by Glen Doss, Major –
Lack of understanding about addiction is a major obstacle to effective church-based, recovery ministry, asserts Alcoholics Victorious’ Michael Liimatta in Christianity Today (December, 2000).
Churches often expect addicts to have “Damascus Road-type experiences” where everything will change overnight for them. Alcoholics Victorious, on the other hand, teaches that recovery, like sanctification, is “the continuing process of growth into the image of Christ.” If pastors see recovery in this way, they are more accepting of addicts, he believes.
I could not agree more with Mr. Liimatta; and I venture to say that this perspective is shared by many Salvationists working in the recovery field. “I wonder if in some ways our teaching of holiness may keep at least some soldiers from a willingness to be open about their own struggle,” observed Major Jo Ann Shade, Divisional Social Services Secretary, Cleveland, Ohio, in a recent letter. “What we fail to realize is that we all struggle with some kind of addiction (or call it idolatry). We all need to seek recovery – we all need Jesus.”
I suggested in a recent column that the way to rise to the challenge of effectively integrating addicts into our corps churches may be through seeking a better understanding of the nature of addiction. I sincerely believe that out of ignorance we miss wonderful opportunities every day. Only a tiny proportion of those who pass through our programs choose The Salvation Army corps for their church home. Someone once said: We fear most what we understand least.
Following are a few tips gleaned from my 14 years of ARC officership—during which time I twice pastored ARC recovery corps. As we peruse these, it is important to remember what Major Shade pointed out—for it is absolutely true—the substance abuser doesn’t have a monopoly on this need for recovery; the need extends to us all.
Don’t be silent in the pulpit
Corps Officers should openly discuss chemical dependency issues from the pulpit. Silence is tantamount to relegating the topic to the sphere of personal shame. I believe chemical dependency should be approached and discussed as a disease that affects every aspect of the addict’s existence. While it is true that chemical addiction is direct evidence of sin in the world, if pastors merely label it as sin, they may unwittingly prevent the addict from seeking treatment. In fact, such labeling has tragically kept some people entrenched in their addictions.
Learn about AA
While the genesis of Alcoholics Anonymous, the forerunner and model of all other Twelve-Step programs, is deeply rooted in the Judaeo-Christian faith, this is not widely appreciated. Two priests, one nun, a psychiatrist and two other physicians helped conceive the process in conjunction with the co-founders. I strongly urge the Salvation Army officer to read AA Comes of Age, a kind of “church history” of AA, and Alcoholics Anonymous (called the Big Book), particularly chapters 2-11, which present a comprehensive picture of the principles and workings of AA. I also recommend that the officer attend a few Twelve-Step meetings. Many Salvationists, after attending one for the first time, have exclaimed: “I wish that we shared in our sanctuaries as openly and honestly as people did at this meeting.” It is an eye-opening experience.
Display Twelve-Step literature in a prominent place
I recommend that such literature be placed on prominent display in the corps officer’s office, the foyer, and other common areas of the building. This includes Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, Cocaine Anonymous, and Al-Anon literature—the list could go on and on.
Be ready to listen to Fifth-Step recitations
Corps officers should be prepared to listen non-judgmentally to Fifth-Step recitations of recovering addicts, regardless of whether they are members of their own congregations. In these recitations the addicts admit to God, to themselves, and to others the “exact nature” of their wrongs. Certainly, to hear such confessions is an essential role of clergy. Many Twelve-Steppers view these as indispensable to the “spiritual awakening” which they consider essential for healthy sobriety. The text of the Big Book specifically counsels the addict to see a minister for this purpose. While this “spiritual awakening” shouldn’t be equated with Christian metanoia (or spiritual conversion), it is as similar to it as anything I have seen. The Salvation Army officer familiar with the dynamics of both can be an effective facilitator of Christian conversion.
Be prepared to assist in interventions
Corps officers must be prepared to act as catalysts in interventions. Of course, wise pastors will seek to also involve recovering Salvationists in direct interventions with the person or family in crisis. Surely no one is better equipped to speak convincingly to an addict or an addict’s family in crisis than another who has experienced successful deliverance.
My assertion, then, is that the competent, sensitive corps officer who is sophisticated in the dynamics of addiction has an important role to play in both the discipleship and recovery of addicts. Who else is better qualified to perform the pastoral function called for in many of the Twelve Steps? The officer can capably speak to the nature of God, sin and the life of prayer. The Twelve-Step program presents these issues as indispensable to recovery; yet it has not provided all the answers. By its very nature, it cannot provide the answers—hence my contention that the Twelve-Step program should ideally serve as a natural bridge to the corps church.