Preventing and Addressing Alcohol and Drug Problems in the Faith Community:

A Role for Church Leaders, Seminaries, Lay Ministers, Catholic Schools and Caring Parishioners

By Sis Wenger

Our clergy and other faith leaders have always been needed and appreciated for their potentially healing role for hurting individuals and families – in addition to their role as our shepherds guiding us towards a deeper spirituality and connection with our God.  We Catholics grew up knowing this intuitively.  Yet, unaddressed alcoholism and other drug dependencies block the capacity for both family healing and the development of a meaningful spiritual life.

For generations there has been a wall of silence in much of our Church and its institutions about this pervasive disturber of parishes and insidious destructor of our families.  The silence starts in the hurting families, filled with fear and confusion and not knowing where to turn, and fans out to congregations and parish and Church leadership where it is reinforced by both a level of ignorance and a genuine desire to be kind and helpful.

The ignorance stems from both judgmental attitudes about people who drink too much and whose related behavior is annoying or harmful and from an attitude that instinctively says “be kind, be supportive”  “don’t embarrass and make a parishioner uncomfortable,”  “pray and there will be a better tomorrow.”

People do not naturally figure out what to do to deal effectively with a friend or loved one, or even a  pastor, who is suffering from alcoholism or other drug addictions.  They do not instinctively intervene appropriately, but rather – and quite naturally – they enable the addiction to progress by covering for and working to  lighten the load of afflicted persons under the belief that this will help smooth things over and provide peace and progress for the moment.   At every level, good people address the issue by repeating what hasn’t worked before and won’t work in the present.

For naturally helpful people, dedicated to the service of God through service to man, what might help feels unnatural and even unkind.  Yet effective strategies are counterintuitive and, without understanding the nature of this disease and its deleterious impact on those living with it, and without learning alternative strategies, efforts to help can be futile or even counterproductive when active alcoholism or untreated/unhealed family wounds – often multi-generational – are present.

The alcoholic home front is armored by delusion, denial and strict adherence to the “no-talk” rule.  Even when it has never been articulated, all impacted family members – even very young children – “keep the lid on” and suffer in the silence that is killing their family.  Without messages validating their reality and offering them emotional safety, understanding, intervention and support from outside the family, they too frequently continue in isolation on a destructive track that travels from generation to generation.

But there is great hope today!

Alcoholism swallows up and controls an entire family, which may well continue to look functional on the outside.  But when a family is fortunate enough for an addicted loved one to accept help and begin to recover, an opportunity opens for all members of the family to recover as well – from the slings and arrows suffered as a result of addiction’s control over their lives.   Yet, family members need guidance and support to begin that process and to sustain it.  Their own delusion keeps them from seeing the harm the disease has done to them and their responsibility to take charge of their own healing.

The parish and the Church at large, in their natural healing roles, can do so much to help all family members, including young children.  For this reason, The Clergy Education and Training Project® has for nearly ten years been developing educational programs and handbooks, — and now a seminary curriculum to be released in the next few weeks – to support training and tools that can facilitate an individual pastoral leader or a whole congregation or diocese in providing the necessary understanding and strategies to help afflicted individuals and families.  Because of the insidious silence in alcoholic families, faith leaders generally cannot see who is affected, just as educators often miss impacted children and youth who are masters at covering their truth, feeling they are alone and without any support – not realizing there are so many other children and families suffering the same isolation and helplessness.

Parish Opportunities

Simple strategies that can change the trajectory of countless hurting parishioners:

  • Put out pamphlets about where to find help for family members, including Alateen for the young people.
  • Include in the Prayers of the Faithful specific references to the children living with an alcohol abusing parent that they will find a caring adult to help.
  • Host AA or Al-Anon and Alateen in the parish meeting rooms and regularly advertise them as well as meetings at neighboring churches in the weekly bulletin.
  • Include Did You Know Facts in the bulletin about the developmental impact of growing up in the chronic emotional stress created by parental alcoholism, and urge that affected parishioners get help.
  • Include a section on alcoholism’s impact on your parish website and information on where to find help for afflicted individuals and affected family members.
  • Know your local treatment and recovery support programs – visit them; invite them to speak to your congregation about both the disease and family impact and about resources that can help.
  • Always determine respectfully if alcohol played a role in the death of a parishioner and counsel  the family members to get help for the losses they suffered because of the disease, not only because of losing a loved one, or addiction’s negative impact may never lose its hold on them, continuing to affect them throughout life.
  • Offer educational programs at the parish including age-appropriate ones for the children.  Include education about adult children of alcoholic parents, and the frequent marital stresses and parenting issues they encounter that have their roots in the adverse childhood experiences during their growing –up years.

All of these strategies help to create an environment that encourages those who are hurting to surface and begin to break through the family’s wall of silence.

The Pastor or Pastoral Minister

In addition to supporting the above actions:

Marriage Preparation Courses

For generations, far too many Catholic marriages have disintegrated as a direct result of active alcoholism in the family or from having grown up in a dysfunctional alcoholic family where healthy interpersonal and intimate relationships were not modeled or learned.  Unless those childhood issues are addressed and healthy ways of relating intimately are learned and practiced, marriages often cannot be sustained.  Marriage tribunals are faced with the results of what might have been prevented with quality education on the disease, its generational impact, and the early signs of excessive drinking that are not seen for what they are at the time of marriage preparation.  (When daughters of alcoholic fathers are more likely to marry men who become alcoholic, taking advantage of education and intervention opportunities at such a critical juncture in a young couple’s life is crucial and almost always missed.)

Lay Leaders

A team of trained and committed congregational teams of lay people, usually consisting of persons in long-term recovery, family members active in recovery programs such as Al-Anon, psychologists educated in addiction, and other interested and skilled health care professionals can become the internal  “go-to”  referral source when there is a suspicion that alcohol abuse is an issue in any presenting problems.  Persons who understand intervention, and those who have a knowledge of child development and the impact of addiction on young people could also be an effective part of such a team.   A pastor can readily refer any family member or person struggling with alcoholism or drug use problems to such a team.

Learning Together With the Leadership Team

“Learning Communities” within one parish – or teams from an entire Vicariate – could study sections of material already available to guide caring faith communities in addressing this insidious and unseen enemy in our parishes everywhere.  Available on line at www.nacoa.org/clergy.htm  are two handbooks and numerous articles that can be downloaded – studied one section at a time – and discussed at gatherings or on conference calls.  The Clergy Education and Training Project® which has been developed with the guidance of many faith leaders, including several outstanding Catholic seminary academics and deans, has always had the practicing pastors and congregational leaders at its heart.  These tools are for our clergy and their caring congregational members to help with the healing mission of our Church.  So many of our families, feeling hopeless and helpless, are waiting.                                                                                       

Sis Wenger is the immediate past President/CEO of  the National Association for Children of Alcoholics (NACoA)

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