Church recovery programs are a safe place for personal growth

By Ronald E. Keener

Some churches may look more like a clinic, but more is often said about salvation than therapy.

Look at your church’s weekend bulletin and you will likely see six, eight, maybe 10 “recovery programs” available, in what may seem more like a clinic than a church, where more is being said about therapy than salvation. But not so, says Liz Swanson and Teresa McBean, authors of a review of such programs in the book Bridges to Grace (Zondervan, 2011).

“Recovery programs are absolutely not therapeutically focused,” McBean says. “They are, indeed, often times more about salvation than some of the other areas of the church. A recovery group does not advise, it provides a place for safe storytelling, connecting, and introduction to God. People talk about how God has helped them, and it encourages others. Therapy doesn’t work with recovery — only God can heal these wounds.”

Tyndale Publishing has also brought out The Life Recovery Bible and Celebrate Recovery, a program begun by Saddleback Church and now is being used in numerous churches, remains popular. The book by Swanson and McBean describes the recovery programs of nine congregations; McBean responded to questions about the recovery movement as they have seen it:

What is a brief summary of the history of recovery in churches? What was going on in churches before there was Celebrate Recovery?

Dale Ryan presented a paper at the ISAAC convention in Madrid, Spain in May 2003. One of the historically most accessible ways to speak about Christian recovery within the church context has been for churches to open their doors and allow AA, NA, SAA, and other “anonymous” communities to use their space. This in many ways has proven fruitful. The church has always been vital in the recovery movement.

The program of AA has been one of the most successful ways our culture has found to address addiction. Although many quibble over the spirituality of the program (much like Goldilocks looking for just the right porridge, some think it is too God-focused, others think too little emphasis is placed on God), those who participate clearly understand the spirituality of the program if they stick with it.

So, if a church doesn’t know how to help a drunk get sober, housing AA meetings where these same drunks can go for a meeting is both an act of hospitality and a way to leverage community resources that are perhaps beyond the scope of what a particular church community feels equipped to handle.

When others began to notice the spiritual disciplines that are practiced in the 12-step program of AA and other like-minded groups, other solutions-focused groups popped up in the community and churches began to take a second look at the 12-step process. What many of us found is a deeply spiritual discipleship program.

Why do we need recovery programs? Isn’t trusting God with our issues enough?

I suppose an argument could be made that recovery programs are redundant — if all churches focused on bringing God’s message of hope and healing to their congregants in a way that they could grab hold of and experience as healing in their daily lives.

There are some consistent elements necessary for people to recovery that many churches are not set up organizationally to handle. This isn’t an indictment, but it is what it is. Recovery requires high intensive time commitment to one individual for whom there is no guarantee of success, the person needs to tell their story in a way that is honest and fully disclosing knowing that their confidentiality will absolutely not be breached, they need a message that is simple and consistent. They need as few barriers and triggers of shame as possible. Whether we like this or not, the church for many is a shame trigger, not a refuge to run during a storm.

I wish there would come a day when recovery programs were unnecessary, but as long as there are men, women and children out there who are not able to access Jesus’ healing, we have a responsibility to take their needs into account as we manage, organize and strategize the kind of churches we want to build.

Is it possible that the vast majority of Christians are in denial about their areas of concern?

Absolutely. Ask anyone. Do you know someone in recovery or in need of recovery in your family or community? Every hand raises. Why? This affliction is an epidemic. And, this epidemic affects the entire family, not just the identified “problem addict.” Living in community with an addict can actually change (for the worse) the health and well-being of the community. This is where codependency comes in. This lack of understanding with regards to enabling the addicted and others is one of the reasons why many churches can actually unwittingly do harm in the recovery process.

At NSC, we recognize that issue, and that is why we also have family programs, consult regularly with treatment professionals and get outside help for ourselves as pastors and volunteers.

Is it possible that faith-based recovery programs are simply God’s way of restoring his people to the original purpose he created for them?

Many believe this is true. But it is a complicated restorative process. And that point cannot be missed.

Where do churches go wrong when developing a recovery program?

