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.

Congregations can also invite 12-Step and other recovery support groups into their midst and encourage their attendance. They can create “circles of trust” that, along the lines of the spiritual writer Parker Palmer’s model, invite the safe, authentic participation of every member.

By implementing these sorts of measures, faith communities can become sacred laboratories for testing out what freedom from shame and stigma feels and looks like. In the process, they’ll be building recovery-friendly community.

The “Tough Love” Approach and Language That Alienates — A Better Alternative

A third big obstacle to recovery-friendly community is theological language that can further alienate those in recovery. Case in point? The iteration of the more popular Christian cliché, “Love the sinner, hate the sin,” (which in reality often gets reserved for only a few behaviors singled out for their perceived egregiousness).

“Love the addict, hate the addiction,” goes the saying — and for writer Tracey Helton Mitchell, it’s synonymous with a “tough love” approach to addiction that may be just the thing that, however unintentionally, pushes a drug user into deeper alienation from the close, supportive relationships they need in order to recover.

Mitchell, a recovering heroin user who authored the book, The Big Fix: Hope After Heroin, remembers what it was like as a young teenager to hear her mother mouth these very same words while watching dramas about addiction play out on her nightly TV programs. “‘Love the addict, hate the addiction,’ she would say as she sipped her diet sodas,” Mitchell recalled in an article in The New Yorker this April. The same article goes on to catalogue Mitchell’s ensuing, decade-long descent into the hell of addiction, starting with a seemingly harmless prescription for painkillers … and then what saved her.

Poignantly, the one unifying thread of hope that interweaves those years, beckoning Mitchell back to her old self and to life itself, is also the love of Mitchell’s mother, a mother who, when push came to shove and those nightly TV dramas became her own living nightmare, ultimately rejected “tough love strategies” (Mitchell’s words) and chose to love her daughter unconditionally. Indeed, what Mitchell recounts are her mother’s countless efforts to stay connected no matter what — Mitchell’s late night calls from jail or while homeless on the streets of San Francisco, notwithstanding. Mitchell’s mother did everything she could to stay in relationship with her daughter and to assure her she had a place to come home to.

That same costly commitment to staying in relationship, no matter what the circumstance, seemed to require letting go of a felt need to express how much she hated her daughter’s addiction: “On one visit, I told her,” Mitchell recalled, ‘I have been living as a junkie prostitute out in California. If you can’t accept me, let me hop the next freight train home.’ She quietly handed me a plate of food. ‘I think you need some rest,’ she said as she closed the door.”

Ultimately such motherly expressions of unconditional love and acceptance won out over the opiate-induced feelings of euphoria and blissful escape. Mitchell, now 18 years sober with three children of her own, said she’s lucky her mother never ultimately bought into “tough love, a strategy based on the idea that cutting a drug user off from everything that is familiar will somehow be a motivator to get clean.”

Mitchell’s story can be a lesson for churches and faith communities, too. When it comes to building relationships that support lasting freedom from addiction, love “that’s strong and welcoming and accepting,” and that’s sensitive about its choice of pastoral and theological language — avoiding statements that may further isolate those in addiction’s grip, for example — is a better alternative to tough love approaches.

The Healing Power of Connection

Just how important is a supportive community to recovery from an addiction?

The latest studies from addiction science suggest it’s hugely important. They reveal that one incredibly powerful antidote to the lure of addiction is meaningful human connection, in the absence of which, the heroin syringe or bottle of vodka are far more tempting to return to in an endless cycle of lonely escape. That’s because the disease of addiction is as much a condition of social, psychological and spiritual alienation as it is a chemical dependency.

Churches and faith communities are thus uniquely positioned to play a tremendously important role in recovery, one that therapists, addiction treatment centers, law enforcement, government and even families in recovery cannot fulfill: they can provide a spiritual home and surrogate family to those who are hurting; and they can surround those in recovery with meaningful, relational connections that exude unconditional love and support.

The three big hurdles to getting there — lack of awareness about addiction, the shame and stigma of the disease, and alienating language and a tough love approach — are real. But they are also very scalable. That means the finish line, “recovery friendly community,” is also reachable. There you’ll find a warm plate of food, a familiar bed, and a mother who, in response to your most shame-laden confessions, gently says, “I think you need some rest.”

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