Alcoholism, Addiction and Recovery in the Faith Community: A Primer and Resource Handbook for Clergy and other Pastoral Ministers – PART I

Bald Head Island Lighthouse.Ten Considerations for Clergy (First Five)

Vernon Martin, TN Ass’n of Alcohol, Drug & Other Addiction Services, 2004

Consideration One:  Addiction is a disease

Treat it like one.  Always remember, you are not trying to make a “bad person good” a “weak person, strong,” or an “immoral person, moral.”  You are trying to help a “sick person get well.”  Let us deal with the issue of sin right up front.  There is plenty of sin in the world and the addict and alcoholic have it in their lives just like the rest of us.  You know the scripture, “All have sinned…..”  Understand that the disease and alcoholism has a behavioral element rooted in loss of control and loss of social judgment.  Understand that sin exists in the lives of alcoholics and addicts just as it does with all of us, but sin is not the cause of the disease, rather it is often a behavioral element of the disease process.

The disease process also makes the addict or alcoholic hypersensitive to judgmental or moralistic attitudes and as one wise minister once told me, they are acutely adept at seeing through “BS.”  Know that they are already judgmental enough of themselves, so be compassionate and non-judgmental in your interactions.  The 11th Step of A.A. states,  (we) “Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God, as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.” This is a good lesson for all of us, and it might make sense to use this as a guidepost to help us in seeking a compassionate, nun-judgmental, non-condescending attitude toward this disease and those affected by it.

Consideration Two:  You cannot “fix it” so stop trying.

You would not try to “fix” a diabetic or a person with any other chronic debilitating illness.  Treat this the same way.  It is your role to assess the situation, know the resources and make a good referral for both the alcoholic/addict and the family.  A cardinal thought is that no one can control, direct or manage another person’s life.  If we are honest, we recognize that we can barely do this in our own lives and often do not succeed at all.  As you move through the process, continually monitor your personal reactions to the situation.  If you find that you have gotten angry or overly frustrated, you have sucked yourself into trying to “fix it.”  At that point, stop, detach and start again.  Know your role, your level of expertise, your limitations and your resources.

Consideration Three:  Learn your community’s resources and refer to them.

Think, “refer and defer.”  Make a list of 5 to 10 “go to” people and make those referrals.  Know who is in healthy recovery in your congregation.  They will be your greatest allies.  Visit treatment centers and attend open Twelve-Step groups.  This will be an invaluable experience and a resource for the future.

Consideration Four:  Learn as much as you can about your area’s Twelve Step programs

Attend open meetings, talk with individuals and family members in recovery, and read the A.A. Big Book and N.A. basic Text.  Read Al-Anon literature and put their pamphlets with your other informational pick-up materials.  This will give you an understanding of the spiritual nature of the Twelve Step programs.  The websites of these organizations are very helpful and can help you develop a meeting referral list.  Examples are Alcoholics Anonymous (www.aa.org), Narcotics Anonymous (www.na.org), Cocaine Anonymous (www.ca.org), and Al-Anon (www.al-anon.alateen.org).

Consideration Five:  Recognize that the traditional Twelve Step programs, although non-religious, have a strong spiritual element at their base.

This, along with the supportive, non-judgmental community they create, is their strength.  They are you ally, not your enemy.  A good way to think of this is that spirituality and “spiritual baby steps” often begin the road back to church/synagogue and religious.  Be willing to work with the program and allow this to happen.  Be available to answer the religious and “God” questions when they come up.  Make sure you know the theology of recovery and the doctrinal stance that your denomination takes on the issues.  The American Baptist Church has a wonderful doctrinal statement that is worth reading.