Perhaps, sometimes, they underestimate the cost. RM is hard work. People don’t fall apart during office hours.

Churches go wrong if they think sobriety is the answer; it’s the first step. So rushing newly sober people in front of the congregation with a cool testimony is risky, and borders on spiritual abuse; providing opportunities for leadership hastily also causes major meltdowns.

Sometimes it is administrative stuff that gets in the way. Coffee gets spilled, smokers hang outside the church door; it is messy business, and some churches are not organizationally suited for all this humanity.

When the leaders are not properly supported, provided sufficient downtime or a support network, sometimes a leader crashes and burns, affecting the entire ministry. This is highly stressful, and so a RM leader often suffers from the stress and trauma related to listening to the stories of those that come. So this is a real problem if it isn’t addressed.

If Jesus came to seek that which was lost, why is there shame associated with a 12-step program?

Because we live in a Western Culture where we give testimonies that go like this: I was lost, now I’m found and since then I’ve been fine.

We sugar-coat the long road of sanctification. We pretend that once we’re saved we’re supposed to be shooting toward the heavenlies like a bottle rocket. It’s great testimony, makes a great bit on Sundays, but it is a lousy model of performance that leaves the average person feeling shame, which by the way, is inborn and intractable. So we can feed or starve shame, but we don’t cause it. So it is the human condition to be shame-filled, and when we teach others that becoming a Christian is all about getting fine, then it feels shameful to admit we need recovery.

How important is pastor/elder buy-in to the success of recovery programs?

Very, very important. Because issues will arise and without that support, it will be easier to pull the plug than work through the issues. Bon Air, Salem Alliance, Woodcrest Chapel, in fact all the churches in our book have strong, strong senior pastor support.

Does the age of a congregation affect the success of a recovery program? Where does a church begin?

If a church is fairly rigid, highly organized in its structure with lots of rules and guidelines, if they don’t like ministry getting messy, they probably will have trouble making a safe recovery environment.

What have you seen in terms of pastors and church leaders themselves being in need of recovery and therapy?

It is so tough, because oftentimes we are so isolated. Addiction is an experience of every family and ministry families don’t get a free pass. Pastors under stress, feeling as if they have no one to confide in, often working too much and too codependently, are especially vulnerable. There are some amazingly horrific stats out there about the number of pastors who use porn as a stress reliever. Yes, this is a huge silent killer of ministry leaders.


National Association for Christian Recovery

I became executive director of the National Association for Christian Recovery in January 2011. We are re-imagining what the NACR will undertake in the next decade. Led for years by Dr. Dale Ryan, this organization has already served as a steady and innovative presence in the world of Christian recovery—hosting conferences, providing materials, Bible studies, etc., for early adopters of the passion for faith and recovery as a shared journey.

In that time we believe that – finally – there are recovery ministries with enough history and traction as a ministry that we can collaborate and help struggling, new and even improve the practices of some of the well established ministries.

Our vision:  We are passionate about joining the work of Jesus in the world, partnering with, instigating, resourcing, disturbing, advocating and influencing the manifold ways that Christ seeks to transform and liberate those in addiction.  It is our way of tearing off a corner of the darkness in the world.

Our mission:  We provide resources, training and offer consultative services for recovery-sensitive leaders interested in creating safer and healthier recovery environments. We dream of a day when recovery environments are within driving distance of every community.  We desire to bring hope to the hurting by supporting the community that helps them.

Our key initiatives include consulting, outreach through communication via the Web and social media, conferences (both regional and national), course development that will include online learning, webinar and classroom instruction and the production of other materials.

— Teresa McBean, Minister, NorthStar Community, a recovery ministry of BonAir Baptist Church, Richmond, VA.


A few stats that will blow your away

Addiction is our number one health issue; the third leading cause of death, 4 percent worldwide (more than AIDS).

For deaths in the 15 to 29 year age range, the leading cause of death is substance abuse. We spend $400 billion in costs associated with abuse per year in the U.S. – compare that to $107 billion for cancer and $96 billion for heart disease

Yes, the vast majority of Christians are in denial.   — TMcB


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