by Dale Ryan
When I left seminary I had only a very limited understanding of addiction and abuse. It was certainly not a high priority in the seminary curriculum. If they came up at all, addiction and abuse were usually assumed to be unusual. Recovery ministry was thought to be a kind of specialization within the general category of pastoral care.
It did not take me long in the real world of ministry, however, to realize that this neglect of addiction and abuse was a huge mistake. Addiction was everywhere. Abuse was commonplace. Why, I wondered, had I not been better prepared for realities this important and this common? I soon felt like I was engaged in a kind of asymmetric spiritual warfare. There was clearly a war being waged, but I was almost completely ignorant about the weapons that the enemies of God’s kingdom were finding to be most useful. Weapons of mass insanity did exist — and I was clueless about them.
I was reasonably well trained to be helpful in situations involving crisis and grief; that had been part of the training. But there is a huge difference between the instincts and skills necessary for helping people who are struggling with crisis and grief and the instincts and skills necessary for helping people who are struggling with addiction and abuse.
For one thing, crises and grief are unavoidable kinds of suffering. We all experience crises and grief in our lives. They’re part of the package. Addiction and abuse, however, are avoidable kinds of suffering. They are not necessary. Someone must make some very bad choices, usually over a long period of time, for addiction and abuse to emerge. This introduces a completely different dynamic, one that was very confusing to me at first. When I left seminary I had very few “handles,” intellectually, theologically or spiritually, to help me understand the complexities of addiction and abuse. And I believe this is true of most pastors today.
Some people say that pastors and lay leaders should be trained primarily to deal with the unavoidables of life, since those are probably the issues that most people struggle with, and that we should leave things like addiction and abuse for specialists. That’s what I thought when I was in seminary. And it would make sense if crisis and grief were common but addiction and abuse were rare. Tragically, the evidence suggests otherwise. Anyone reading STEPS will already probably understand this: Addiction is not just a problem for the street drunks downtown. I am convinced that addiction is the most common struggle faced by people in most churches–and for that matter, in most communities.
The World Health Organization keeps track of a long list of diseases and risk factors that contribute to what they call the Global Burden of Disease. It is an attempt to quantify what factors lead to premature death and disability on a global basis. In those parts of the world where infant malnutrition is rare, the single largest factor that contributes to premature death and disability is the use of addictive substances. Nothing else comes close. The contribution from addiction to premature death and disability is almost twice as large as the next most important factor (high blood pressure). So the suffering caused by addiction is not rare. Good data about the incidence of abuse is rather more difficult to find, but most studies in the U.S. suggest that 25 to 35 percent of women experience some form of sexual abuse at some time in their lives. If we try to do ministry in a culture with that level of abuse and addiction and we do not understand the dynamics of abuse and addiction, we will make lots of very unfortunate and unnecessary mistakes.
We live in a world full of addiction and abuse, and if you want to do ministry in this context, it just makes sense to acquire some basic understanding and skills to help you in the battle. The reason most people resist and even reject the love and grace of God can be traced to the dynamics of addiction and abuse. Sending people into this battle who don’t understand these weapons is a recipe for failure. Unfortunately, that kind of failure is all too obvious right now. How many really good, kind, well-educated and well-intentioned pastors have crashed and burned in the last decade because they were essentially defenseless to one addiction or another? Well, I don’t know the exact number either. But it’s many. Their preparation for ministry no doubt provided them with many useful tools. But only in rare cases does a seminary education currently give people who are preparing for ministry a thorough understanding of addiction and abuse. And only in rare cases does it give them an opportunity to explore the ways in which addiction and abuse might be affecting their own life and ministry.
Fortunately, one seminary is starting to train pastors in understanding these complexities and responding to them in helpful ways. Fuller Theological Seminary, based in Pasadena, California, has established a new Institute in Recovery Ministry. It is a part of the School of Theology at Fuller, and its goals are pretty simple. We want to help train pastors who are interested in this area of ministry; we want to support, train and encourage leaders of recovery groups; and we would like to find ways to encourage the whole Christian recovery movement, both in the U.S. and around the world.
