A basic understanding of addiction as a disease is crucial in helping clergy and congregations understand the problem of alcoholism and drug dependence.
Addiction is not a sin, the result of a moral failing or weakness, or a character defect best helped by praying harder or attending more services. “Although many addicts commit numerous sins while using,” said John Mac Dougall, manager of Spiritual Care at Hazelden in Center City, Minn., “addiction itself is not a sin any more than is having diabetes, a seizure disorder, or heart disease.”
Today we know that addiction is a primary chronic disease and it is fatal if not successfully treated. “The solution for sin is repentance, confession, and the grace of God,” Mac Dougall continued, “but the solution for addiction is successful treatment and a program of recovery to maintain abstinence from all mood-altering chemicals.”
How can clergy play an important part in identifying the problem and getting help? Mac Dougall offers several suggestions:
- Clergy can legitimize the discussion of addiction in their congregations. By breaking the “no-talk” rule that denies the existence of addiction, rabbis, priests and ministers make it safe for people to open up about addiction-related problems. They can speak about addiction as a disease and the need for God’s help in recovery.
- Invite guest speakers from Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, and Al-Anon to address forums, workshops, or classes in your synagogue or church.
- Invite a local addiction expert to lead a workshop for parents on drug use among young people. When parents begin talking to one another about this problem, they collectively become a more powerful force for prevention.
- Have your congregation consider providing scholarship funding to help people pay for treatment–a “recovery” scholarship.
- Make literature available from AA, NA, Al-Anon and treatment centers.
Be informed about recovery
A lack of familiarity can make clergy reluctant to tackle addiction-related problems. Attend educational workshops on addiction, such as Hazelden’s Professionals in Residence program, that can provide valuable understanding about the disease and recovery. Be assured that you don’t have to be an addiction expert to be useful.
- Become familiar with local resources for recovery. Visit the treatment facilities available in your area and learn more about their funding structures and criteria for admission.
- Attend some open AA meetings to familiarize yourself with these programs.
- Keep phone numbers for local AA, NA and Al-Anon sources at hand.
- Let your congregation know that you would like to talk with those who are currently in AA or NA about their experiences so you can better understand recovery.
Prepare to receive an alcoholic or addict as you would prepare for a snowstorm — have the tools you need to deal with it readily available.
When you’re talking with someone with an alcohol or drug problem, offer to go along to an open AA or NA meeting or put them in touch with an AA or NA member who can accompany them.
Ask individuals to go for an assessment of chemical dependency. This is an easier commitment to make than going for treatment, and many treatment facilities offer short assessment programs.
Help for families
“It’s very important for clergy to recognize that a family can get help, whether or not the alcoholic seeks help,” Mac Dougall pointed out.
Al-Anon is a Twelve Step mutual-help program for family members and friends of alcoholics. In conversations with families, explain to them that addiction is a disease and talk about recovery for the whole family. Many treatment facilities have family programs that provide education and healing for family members, whether or not the addicted individual seeks treatment.
“It’s important to recognize that there are alcoholics and addicts at every level of society,” said Mac Dougall, “and there are recovering alcoholics at every level, too. All we need to do is break the silence that surrounds addiction.”