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updated: February 21, 2011
By Annette Spence
The Rev. Richard Richter doesn’t know his precise top weight because he stopped weighing in 2003. He was serving as a hospital chaplain at the time when he discovered a laundry scale that would support his girth. The scale was located outside the morgue.
“I stepped on, and it said 440 pounds,” say Richter. “I decided I never needed to know my weight again.”
Richter suspects his weight crept higher, while his self-esteem dipped lower. The lowest point came in December 2006, when he had to get his overburdened knees injected with steroids to survive a family trip to Walt Disney World. He ended up crying in front of his two children, apologizing because he feared his physical limitations had “messed up” their vacation.
“They were like, ‘No, no, Dad, you did great,’ which made me feel worse,” he says. “I felt I was destined to die fat and hopeless.”
The event that finally kicked off a three-year process to lose 200 pounds was a combination of three things Richter believed could save him: “Boot camp, a ‘biggest loser’ contest, or a miracle from God.” It was a radio station weight-loss contest involving personal trainer sessions at the local YMCA. Donna Richter first suggested the contest to her husband, because she thought it could teach him to exercise again "without getting hurt."
“I also knew him well enough that if I bugged him about it, he wouldn’t do it,” she says.
Richard Richter’s first reaction to the radio contest was, “Heck, no.”
Richter struggled with body weight through much of his life, he admits. In high school the 6’2” football player measured a fit 185 pounds, but over the years his weight climbed.
The clergy lifestyle didn’t help. Studies show that the health of United Methodist clergy is worse than average in many categories, including obesity. Charged by the 2008 General Conference, the denomination organized a task force identifying 13 factors in the church system that negatively affects clergy health. (The task force report is expected to be presented to the 2012 General Conference.)
Like many pastors, Richter was challenged to eat healthfully in a culture of covered-dish dinners and take-out pizza. (“Eating habits” is #2 in the list of 13 factors). But in 2003, the usual pastoral health stresses were elevated when Richter was appointed to a church start, Lighthouse United Methodist Church in Ooltewah, Tenn. For the next few years, he would lead his fledgling Chattanooga District congregation from temporary homes in un-air-conditioned warehouses and a school, to a semi-permanent location in 2006. (See photo.)
“A lot of people assumed he was lazy because of his size,” says Donna Richter. “He was never lazy. He just used food to deal with his issues, and then he became hopeless. He was going to be big, and that was just the way it was. He resigned himself to it.”
“As a Methodist pastor, I couldn't take drugs and I couldn't drink,” Richter says, “but they do certify eating. I wasn’t crawling up into a bottle and dying. I was crawling into a plate of mashed potatoes and dying.”
Yet, he still worried about how his health affected his biological family – and his tender church family. “Realizing they had so far to go, I knew that if I died, they would die,” he says.
Soon after his wife suggested the radio contest, Richter got the wake-up call he needed to get going. He turned on the radio one morning, and the first thing he heard was a booming voice announcing the eight-week weight-loss contest his wife had mentioned.
Richter said, “OK, God, I hear you.”
He quickly wrote and e-mailed his entry essay. (“I see the things the doctors have warned me about happening … I sense that now is the time.”) He labeled himself the “PhatPastor” and was immediately selected as one of eight contestants in the Mix 104.1 WCLE “Ultimate New Year’s Resolution.”
"When I met Richard, he was by far the largest person that I had ever met," says Dawn Zerk, Richter's personal trainer throughout the contest. "However, he had one thing that separated him from the other participants in the contest: mental strength and perseverance."
The YMCA staff had to buy a special tape measure to take Richter's measurements. "The first several weeks I could barely reach my arms around his chest and waist," Zerk says.
She started her client out in “hydrojog” classes in the pool because they were safest for his over-strained joints. She also had him work on a cross-training machine for short periods each day.
Meanwhile, Richter set up a web site, DontFeedthePreacher.com, to chronicle his progress. Despite soreness and joint pain, he lost 22 pounds and 12 inches in the first two weeks.
"Unhealthy, untrained, sedentary individuals often make the most improvements in the first six to 12 weeks of training, and Richard was no exception," says Zerk. "Every week he knocked his number out of the ball park, and this encouraged his self efficacy, and in my opinion paved the road to his success."
“Sometimes we say we don’t want to go through the motions as Christians, but with exercise, sometimes you have to just go through motions,” Richter says.
For Richter, that often meant getting to the Y when the doors opened at 5 a.m. It also meant giving up a lot of meals at his favorite restaurant after Sunday worship, instead going home to eat low-fat yogurt and cooked vegetables, or a salad with grilled chicken.
About six weeks into the contest, Zerk encouraged her student to try an activity that would further propel him into his life-changing transformation: Richter climbed on a stationery bike for his first “spin” indoor cycling class.
Thirty minutes later, he climbed back off the bike and had to sit down on the floor.
“I was lightheaded,” he explained. “I still weighed well over 400 pounds when I started, and spinning is tough. But the other people in the class welcomed me and didn’t make fun of me.” He was hooked.
At the end of eight weeks, Richter had lost a total 61 pounds and 30 inches. He won the contest and the prize he wanted: a one-year membership to the YMCA.
But the weight loss didn’t stop there in March 2007. The “PhatPastor” became a fit pastor with regular spin classes, bike riding, and other workouts. The weight kept rolling off. By fall 2008 he had lost 100 pounds, dropped five sizes, and his blood pressure was in the normal range. By 2010 he had lost 200 pounds.
“I knew he was capable of it,” says Donna Richter, who remembers how her young husband-to-be ran to stay in shape. “The first four or five weeks were an effort, but winning the contest energized him. He really lost it in three or four phases over the three-year-period, and at each level, his soul had to adjust. He just didn’t give up.”
In June 2010, Richter was appointed from Lighthouse to the Hillcrest and Hendron’s Chapel United Methodist Churches in Knoxville District. His new congregations greeted him with a salad bar reception. (See photo.)
At age 48, the former pudgy preacher now weighs 235 pounds. He’s not only a inspiration to the Cleveland, Tenn., area – where he taught spin classes and appears intelevision commercials for the YMCA – he is now teaching spin classes for the Y all over Knoxville. (See photo.)
“Richard is so good with people who are just starting, because they know he was there not long ago,” says Vickey Beard, a YMCA instructor as well as lay leader for Luminary United Methodist Church in Ten Mile, Tenn.
Beard often co-leads spin classes with Richter, who begins his sessions with a prayer and weaves his faith and life lessons into the class regimen. Several people, including church members and a nurse in his doctor’s office, have shared how Richter’s story inspired them to lose weight or to join his spin classes.
“People are drawn to him,” Beard says.
It’s not lost on Richter -- whose theme was “becoming less of a man to be more for God” – that he’s been gifted with an experience allowing him to reach people in new ways. As his wife Donna says, “There are so many people who are where he was.”
He especially wants to help his brothers and sisters in the ministry.
“A lot of pastors, whether they are skinny or not, are proclaiming hope to others when they have little. I was doing that, too: Trying to proclaim hope when I felt so hopeless,” he says. “But when God called me, he called me to offer freedom to the captives. I’ve been captive. I know what it feels like. I can help.”
Donna Richter says, “It’s good to see the sparkle come back in his eyes.”
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