By Jessica Brodie
The Rev. Telley Lynnette Gadson has battled with obesity her entire life.
“Even when I was a little girl I wasn't a ‘little’ girl,” Gadson said.
Today a sought-after United Methodist pastor known for her down-to-earth wisdom and dynamic preaching style, once she was the subject of much ridicule. She was always in a struggle to lose weight, attending aerobics classes (at age 10) and Weight Watchers (at age 12) with her aunts and monitoring what she ate. By the second grade, she was identified as a “gifted and talented” student, but excelling in academics didn’t stop little boys from calling her “fat” on the playground. On the very first day of high school, “I was laughed out of the lunchroom to the point that I decided I would take my lunch to school every day and eat in the classroom,” she recalled. “Somehow, after my freshman year, I found the courage to face the bullies and ended up being elected as Vice-President of Student Council.”
But after a lifetime of battling her weight—up and down, up and down—Gadson has once again taken the reins in her own hands, without pills or surgery. Since June, she has re-committed herself to eating in a way she describes as “balanced” with a consistent plan for exercise, and she’s found her secret weapon: strength-training, which has allowed her to more quickly translate fat-burning into muscle-building. The pounds have been dropping off, and she’s encouraged by her smaller frame and stronger physique. She’s lost about 40 pounds in six months. She went from being able to lift only three-pound weights to 25-pound ones. Her arthritis is vastly improving, and she has moved herself away from the danger of diabetes. She is more agile and has more energy—and has even greater endurance for her style of preaching.
“There’s this machine called ‘The ARC Trainer’—at first, it was a chore just to do five minutes, and now I’m up to 20 minutes. The elliptical and I have never been friends, but this week I did it at level 10. For the most part I don’t need an extender on an airplane anymore. I’m feeling mighty good!” she said.
Her journey is also inspiring many others to follow her lead and seize control of their own health and wellness once and for all. From the start, she’s chronicled her fitness journey on social media, with photos and using hashtags like #GettingMyMEBack, #PrayChurch, #DoJesus, #PressingMyWay and #ThisTimeIWin—as much to hold herself accountable as to help others.
Some church members and friends have embarked on fitness plans of their own, encouraged by her success and commitment. Recent posts to her on Facebook say things like, “You are inspiring me,” and “I’m repositioning my treadmill right now. I need to sweat, too.”
“To me it’s about health, wellness, wholeness, balance, love of self,” Gadson said. “It’s about affirmation, support for other people and encouraging other people.”
And it’s working.
A constant struggle
This isn’t the first time Gadson has tried to lose weight, but she has embarked on this re-start with an even greater understanding of how her physiological composition, her food selections and her commitment to a healthier lifestyle must balance for the transformation to continue.
In her own words, “Obesity is a chronic condition with no easy remedies, magic potions or quick-fixes. Overcoming requires a clear and consistent plan designed for each person. I strongly recommend consultations with doctors, nutritionists and fitness trainers who understand that what’s in your genes will ultimately show up in your jeans.”
The first time she lost significant weight was in college—she thought she was in love, and there was a drive connected more so to change her aesthetics rather her lifestyle. After losing nearly 70 pounds in less than two years, she lost her drive and focus when the relationship didn’t develop as she’d hoped, and she had not learned how to navigate a healthier lifestyle without an external interest.
Meanwhile, she was developing as a college student and a preacher, still discerning whether law school or seminary or both, and as usual with her constant companion—obesity. Life carried on as Gadson chose Candler School of Theology (Emory University, Atlanta) for seminary and matriculated well, leading to her first pastoral appointment at the then-two-point Mount Zion-St. Mark Charge in Sumter.
“I decided I wanted to try to fix this thing,” she said. “I joined a gym, and from mid-2001 to January 2003 I was on this regimen of trying to lose and manage my weight.”
She lost maybe another 75 pounds then. Her church was engaged and excited about her journey. The energy propelled her.
But then came the vetting of merger of her two-point charge.
“While the process was ‘loud’ with meetings upon meetings upon meetings, the silence was personal as I totally lost focus of me,” Gadson said.
In the same season, Gadson’s grandmother died, and she headed home to Hollywood to be with her family. Sitting at that table, being part of the celebration of her grandmother’s life, with the fellowship and all the eating, food found its familiar place as a comforter.
And when she came back to work—and the tension, politics and attitudes involved with the merger—she slipped and fell off the fitness track once again.
