3 Hurdles to Recovery Friendly Church

A recovering alcoholic friend was recently at a church gathering when the conversation turned to a subject this friend knew something about: addiction.

The source of the discussion — and, by all appearances, some surprise and even horror — was a new book out for church leaders about how to minister to those with addiction in the church.

“Addiction … in the church?!,” one longstanding member of the church reportedly exclaimed, her eyes widening, as if in shock that “addiction” and “church” could co-occur in the same sentence. She apparently hadn’t heard the two terms uttered together, and the notion there could be addicts in the pew next to her seemed, well, unfathomable.

Lack of Awareness About Addiction’s Prevalence – and How to Address It

Such responses by people of faith indicate a lack of awareness about the prevalence of addiction and substance abuse in our day; and this unawareness is naturally an obstacle to building meaningful, recovery-friendly relationships that support lasting freedom from drugs and alcohol. Here, thankfully, a little more learning about the disease of addiction and its pervasiveness in American society, as well as the signs of a substance use disorder, can make a big difference.

The spate of news in recent weeks and months about America’s growing heroin and opiate epidemic, including the Administration’s latest proposal of an additional $1.1 billion in federal funds to fight it, are one way to begin an educational discussion. It takes only a few more quick statistics to drive home the point that the greater malaise of drug and alcohol addiction affects a very large swath of American society. Consider that:

  • one in ten Americans has a drug problem.
  • one in eight Americans has a drinking problem.
  • one in five Americans has grown up living with an alcoholic.
  • just under half of all Americans (43 percent) have experienced alcoholism within their extended family.

Addiction this widespread is necessarily an issue that affects religious people, too, and their communities. To say “addiction” belongs in the same sentence as “church” or “synagogue” or “temple” or “mosque” is therefore a proper representation of the reality, however hidden it may seem. That’s why the more churches and faith communities can learn about the issue, the better prepared they’ll be to forge life-changing relational connections with those in recovery, both in their pews and in their wider communities.

The Shame and Stigma of Addiction – and How to Respond

A second obstacle to meaningful, recovery-friendly community is the stigma of addiction itself. Increasing knowledge in recent years about the neuroscience behind mental illness has led to greater awareness and understanding of diseases like major depression, generalized anxiety disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder. The result has been a recorded decrease in the public stigma surrounding at least these more garden-variety forms of mental illness.

Addiction, in contrast, remains a notable exception to this trend. For instance, a 2014 study by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health found that Americans are much more likely to harbor negative attitudes toward those dealing with a substance use disorder than toward those with another diagnosable mental disorder. The still prevailing view is that addiction is “a moral failing” rather than a diagnosable and treatable medical condition, the researchers found. And the greater the stigma of addiction, the greater the shame — and in turn, “the less likely we as a community will be in a position to change attitudes and get people the help they need,” in the words of one of the study’s authors.

Those words can also apply to faith communities. In the presence of shame and stigma, faith communities, too, are less positioned to change attitudes and get people the help they need —the key phrase here being in the presence of shame and stigma.

Let’s dissect that phrase for a moment, starting with the pairing of “shame and stigma.” These two things are about as inseparable as Beavis and Butt-Head on the MTV hit by that name. Wherever stigma is making faces, shame is also nearby wreaking havoc; and wherever shame lies buried, breeding isolation and disrupting relational connection, chances are shame’s crass buddy, stigma, is egging shame on.

But there’s also some good news to be inferred from this same phrase, and that’s this: shame and stigma don’t have to be present (or at least as ubiquitously so); and when congregations start by tackling just one or the other, there’s a good chance they’ll be disempowering both at the same time.

Take shame, for example. In the book, The Soul of Shame, psychiatrist Curt Thompson, M.D., proposes a number of congregational practices that, as he terms it, have the potential to “redeem shame.” Learning about shame is one of them, and the learning process itself can encourage more than “one correct answer.” Practicing empathy and vulnerability is another; so is the praise of effort, as opposed to the praise of merely success.

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