Guest post by J. Nicole Morgan
As a teenager, I professed faith in Jesus at a summer camp in the mountains of Tennessee. I remember badly wanting to ask my youth pastor to baptize me right there, that week, in the pool on the college campus. Not because of any spiritual urgency, but because I was afraid that if I waited to return to church the next week that there would not be a baptismal robe large enough to fit me. My adolescent reserve won out and I waited until we returned to our church to be baptized there. The robe was snug, but did technically fit. A few years later after I was finished with my white high school graduation robe, I donated it to the church and told them to keep it in their baptismal robe supply – just in case.
There are a variety of ways that our churches can be inaccessible to people of size. Often church leadership doesn’t know to look for these areas and church parishioners don’t know they are allowed to speak up. I sat down to talk with my current pastor, Brian Wright, D. Min., about these issues. This article provides some starting points to make your congregation welcoming to people of diverse body sizes.
Wright worked as an eating disorder counselor during his undergraduate days as a psychology major, ministered as a pastor for many years, previously served on the board of the Interfaith Disability Network, and is currently in medical school to become a doctor.
In other words, he is an excellent person to talk with about the intersections of faith and bodies!
As a member of the church where Brian currently serves as interim pastor, I can affirm that his sermons are free of anti-fatness. If you’ve sat heavy in the pews for long enough, you are likely well acquainted with fat being the go-to evidence-of-sin: we run the race so we’re not fat; we resist temptation so we’re not fat; we have self-control so we are not fat. Fat is evidence of sin and failure in these examples. I am happy to confirm that I’ve heard none of these types of illustrations from Brian.
Brian and I talked about ways pastors and church leadership can work to be more size inclusive and accessible and how parishioners can advocate for those things.
Issues of size accessibility can become issues in churches in a variety of ways: seating in the sanctuary, classrooms, or other meeting space can be inadequate; the church could lack baptismal or choir robes that fit the full range of the people who belong to their congregation; or tables and chairs could be arranged in a room in a way that makes it difficult for fat people to navigate.
What can pastors look for to make their church safe and welcoming for fat people? How can members of the congregation bring up the issue?
BRIAN’S TIPS FOR MEMBERS OF THE CONGREGATION:
Know that everyone, including you, has the right to fully participate in the life of the church.
Speak up and make your needs (for a certain size robes or camp shirts, better seating, etc) known to your church leadership! Every single body is loved and a part of the family of God. Most pastors will want to make sure that the members of the church feel welcome.
Did the church do or say something offensive that shamed fat bodies? Begin by asking the pastor or leader what they intended to convey and then explain why it was offensive. Hopefully the church leadership hears this and is willing to listen and learn.
NICOLE’S TIPS FOR CHURCH LEADERSHIP:
Walk your building and take a look at the seating. Are there options for people of various sizes to meet in all the spaces? This means: sturdy chairs, wide seats, chairs without arm rests. Pews tend to be really great for size-inclusive seating! Stadium style seats are often problematic.
Open the closets that contain the robes or other clothing people in your congregation wear: baptismal, choir, vestments, drama costumes, etc. Check the sizes! If there are different styles, make sure a wide size range is available in each style.
Be up front and public with the fact that your church desires to be accessible and inclusive to people of all sizes. Just as you might mention that hearing aid devices are available to better hear the sermon, mention that your church desires to make sure everyone is comfortable, safe, and included. Provide a way for members to easily contact you with any accessibility requests they may have. Be specific that this includes body size as people are often ashamed to admit they need size-based accommodations.
Eliminate “fat is bad” examples from your sermon. You can talk about how a race is a great analogy for Christian faith without the exercise having to be about losing weight. You can talk about the dangers of gluttony--over consumption--without making getting fat the absolute result of that sin.
Psalm 139 tells us that before we were born, God saw our frame, the shape of our body, and then called it wonderfully made! May we joyfully and intentionally do the work to make our churches places that echo that divine endorsement.
Originally published at FatinChurch.com.
J. Nicole Morgan is a fat Christian who invites others into the freedom of living abundantly. She runs Fat Faith, a place dedicated to talking about fat acceptance in the Christian Church. Her writing has appeared in Christianity Today and she’s been interviewed on Moody Radio. Find more of Nicole’s writing at jnicolemorgan.com and follow her on twitter at @jnicolemorgan.