others with similar problems, but do you not agree that it would be ideal for someone to at least come to a place where they can better manage their eating disorder (note, not totally recover from) before they assumed these duties?

        • Katie / Aug 12 2009 8:56 am

          And perhaps the reason these other addictions are omitted specifically by name is that those wishing to become an ordained minister are more likely to use food as vice than addictions to gambling or pornography, two elements that are taboo in your religion, no?

          Well, believe me, just because something is taboo in a religion doesn’t mean people don’t engage in it—in fact, making something taboo often increases people’s interest and tendency to use it in unhealthy ways. In my denomination, we are generally more realistic than to expect that saying, “don’t gamble” will keep people from gambling. In fact, our official stance is to say what we think is harmful and why, and then allow members to discern for themselves how they want to live.

          But also, it’s not just food or gambling or porn that cause chemical releases in the brain—everything does. In some ways, we can become addicted to anything, if we are using it to escape some kind of pain or other underlying issue, and that was the whole point of my post. I want to emphasize, yet again, that when we make a list of: “alcohol, illegal drugs, pornography, gambling, video-gaming, and food” that one of these things is not like the other. Comparing something that is necessary for survival to all these things that aren’t exacerbate the ED’s of real, live, human people (including myself) because it pushes us (me) toward the purging cycle of the binge/purge cycle. There is so much disagreement between mental health professionals about what actually constitutes an “addiction”—these are not cut-and-dried terms as many might assume they are. And this kind of language, “food addiction,” just isn’t helpful for many folks who experience disordered eating.

          But you know, I really wasn’t talking about eating disorders at all here (and any potential candidate for ministry would have had those, and any other addictions, addressed well before this in the process. This is geared toward people who’ve been through 4+ years of discernment and candidacy, including consultation with a great variety of peers and mentors, a number of psychological tests, an in-person interview with a psychiatrist, and several years of seminary classes that are designed not just to impart information but to form us as individuals and address any underlying issues that we might have. The system does fail sometimes, of course, but someone who uses food as a self-soothing technique is a lot less of a threat to the church members than someone with poor boundaries and a sex addiction.

          I’m not really even sure where our disagreement lies, now that I’m thinking about it. emotional eating =/= diagnosable eating disorder. I don’t actually think we DO disagree. I think you think I am saying something that I’m not really saying.

          As for BED, this post really isn’t about that at all, but having major concerns with it does not equal sweeping it under the rug, and just because it is up for consideration for the DSM doesn’t mean that it’s not problematic. Homosexuality has been a diagnosable condition in the DSM in the past, and there is current debate about the Gender Identity Disorder diagnosis (and some others). I only mentioned that it’s not even a diagnosable disorder yet because you said that 10% of people are estimated to have it—but without consensus on what it even is, that number is really suspect. It’s also suspect because I know a hell of a lot of fat people and I’ve never met anyone who has anything remotely resembling this. I’ve known people who’ve eaten too much in one sitting, or even in one week, to be sure, but usually it follows strict dieting, which to me looks a lot more akin to bulemia than a BED where you just eat too much and never try to purge—“purging” behavior can be more than just forced vomiting and taking laxatives.

  6. wriggles / Aug 12 2009 3:34 am

    What I’m pointing out here is that out of all the vast, vast variety of self-soothing behaviors

    Amen to that.

    The issue is not the substance but the underlying need, you need to be soothed easily and excessively, that means you are not at peace with yourself.

    If a person is always hurting in a way they can’t manage, then everyday events hurt them more than if they felt at ease deep inside.

    Eating disorders are also greatly triggered by using calorie reduction/ expeniditure, mostly to control weight.

    It is true that starving yourself can depress the nervous system which can lead those susceptible to use it as a tool to reduce anxiety. That tends to be mainly anorexics.

    Bulimia, Binge eating disorder and compulsive eating disorder are really your hunger and appetite drives cranking themselves up to their highest settings, same as if you really want something and are being denied, you tend to shout louder and louder until you cannot go unheard.

    There is an element of cruelty in focusing and fetishising the vehicle for the soothing, rather than the far more important person who’s trying constantly to repair their equilibrium.

    • Katie / Aug 12 2009 9:40 am

      It is true that starving yourself can depress the nervous system which can lead those susceptible to use it as a tool to reduce anxiety.

      Wow, you know, I didn’t know that. I always assumed that the anxiety reduction that came from fasting (when I was experiencing a full-blown ED) was just that I felt better for not eating because it meant I was being “good.” Thanks for pointing out that more might have been going on; I think that is really useful information.

      There is an element of cruelty in focusing and fetishising the vehicle for the soothing, rather than the far more important person who’s trying constantly to repair their equilibrium.

      beautifully put.

  7. LaughingMedusa / Aug 12 2009 5:14 am

    I love your post and I agree with you 100%. We are a culture that makes everything soothing an addiction without taking into account that it demonizes those things necessary for life and happiness. Excellent points you make and congratulations on your inquiry process to ordination!

  8. Reg Webb / Aug 12 2009 5:56 am

    Were I associated in any way with the ordination process, which I certainly am not, I think you just passed.
    Were I a church goer, I would want someone with your humanity, intelligence and insight for a clergyperson.

    Thank you.

  9. Gretchen B / Aug 12 2009 6:25 pm

    I would think twice after seeing food too. It’s essential to life. But I think they need to say the over indulgence of any of those things. I personally think it is ok for a clergy person to drink a little. But I understand most UM’s do not hold this belief. This is one part of the book I couldn’t agree with and left the candidacy process over. I’m going to drink alcohol, smoke cigarettes and hookah, and possibly eat a twinkie or a ding dong in the process.

    Last time I checked the Book of Discipline though it was still alcohol and drugs only.

    Really wondering what my mom’s pastor would think. He’s not a small man because of health reasons. Yet some in the congregation have suggested to him about starting a workout group or something like that. I would be offended by that. It’s crazy that there are so many things that can cause people to become overweight but the only thing blamed is food or not exercising enough.

    • G / Aug 13 2009 1:58 pm

      My dad is a U.M. pastor and is very clear that he might not be were the U.M.s still completely prohibiting alcohol (and tobacco). Living with him, I have often chuckled wondering what some of the older folks in the church would think were they to see him out on the porch with a beer in one hand and a cigar in the other.

    • Katie / Aug 13 2009 2:34 pm

      I don’t think I could be in the process if they still prohibited clergy from drinking at all. I’m not even sure that there is an outright ban on smoking, though I know that the language around that is more harshly worded than around alcohol.

      There are other “compromises” that we all talk about… the biggest one being the question, “are you in debt so as to embarrass yourself?” Well after seminary, who’s NOT?? But we all have to answer that one correctly, so we come up with the mental gymnastics to justify the answer to that.

  10. Laurie / Aug 25 2009 11:03 pm

    Katie, have you ever heard of or read the book, “Fat is a Feminist Issue”? It’s very old — from back in the late 70’s maybe? But I found it very powerful when I first read it and think you might too. It’s out of print but still available through Amazon. “Feminist” is almost a dirty word these days, but the book itself is about personal empowerment — a good thing. Let me know if you’d like to talk more.

    L

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