“I kept saying next week, next week,” Gadson said, but next week never came. She gained back all her weight.
Two years later life had steadied—she transitioned from the two-point charge to St. Mark as a “stationed church”—and she decided to go for it again. This time her results were even stronger: in three years she lost 100 pounds, in time to celebrate her 35th birthday.
But within a year’s time, she said, “I allowed my commitment to work to become stronger than my focus on me. This time, it took longer to start gaining it back, but I knew as it was happening, and now I thank God there was a reckoning moment before all that I lost returned!”
Breaking the cycle
In 2013, Gadson moved to the Greenville District to pastor another two-point charge – this time St. Mark-St. Matthew in Taylors. While both congregations had great potential for ministry possibilities, she quickly realized it was her personal life at this juncture that was all too familiar. If she didn’t look at her own potential and possibilities for a healthy lifestyle, she would once again be putting quantity of work ahead of quality of life. She knew she had to somehow create some balance, not only between her responsibilities for the two churches, but also for her own well-being.
She was tired of the battle she’d endured since childhood: lose weight, gain it back, repeat. Once again, she cried out to God for help, healing and a change.
“I decided I was getting my ‘ME’ back—I wanted to reclaim Telley,” Gadson said.
Before she knew it, God not only manifested potential and possibility for the churches she served as both became candidates to be “stationed” churches, but God gave her the help, healing and change she prayed for. On Monday, June 30, after a weekend of celebrating with St. Mark in her “new” appointment as the first full-time senior pastor of the now station-church, “I walked back in the gym, told my trainer I needed to meet with her, and the rest is fitness history,” Gadson said.
This time around, it’s different. In the past, she would get to a goal and then allow herself to relax a little, especially when life’s pressures got to be too much. She would put others’ needs before her own health goals.
But now, at age 40 and already struggling with bad arthritis in her knees, she realized that she needed to once again make this a lifetime commitment. She didn’t want to be on cortisone shots the rest of her life, or winded for lack of endurance, always yo-yoing in weight.
Her doctor charged her to put herself ahead of the other responsibilities and distractions, to focus on being the best version of herself.
Gadson took his words to heart.
Getting herself back
Back in the gym, Gadson became committed to her three-days-a-week cardio sessions. Her trainer, Bea, soon re-introduced her to weights, and that’s when Gadson began to notice a mind-shift.
“I’d told her I didn't want to bulk up, but Bea said, ‘You’ve got to build some muscle so you can burn fat,’” Gadson said. “I started and realized she was right!”
Now, Gadson does her three days a week, sometimes four, plus strength-training. If she’s traveling, she makes sure the hotel has a true fitness center, not just a fitness room, so she can do a full workout. She’s become a devout water-drinker. Already 40 pounds lost, she hasn’t had a cortisone shot in her knee since May, before her workouts began.
Best of all, the gym machines that used to wipe her out are now her happy challenge. Her endurance is much better. She’d love to regain the endurance she had before on the elliptical or treadmill, but her real goal is mastering 30 minutes on the arc.
And she is continuing to set realistic goals. Her 41st birthday is Feb. 28, and she hopes to have lost 50 pounds by then, and maybe another 50 by the end of 2015.
Whatever it is, she knows that setting goals and achieving them is the secret to her success—not only in fitness but in life, now and always.
“Obesity is my disease, my dysfunction,” Gadson said. “We all walk with a limp, and if I’m going to be successful in a healthy lifestyle, it’s got to be for life. That's the difference between a diet and people who are striving to be healthy. Diets don't work for people who are weight-challenged. And in our society, everything is ‘Celebrate! Let’s go out to eat!’”
At a recent church celebration, Gadson was proud of her ability to resist the allure of carbohydrates, which have always been her fall-off-track triggers.
“I grew up on grits for breakfast, bread at lunch and rice for dinner, so for somebody like me it’s a very close budget where carbs are concerned, all about portions,” she said.
She does tradeoffs, especially when fast food is the only option; then, she will order a kid-sized meal for portion control.
“It just comes down to common sense,” she said. “Every day is not going to be perfect, not always going to be right, but don't beat yourself up. Look in the mirror and decide what you see, not what everybody else sees, and start right there.”
Gadson is willing to be in conversation with anyone to discuss how they can tackle their fitness battles, too. She can be reached at [email protected].
By Jessica Brodie