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

Ten Considerations for Clergy (6-10)

©Vernon Martin, Tennessee Association of Alcohol, Drug & Other Addiction Services, 2004.  Reprinted with permission.

hands of support

Consideration Six:  After referral to Twelve Step programs, resist the temptation to “rush the alcoholic or addict” back into church or synagogue or temple.

Know that they may need, as one A.A. writer suggests, the “spiritual kindergarten” that is the Twelve Step program.  Most addicts and alcoholics carry around a tremendous amount of guilt and shame; often their family members do as well, especially those who also grew up with alcoholic parents.  Unfortunately, this often relates to their formative religious experience and the concepts of morality, sin and judgment.  They need time to heal in a non-judgmental supportive community.  Unfortunately, but more often than not, that supportive community is not their faith community; it is their Twelve Step group.  This is particularly true in the early stages of recovery.

Understand that their disease has caused a bankruptcy of spirit, an alienation from God, church and community and a spiritual isolation that requires time and effort to overcome.  They are often angry with God and need time to come to terms with that anger and to find, as the steps suggest, the God of their understanding.  Be there to help with that understanding when they need you.  Know that this is an individual process and often takes years to accomplish.

I once heard a person with 20 years in both N.A. and A.A. say that he had not been able to say the word “God” for the first few years of his recovery.  His alienation and experience with Church and God were such that he did not want to address or approach the issue.  He related that through the spiritual avenues of his Twelve Step programs.  He eventually, although slowly, overcame this attitude.  He came to realize that seeking a new relationship with God and re-establishing himself with a faith community could be a valuable adjunct to his life in recovery.

Consideration Seven:  In addiction as in life, there are few, as the Christian tradition describes, “Damascus Road” experiences.

More often, recovery and return to the spiritual and religious life are more equated with the Christian Gospel story of the “Emmaus Road” experience described in the Gospel of Luke, verses 24:13-32.  In this story, rather than the dramatic conversion experience of Paul on the Damascus Road, the two travelers on the road to Emmaus were ministered to by a risen Jesus in a step-by-step, mile-by-mile, day at a time kind of pace.  It was not until the end of the day that they realized that through the presence of the stranger that joined them on the road, God had been with them every step of the way.  They came to realize that God had been part of their journey all along.  As he walked with them and slowly opened the scriptures to them and finally revealed his presence, they realized that this heartwarming, mind opening, life changing experience was due to their encounter with the God who was revealed in a way that they could understand.  Put in Twelve Step language, this encounter revealed the “God as we understood Him.”

The lesson is:  God is with us and at work all the time even if we do not realize it.  A great Twelve Step slogan is “Let go and Let God” Trust God’s timetable for spiritual and religious awakening.  It will always be better than ours will.

Consideration Eight:  Understand the importance of educating and informing your congregation about alcoholism, addiction and recovery.

Consider offering sermons and prayers that deal with these issues.  You will find that, although most of your congregation is relatively uninformed, a large percentage of them have and/or are being affected either directly or indirectly by alcoholism and substance abuse or misuse.  Use the pamphlets and posters available free of charge from SAMHSA’s Health Information Network (SHIN) (http:ncadi.samhsa.gov or 1-877-726-4727).

Father George Clements of the One Church-One Addict program tells the story of a parishioner who asked him to offer a prayer for someone in her family who had a drug problem.  Father Clements related that he agreed and during his early Mass that Sunday brought the issue to the congregation.  He began by noting the request for prayer and added that he wanted to expand it to include all those who either had drug or alcohol problems or were being affected by someone with drug or alcohol problems.  He asked for all those present who were in such a situation to stand.  When almost the entire congregation of over 500 stood, he relates that he thought, and almost said out loud, “Damn!”  He was taken aback and was totally unaware of the prevalence of the issue within his flock.  Take this as a lesson and be aware that alcoholism, addiction and recovery exist in every congregation.  None are immune, and the sheer numbers of people that have been affected by the disease are sometimes shocking.

Congregational responses to these issues run the gamut from no response, to as one writer put it, “A.A. in the basement,” to full blown Recovery Ministries.  Help your congregations find their level of involvement and strive to develop a “recovery friendly” atmosphere that welcomes and supports individuals and families affected by alcoholism and addiction.  Your congregation will look to you to set the tone for this effort.

Consideration Nine:  Recognize that this is a family issue, a “family disease.”

Alcoholism and addiction take a tremendous toll on everyone involved.  The spouse and all the children need attention and referral.  As Stephen Apthorp relates I his classic book Alcoholism and Substance Abuse:  A Handbook for Clergy and Congregations  ”Recognize that the members of the dependent’s family need treatment as much as the dependent person.”  As Dr. Apthorp also relates, “Seldom, if ever, will the cry for help be:  “My husband (or wife) is drinking too much and the whole family is sick.  Will you help us?”  Again, know your role and set your boundaries.  You cannot become the agent of one person or another.  The entire family is caught up in the disease process.  They will need to be part of the recovery process as well.

Consideration Ten:  Lastly, be aware of the message of hope.

Recovery is real for millions of people.  We deal with people in recovery every day.  They are our neighbors, teachers, clergy, co-workers and even family members.  Recovery has changed the lives of millions of Americans, individuals and their families, dramatically for the better.  The best message is a “message of hope.”  There are literally millions of American families in recovery and living a positive recovery lifestyle.  They are in your community and in your congregation.  Find these people and learn their stories of hope.  Spread this message as often and in as many ways as you can.