What your church can do about chemical dependency

By Boyce Bowdon

A U.S. government study released in January suggests that alcohol abuse kills about 75,000 Americans each year.

Prepared by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the study estimates that in 2001 approximately 35,000 people died from cirrhosis of the liver, cancer, and other diseases linked to drinking too much, and at least 41,000 more were killed in car wrecks and other mishaps caused by excessive alcohol use.

That fatality list, of course, does not include all the thousands of persons—and their loved ones—whose lives were wrecked by chemical dependency.

The Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services estimates that drugs contribute significantly to 80 percent of the state’s incarcerations, 75 percent of its divorces, 65 percent of its child abuse cases, and 55 percent of its domestic assaults.

Richard Pierson and Annette Harper—two United Methodist laypeople who minister with persons who are chemically dependent — observe that law enforcement and other government agencies cannot solve the chemical dependency problem on their own. Pierson and Harper declare that it is going to take a united effort and they believe churches have a unique and vital role to play.

Pierson is executive director of the Oklahoma State Board of Licensed Alcohol and Drug Counselors. Harper directs Addiction Ministries for the Oklahoma Conference of The United Methodist Church.

Reflecting on their extensive training and experience, Pierson and Harper suggest four ways congregations can help people avoid becoming chemically dependent and help those who are chemically dependent recover.


1. Be the Body of Christ

Pierson says he learned a valuable lesson one afternoon several years ago when he was counseling a teenager.

“It was past time to close our session,” Pierson recalls, “but the young man kept asking questions and bringing up new issues. I could tell he didn’t want to leave. So I asked him why. He stood there a minute, and then said, ‘Because you’re the only face of God I see all week.’”

Pierson says he was shocked.

“I almost fell out of my chair. To this young man, I was the face of God. It started me thinking. All of us who are Christians — whether we are lay people or clergy, whether we know it or not, whether we like it or not — are representatives of Jesus, who was the face of God. And Jesus has called us to represent him. In a way, that means we are to be the face of God.”

Pierson points out that as Christians we are called to be the Body of Christ.

“We are to see people as Jesus saw them — as God’s children and, therefore, people of sacred worth. We are to help people experience God’s love by relating to them with the same spirit Jesus related to people — with genuine concern and compassion regardless of their physical, emotional, financial, or social condition. We are to give our hands to Christ so he can reach out and help people who are hurting — comforting, nurturing, healing, liberating, and empowering them to experience new life in Christ.”

Pierson says there is no better way that churches can help people who are being devastated by chemical dependency than by striving to be the body of Christ.


2. Deepen your understanding

Harper and Pierson say church leaders can help fight the drug problem by becoming better informed about chemical dependency and helping members learn more about it.

Numerous reliable sources of information are available, they say. One is the website of Mayo Clinic, where the following information prepared by Mayo Clinic staff members is presented:

“Alcoholism is a chronic disease in which your body becomes dependent on alcohol….When you have alcoholism, you lose control over your drinking. You may not be able to control when you drink, how much you drink, or how long you drink on each occasion….If you have alcoholism, you continue to drink even though you know it’s causing problems with your relationships, health, work or finances….It’s possible to have a problem with alcohol but not have all the symptoms of alcoholism. This is known as ‘alcohol abuse,’ which means you drink too much and it causes problems in your life although you aren’t completely dependent on alcohol.”

Harper and Pierson caution that even though chemical dependency is a disease that does not relieve addicts from responsibility for doing everything possible to keep it under control.

“If I am a diabetic,” says Pierson, “my health depends on me taking my medicine, exercising, and watching what I eat. I must accept primary responsibility for my own care. And it’s the same for an alcoholic. He or she has to take primary responsibility for doing what he or she needs to do to minimize the severity of the disease.”

Harper observes that many people with chemical dependency problems deny that they have a problem. “They say, ‘I can stop whenever I want to.’ But the reality is, they cannot stop. They are addicted, and until they realize they have a problem they will keep getting worse.”

Addicts are not the only ones in denial; Harper says some church leaders are too. “They tell themselves no one in their congregation has a chemical dependency issue, but studies show that in most of our churches on Sunday morning a significant number of people in the pews are hurting because they or someone they love is struggling with an addiction. The addict might be your banker, your doctor, your nurse, your professor, and your boss. The addict could even be your pastor.”

