In my opinion, there is no greater environment with the potential to impact the world of those in recovery than the church. The church is for broken people. The church is made of broken people. If we could all come together to work mutually on our brokenness using God’s power, then nothing would be unachievable. However, the church and the recovery community haven’t always made for a healthy combination. Here are a few suggestions both logistically and congregationally that I believe would help that ideal partnership change lives forever.
Provide a confidential area for meetings to be held.
The reason the program is generally called Alcoholics Anonymous is because it’s predicated on the idea of removing the obstacle of people worrying what people think of them. They’re able to come as anonymous people and work on their recovery stripped away of judgment. Often a church, in wanting to be helpful, provides a classroom or a space for meetings, but doesn’t take into account that the people in these meetings may be walking right in front of everyone or in through the front lobby. Being deferential to their privacy and anonymity shows compassion.
When designing a program, make sure you get input from those in recovery.
Don’t just assume you know what would be best. It’s a classic blunder for churches to want to be compassionate, but not lean into the people they’re actually helping to get insight on what will actually help.
Familiarize yourself with the nature of addiction.
The word addiction gets thrown around a lot. It comes up all the time in family and marriage counseling. If something is labeled as an addiction, it’s like a trump card for the one accusing. It can also be used as a get-out-of-jail-free card for the one being accused: “I can’t help it. I’m addicted.”
The true nature of addiction is much more complicated. In fact, you may be surprised to know in counseling there’s actually three different levels to labeling an alcohol problem. There is use, abuse, and addiction. Addiction is only categorized for one who is dependent on the substance and cannot live without it physically. Thanks to the after-school specials and made-for-TV movies of the 80s, addiction became the big, bad ugly. Later, it just became confusing because of all the mixed messages. It would be very good for a congregation to familiarize themselves with the true nature of addiction. To find out what it really looks like and what it’s really all about. Whether in recovery or just a member of the church helping those in recovery, I think it’s important for everyone to have a balanced idea of what addiction looks like.
A second aspect of this is understanding the different types of addictions and things from which people recover. Certainly, we’re all aware of drugs and alcohol, but there are many more things that people struggle from that would put them in recovery. Codependency is one that many overlook. It’s not a substance problem, but it absolutely affects the individual’s day-to-day ability to live a healthy life. Sex addiction is another one. Sex addiction could actually be categorized in different areas including porn addiction. There are many more complexities to these two issues than just the substance. There’s a Christian program called Celebrate Recovery that does a pretty good job of including people in all aspects of recovery. It also incorporates a much more overt Christian theme as well as praise and worship.
Familiarize yourself with the 12 steps.
There are a lot of mixed feelings about the 12 steps. Many don’t realize, in the beginning when Bill W. came up with these they were pulled straight out of the Bible. The steps don’t use overtly Christian language, but absolutely have their origins in Christian beliefs. The steps are a process to help someone in their journey along a very complex situation to grow one brick at a time toward a healthy lifestyle. I’ve seen dynamic change in the lives of those who truly follow them. Just like anything that has been around a while they have taken on a life of their own. One of the biggest controversies that people push against is the idea of a higher power being something other than God. You can think what you want in terms of how they’ve been used, but at their core it would greatly benefit a congregation to truly dive into the 12 steps and understand the meaning behind them.
Overcome stereotypes and hasty generalizing about those in recovery.
Again, those made-for-TV movies have created some interesting characterizations of those in recovery. In working extensively with this issue both in the church, in recovery centers, and in counseling I’ve discovered an over-arching absolute truth: Addiction affects everyone.
Absolutely no one is immune to addiction no matter their social economic status, their family upbringing, their beliefs, their education, their race, gender, or any other demographic descriptor. One way to do this is by the point I was going to make separately, but instead will include here:
Get to know someone struggling with addiction in your congregation
because chances are you already have and just don’t know it.
It is true. You probably know someone who is either currently struggling, struggled in the past, or doesn’t actually know that they have a problem. It’s important for you to actively search out those in recovery to be able to understand from their own stories. It’s very helpful for a congregation to find people who are willing to share their story to speak on a larger scale. This allows a large group in the audience to get a snapshot of the stories of several different types of people that addiction has affected.
I taught anger management classes in a public treatment program. In the audience were about 30-50 individuals who were in some part of the recovery program. Some had been in the program for a while. Others had come straight off the street that day. I can tell you in that setting there were a lot of different types of people. Some could’ve been my neighbor or my coworker. Others were very different than me. Those who had lived on the street a while were often raw and rough from the things that they had to do to survive.
Work to become okay with feeling uncomfortable.
Fighting against discomfort is the absolute worst enemy to growth. The very nature of growth is that we’re experiencing something new, out of the norm, or with which we’re not competent. There is no growth without risk. All risk brings some level of anxiety. So, if we’re constantly trying to avoid discomfort or awkwardness then we’ll never be able to grow to a point where we’re not bothered. I once worked with the church that had a very established recovery program. Unfortunately, it didn’t integrate very well with the rest the church, so often when one part of the church came in contact with the other part of the church there was a high sense of discomfort and awkwardness. Instead of leaning in, they “tolerated” each other. Tolerance is a good first step when you feel uncomfortable, however tolerance isn’t relationship. Growth happens best in an environment of genuine relationship.
Don’t fill in the blank.
This refers to something I work a lot with in my counseling practice. It’s especially prevalent when working with married couples, but I think it fits well here. Often when things happen outside of the norm there’s a disconnect in how we perceive it. This often comes across as awkwardness or a feeling of discomfort. The conversation, interaction or activity didn’t flow the way we thought it should and now we’re left with a blank when trying to make sense of what just happened. Often, it’s easy to fill in that blank with our personal background or the perception in which we came into the situation. However, that disconnect/blank is there because we are coming up against new information, a new type of person or a situation where we don’t have all the variables or information. When we fill in the blank we often create all manner of drama. Whether it’s negative emotions or a judgmental mindset or just more discomfort. For most of us we haven’t lived in the world of addiction and therefore this will happen quite a bit in the beginning. If we’re careful to find out more information, to ask questions, or just to be okay not filling in the blank and not knowing it will go a long way in helping us connect and help those in recovery.
Overall, this is about leaning into people where they are, learning from them, and being comfortable in our own skin as we all work on our brokenness toward the glory of God. There’s much more that could’ve been written here and so many other things to consider. Still, I think this is a good list to start from, to have conversations around, and to lean into one aspect of the brokenness our world is facing.