Monday, March 1, 2010

Pastor Robert Hartwell: The Skinny on Sacrifice

Most people make weight loss resolutions only after the annual holiday binge. But it was on New Year’s Eve 2007 that the Rev. Robert Hartwell’s weight-loss odyssey came to a dramatic close. That morning, he stepped on a scale on NBC’s Today Show in front of 10 million people.

Just how the pastor of Village Lutheran Church in Bronxville, NY, got to this point began two years earlier. Pastor Hartwell's church had started a campaign to pay down an $8 million mortgage the church had assumed for a building project.

One day, Pastor Hartwell got a baffling call. A former parishioner, someone who kept close ties with the church, offered to make a substantial donation. But there was a catch. “This donor said that he wanted me to commit to losing 70 pounds, and if I did so, he would donate $5,000 for each pound I lost,” he says.

It was both an intriguing and a heartbreaking offer. “I was crushed—mortified—that someone had discovered that I was overweight, although of course everyone saw it when I stepped into the pulpit each week,” Pastor Hartwell says. “But this donor said he wanted to know that I was as committed to the project as he was.”

So was born “The Skinny on Sacrifice” campaign. Although up this point Pastor Hartwell hadn’t acknowledged his weight problem, he certainly understood how it had happened.

“My life is so hectic. I was always eating on the run. I’d grab a muffin between hospital visits, get home from council meetings at 10:30 at night, exhausted and ravenous, and grab a couple of sandwiches and chips,” he says. “And I was a volume eater—I could eat a half a pizza by myself, or eight White Castle burgers at a time.”

By the time the sly donor came into the picture, the six-foot-tall pastor weighed about 270 pounds. After consulting with his parish nurse practitioner, Pastor Hartwell took up the challenge, choosing NutriSystem for his meals.

On a food plan of about 1,500 calories a day, Pastor Hartwell lost 10 pounds almost immediately, and he continued to lose two to three pounds a week. He and his wife, Sue, had always walked for pleasure, and he made sure he got in two to three miles a day. After six months, he started going to the gym at next-door Concordia College, where he is an adjunct professor. A congregant who is a personal trainer showed him how to use the machines. He found the college atmosphere stimulating. “I was there with the 19- and 20-year old baseball players, and they motivated me to keep going,” he says.

Meanwhile, an employee at the church’s school who happened to be a lighting director for the Today Show brought the pastor’s challenge to the attention of a producer. The producer asked whether Pastor Hartwell would be willing to weigh in on the show the morning of December 31, 2007.

“I had already told the donor that I wouldn’t weigh in during a church service, and here I was agreeing to do it in front of a live audience on national television,” he laughs. “Barring Jesus projecting it in the sky over the earth, it couldn’t get any bigger than that!"

Just before Pastor Hartwell stepped out onto the stage, someone clipped a microphone to the back of his shirt. “This thing must weigh five pounds!” he protested. No matter. Robert made the donor’s 70-pound limit, with 8 extra pounds in the bargain. The donor wrote a check for $390,000, which church members augmented for an even $400,000.

Since then, Pastor Hartwell has lost 18 more pounds, bringing his total to 96. And, while he originally targeted 200 as his goal weight, he now wants to see 170—a total loss of 100 pounds. He still uses NutriSystem, and intends to continue even after reaching his goal.

In 2008, Pastor Hartwell challenged his congregation and the church's school to join the Skinny on Sacrifice II challenge. Over 200 people took it on and by last year had lost over 3,000 pounds. Many participants reported improved blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar levels, allowing many to reduce or eliminate medications to treat those conditions.

Pastor Hartwell says he now believes that weight loss is not only an individual pursuit yielding personal satisfaction, but a goal with wide-ranging possibilities for strengthening family and community ties. “Food is a short cut. Food is really a substitute for spending time with each other. I just decided we weren't going to do that anymore," he says.


  1. What a great story and what great pictures! Thanks for sharing his inspiring experiences.