It’s not uncommon for a man of the cloth to find strength in spirituality. But Wheeling native Matt Holbert takes it to a whole new level. The 38-year-old pastor at Grace Lutheran Church in Fairmont routinely competes in local strongman contests hefting boulders, running with 600-pound wheelbarrows and hauling trucks and is the proud owner of several state records in his age group.
His wife calls it the “redneck Olympics,” he said while taking a break at his home gym, Crossfit Intense. “If it’s rusty out in a field, chances are we’re going to try and pick it up and do something with it.”
And what exactly is his motivation? In Holbert’s opinion, the connection between the physical and spiritual is inextricable. And too often ignored in modern society.
“I think a lot of society could be fixed with getting more sleep, praying at least once a day and standing up more,” he said, laughing. “Honestly. Nice and simple. We don’t need the huge undertakings. You don’t have to pull garbage trucks or airplanes or lift boulders. But moving your body, praying a little bit and sleeping more? Probably solve about 60 percent of most of what’s going on.”
Holbert went on to say that his powerlifting helps balance things out. He considers himself a servant and feels that it’s important for him to use his gifts to best serve God. He says his gifts are a penchant for bad jokes and being a little bit stronger than average.
“So that’s what I try and do,” he said. “And the ability to go out and lift heavy things or help other people get stronger in different areas really seems to communicate, either with their guts or what they’re going through in life, for some reason.”
His story began in Bethlehem, where he said growing up, he was a fat kid with asthma. He got into lifting, in part, to help ease the symptoms. He went to Wheeling Park High School and Wheeling Jesuit University, originally intending to get into medicine. He felt the calling in his Sophomore and switched his major to theology.
Upon graduation he entered a five-year program at Trinity Lutheran Seminary in Columbus. There he met his future wife. The program involved a considerable amount of moving around. First he went to Detroit to help start a new church. And then he was sent to Clearfield in central Pennsylvania.
“Which is home to the world’s largest cheeseburger, the second-largest gun shop east of the Mississippi and a Lutheran church,” Holbert said. “So that’s where we were for about five or six years. Had both of our kids there. And then I got a phone call one day out of the blue from the bishop of West Virginia.”
The bishop had been his pastor many years before, and he asked Holbert to give Grace Lutheran Church in Fairmont a call. He did. And in 2010 the family moved back to West Virginia. The building has been there since 1907, and there are about 70 in the congregation.
“But it’s getting more and more active,” Holbert said. “And that’s been the last five years of really discovering again what we have with our bodies and what we have with our spirits. What are our gifts? And what can we do with them?”
Holbert said he often encourages members of his congregation to lift weights. And he’s just as likely to counsel people on matters of diet as matters of scripture or spirituality. (He recommends eating a diet based on lots of plants and animals if God made it, it’s probably okay for you.) There have been successes along the way.
“One of my first training partners in Pennsylvania. Really bad stutter. Not really great self-esteem. But wonderful kid. Good heart. Good spirit. He just needed more control of his surroundings and his emotions and his body. So we started training. And he was faithful three times a week. Every week for three or four years. He’s married now. Kids. He drives a big rig now. But he also has his degree in computers. His stutter is pretty much completely gone. He was able to take control of that aspect of his life. And from that he was able to build and take control of other things.”
Holbert trains three times a week with a training partner, focusing on both competition power lifting and strongman contests.
He does squats every training day, in addition to some kind of pressing movement.
Then he’ll work on lifting 300-pound Atlas stones, the “yolk walk” and his “axle overhead press.”
His best effort to date in strongman has been pulling a 20,000-pound truck 30 yards in 21 seconds.
His numbers in power lifting include a squat of 550 pounds, a bench press of 385 pounds and a dead lift of 584 pounds.
His goal is to set a national record or two. He currently has four West Virginia state records in power lifting and two in strongman. Getting older, he said, makes it easier, because there are age brackets. Beyond that, he simply wants to grow.
“I’d love to grow in all aspects,” he said.
“I want my church to grow. But not in numbers, in depth. I want my power lifting team to grow in experience. I want my family to grow. And I want to be able to work at that every day.”