How the Institute got started is a longer story. I’ve been teaching a course at Fuller for quite a while–a course called “Recovery Ministry in the Local Church.” Over a couple of years I had several conversations with David Augsburger, who was then Dean of the School of Theology, about the possibility of setting up an Institute for Recovery Ministry. There was no doubt in either of our minds that pastors, missionaries, chaplains and other religious professionals need help in this area, both personally and professionally. But it wasn’t clear that it was the right time. I’ve done several projects over the years that later seemed to be a decade too soon, and I didn’t want to invest in yet another project that was before its time. But after a couple of years of talking about it, it just seemed like the time to bite the bullet and see if there was sufficient support for the idea. Fortunately, about this time a major donor promised some basic startup funding for the project. So we decided to give it our best shot.
The response has been pretty enthusiastic for the most part. The faculty at Fuller seem to understand the need for pastors to be better trained in the area of recovery ministry, and have been quite supportive. Fuller’s Board of Trustees has been equally enthusiastic. So we are off and running.
We have three new degree options for Fuller students. First, students working on an M.Div. degree, the typical degree for people training to become pastors, can get an M.Div. with a concentration in Recovery Ministry. Secondly, we now offer a Master of Arts in Recovery Ministry. And finally, there is a Certificate in Recovery Ministry for people who want to take only the core recovery courses. Details about each of these programs can be found on the Institute web site at www.fullerinstitute.org.
Training in recovery ministry is new territory for seminaries. Many seminaries offer counseling degrees or social work degrees, but I think Fuller is the first to give this kind of importance to recovery ministry. It is the first, but I certainly hope it will not be the last. Many other seminaries could use programs of this kind.
It will probably not come as a surprise that I have a long list of things I would love for the Institute to do. It is my hope that it will offer regular think-tank events for leaders of various kinds of recovery ministries. I’m hopeful that eventually we can offer an extensive, non-degree training program for support-group leaders. There are also a number of research projects that I think need to be done to demonstrate the effectiveness and value of Christian recovery ministry, and I hope that over the long haul the Institute can be involved in that kind of research. But we are still at the very early stages of this adventure. For now, I’m excited just to have an institution like Fuller with the vision to support Christian recovery ministry in a major way.
Does this mean the Fuller Institute for Recovery Ministry will graduate healthier pastors? I’m not sure about that. I am under no illusion about the limitations of education. If you give an addict a first-class education, what do you get? You get an educated addict. Education is not the answer to addiction. Education can’t make you sober. Or healthy. On the other hand, there are a lot of things that education can help with. It can help us break out of the layers of denial about addiction and abuse. It can give us some intellectual, theological and spiritual handles on these problems. And those can, hopefully, keep us from responding in unhelpful ways to people struggling with addiction and abuse. There are limits to how helpful education can be. But there are very few limits to how hurtful ignorance can be. So education has an important role to play in helping the Christian community become a healthier place.
Just as recovery ministry can change the ways that pastors respond to those struggling with addiction and abuse, I think recovery ministry could also change the way we do church in some very fundamental ways. You can certainly have a recovery ministry that is just another kind of church program, just another event on the calendar. But if addiction and abuse are really the most significant struggles faced by people within our congregations and also in the community that we have been called to reach with the Good News, then recovery probably will not wind up as just another program. Instead, it will start to shape the purpose and identity of each congregation as a whole. How would our worship services change if we remembered that a third of the congregation has experienced sexual abuse? How would our Christian education programs change if we remembered that a significant percentage of the children we are called to reach with the Gospel come from alcoholic homes? How would our world missions strategies change if we understood the global impact of addiction? I’ve got more questions than answers. So stay tuned. I think over the next decade we will see some very creative efforts in all these areas.
Dale Ryan is the executive director of the NACR and the director of the Fuller Institute for Recovery Ministry .