Even though marijuana, meth, heroin, and other drugs—including prescriptions — are often in the news, alcohol still does more harm than any other drug.

Pierson says one reason is because alcohol is legal, frequently advertised, and glamorized. “Some people assume everybody drinks and they underestimate the damage it can do to them.”

Pierson and Harper say churches can help by presenting factual information concerning drugs in Sunday school classes, short-term studies, youth groups, older adult groups, and any other setting. They suggest that churches also provide special educational presentations for people who live in their neighborhoods.


3. Overcome evil with good

In his letter to the Romans, Paul encourages us to overcome evil with good. Pierson points out that we can help overcome the evil of chemical dependency by practicing the good principles Jesus practiced. An example: Don’t judge people and put a label on them unless the label you put on them is “Child of God.”

Pierson remembers one day back in the 1990s when he was processing a teenager for admission into a treatment facility.

“I had gotten all information, so I told the youth he could go to his room and start unpacking. I asked him if he had anymore questions for me. He said, ‘Well, I have one. What do you think of my hair?’ Like lots of teens were doing those days, he had dyed his hair several colors.

“I asked him if he wanted my honest reaction. He said he did, so I gave it to him. I said, ‘I see a young man who is absolutely screaming for attention and would like for anybody to acknowledge that he exists and that it matters?’ He sat back in his chair and gazed at me. I asked him if my response was anywhere close to right. He said, ‘Yeah, pretty close. I guess I’ll go to my room now.’”

When the boy was about to walk out the door, Pierson told him he had one more question for him.

“The boy said, ‘What’s that?’ And I said. ‘What do you think of my hair?’ Of course, I don’t have any hair. So he chuckled.”

Pierson says he followed up with this advice: “Let’s not make any assumptions about one another. Let’s work together about a week and then we can judge each other.’ The boy smiled and said. ‘OK, that’s fair.’ And went on to his room.”

Pierson points out that when you have low self-esteem, when your life doesn’t have much meaning or purpose, when you are anxious about what’s going to happen to you, and when there’s little if anything you are looking forward to or hope for, you are likely to turn to drinking alcohol or using drugs to ease the pain and fill the emptiness. As the Body of Christ, he says, we have good news to share about who God is, who we are, what life is, and what death is. And when we relate to one another in the spirit of Christ — loving God, loving one another, and loving ourselves — that good news is not only taught, it is caught.

Pierson says when the church helps people deepen their faith in God and their love for God and for others and for themselves, we are eliminating major causes of drug addiction. “Instead of being overcome by evil, we are overcoming evil with good.”


4. Love them back to God

What do alcoholics and recovering alcoholics need most from the church? That question came up recently in a group Harper was leading. Harper says an answer one addict gave hit home with her: “What the church needs to do for me is love me back to God.”

Her answer was right on target, Harper says. “Many addicts have been through devastating experiences and suffered horrific losses. They brought some bad things on themselves, but not all of them. They feel life has not been fair to them and are convinced God does not love them. Some are convinced God could not love them because of what they have done that has hurt others.”

Pierson agrees. “A lot of clients have asked me, ‘Why would God love me?’ It’s hard for them to get up the nerve to walk through the door of a church.”

How can the church help love them back to God?

Harper says one way is by helping alcoholics, recovering alcoholics, and others who are chemically dependent believe the church is there for them. “We help build their trust when we really have ‘open minds, open hearts, and open doors,’” she says. One specific way the church can be open to people who are fighting chemical dependency is by providing space for 12-step groups to meet. Another way is by referring them to professional sources in the community where they can receive care and treatment. She cautions, however, that the church should not send people with alcohol and drug problems to professionals just as a way to get rid of them. “Follow up. Let them see you are still there for them.”

She admits it can take a long time for a person to believe the church is “there for them.” But she says it can happen when church leaders and members consistently practice Christian hospitality.

“God doesn’t call us to fix people,” Pierson says. “But God does call us to let his love flow through us to everyone. And when we do that lives are changed.”

Harper agrees. “When people believe the church loves them, it helps them believe God loves them. And once they believe God loves them, they are well on their way to a new life in Christ.”

Boyce Bowdon, who was a United Methodist pastor for 20 years and Director of Communication for Oklahoma Conference for 24 years, now writes inspirational articles and books from his home in Oklahoma City, where he and his wife Arlene live.