Now Featured in the Patheos Book Club
The Recovery-Minded Church:
Loving and Ministering to People With Addiction
by Jonathan Benz, with contributor Kristina Robb-Dover
The Stigma of Addiction in the Church
I invited a group of clients to share about the messages they received from the church, either implicitly or explicitly. Most of the messages were shaming and impacted the individuals' spiritual identity to the point they thought they didn't belong. Here were their answers:
-I'm the chief of sinners.
-I'm a horrible person because I can't control my drinking.
-I've broken every commandment.
-Addiction is not a disease. It's a sin. I should be able to control it.
-You are doing this to yourself. It's your fault. If you really wanted to, you would stop.
-Go to church more and you'll do better. Pray more. Tithe more. Take Communion more.
-I fell away from God because of the addiction and am not good enough to come back.
-I took Communion as a protection for me because I was afraid I might overdose and go to hell.
-I don't deserve forgiveness.
It would be impossible to determine how much each of these messages is a projection of the recovering addicts' internalized shame and how much is the real takeaway in congregations, whether directly (from the pulpit and in worship, for example) or more indirectly (from a church culture). The overall impression, though, is that for most of the clients coming to Three Strands, church was not a safe place because there they felt judged and alienated. There they felt shame.
If the church can be a stumbling block on the path to recovery, can it even be said that the church is helping addicts move beyond their shame? Yes . . . sometimes. Some of our clients—albeit a significantly smaller proportion of them—say they received positive responses from the church before coming through our program. One client said, "I attend a nonjudgmental, accepting congregation where we have recovery groups. I feel very accepted and look forward to going back." Another was quick to admit that "my church could help, but I felt shame because I was putting up a front of sobriety in the middle of a very accepting environment. That was all on me and not from them."
One positive response acknowledged that the church lacks an understanding of addiction: "I could separate the overall message of the gospel from people who didn't understand my struggle."
Based on these findings, it seems safe to assume that in the church addiction remains at least as much of a stigma as among the larger American public. Findings published in the journal Psychiatric Services point to a significant discrepancy in how Americans view addiction in relation to other mental illnesses.[i] Americans are more inclined to view addiction as a sign of moral failing than they are other mental disorders, such as bipolar disorder or schizophrenia.
Americans are more inclined to view addiction as a sign of moral failing than they are other mental disorders, such as bipolar disorder or schizophrenia.
Doing Better Than "No Casseroles"
When she first came to our program after her relapse, Angie was like so many addicts who have internalized that stigma. She had come to see the church of her upbringing as a place of disgrace, where her shame would only shout at higher decibel levels. Still, where the church had failed her, there was something irresistibly alluring about a prodigal God who welcomes home broken people. That something was enough to land Angie in a Christian program like ours.
By the grace of God, and with the help of local churches working collaboratively and intentionally with our program to welcome her home, Angie was able to reconnect with this God of love and forgiveness. This God was a far cry from the angry parent who shakes a finger and exclaims, "You should be ashamed of yourself." This God had time to celebrate the present moment as an opportunity to restore what was lost.
During her time with us, Angie began to realize that she wasn't a bad person for being an addict. Nor was God angry with her. She wasn't being punished; she was sick. She reconnected to her faith and today is back in a fulfilling job, has a sponsor, is attending recovery meetings and is involved in a church. Her spiritual life is vital, and she reports being "happy, joyous and free."[ii]
Angie's homecoming testifies to the fact that faith-based recovery works. Every day, in stories like hers, I see prodigal children coming home to a God they needed to rediscover as recklessly in love with them. Every day, my staff and I see healing happening before our very eyes: broken lives transfigured by grace. And every day at Three Strands, humbled, broken people admit their desperation for God's healing touch and a second chance.