by Dale S. Ryan
You can, of course, just pretend that it’s not there. This is a fairly common strategy. Does it work? That depends. People who struggle with addictions, people who have an addicted parent and people who have an addicted child may decide that your church just doesn’t get it and they will eventually leave. If that’s the outcome you want, then pretending may be worth considering. But if you want to do ministry with hurting, broken, struggling, missing-the-mark kind of people, then a more coherent strategy will be needed. Fortunately, there are a variety of ways in which a local congregation can be involved in recovery ministry. In this article I will briefly talk about eight different strategies for congregations who want to be more involved in this kind of ministry. None of these strategies are “the right way” to do recovery ministry. Each strategy has strengths. . . and limitations. To be useful, each much be optimized for the theological heritage and cultural realities of a specific congregation. My hope is that this very brief overview will help you to think through what might be the “next step” in your particular situation. The first, and probably most common strategy used by local churches, is what I call “A.A. in the Basement”.
AA In The Basement Strategy
Historically the most common way for local churches to be involved in recovery ministry is for the church to allow AA or NA or some other recovery organization to meet in church facilities. It is difficult to imagine where the Twelve Step movement would be today if it were not for this kind of participation by local churches over the years. Even though most Christians in recovery are very supportive of AA and other ‘secular’ programs, some Christians get anxious about congregations whose commitment to recovery is limited to this strategy. Why is it that the power for personal transformation is facilitated by an organization external to the local church while the local church contributes only meeting space? Don’t misread me here – I am not suggesting that the church become more entangled with AA. What I am suggesting is that if recovery ministry remains at the margins of congregational life, significant opportunities may be missed. Increasingly congregations are finding ways to retain the “AA in the Basement” strategy but are finding additional ways to supplement this strategy with other resources in order to build a more comprehensive ministry.
One strategy local congregations have used to help integrate recovery more fully into the life of the congregation is to develop what I call ‘bridge’ strategies. Christians in recovery usually begin their recovery in AA or in a therapist’s office. Many, however, experience a disconnect between their experience in a Twelve Step group or in therapy and their experience at church. It is very common for people to ask: “Why can I be honest about my real life on Thursday night in my AA group or on Friday afternoon at my therapist’s office, but I can’t even begin to tell the truth on Sunday morning?” This experience of a deep chasm between recovery and church has led many Christians to seek ways to ‘bridge’ their recovery experience with their Christian experience.
Local congregations have responded to this need by developing distinctively Christian support groups. These groups are not usually intended to replace A.A. or other Twelve Step groups but rather to ‘bridge’ to them – making it easier for people in Twelve Step groups to access Christian resources and also easier for Christians to get access to the recovery community. Thousands of congregations have established such ‘bridge’ groups in the last decade. Most of these ‘Christian Twelve Step’ groups are only affiliated with a particular local church but others have joined together to form a number of networks of affiliated groups.
While bridge groups have a very important role to play in any recovery ministry, in most cases these groups remain relatively marginalized within a congregation. People within the bridge group often experience the group as powerful and helpful, but there may be very little impact on the life and identity of the congregation as a whole.
We Can Do It Better Strategies
A third approach is rather like bridge strategies in practice but includes an intention to replace secular programs rather than ‘bridging’ to them. Although the intention is different, in practice these groups often serve many of the same functions as ‘bridge’ groups. While I am not particularly fond of this approach to things personally, this may be the only kind of recovery ministry which is possible in congregations that are overtly hostile to resources which they experience as “secular”.
Recovery Department Strategies
A fourth approach to recovery ministry is for a local congregation to develop a recovery ministry analogous to its other ministry departments — such as the music ministry department or children’s ministry department. Each department typically has a line-item in the congregational budget, a staff member responsible for overseeing program development and a variety of services which are provided. In this model, recovery ministry becomes one of the mainstream elements of congregational life. Recovery need not be the central feature of the whole congregation but it would be fully integrated into the life of the congregation. Congregations which take this approach often develop a wide range of services in addition to a variety of support groups for different populations. These might include educational programs, recovery Bible studies, long-term 12 Step study groups, retreats, short-term intensives, an annual ‘recovery Sunday’ and other ministry elements. The strength of this approach is usually the range of resources that are developed and the impact of the ministry on the congregation as a whole.
A fifth, and less common, approach to recovery ministry is for a local congregation to operate or identify with a residential addictions treatment program. The relationship between the church and the treatment center can vary quite a bit. The church might own the treatment program. Or it might operate a program under contract to a local governmental entity. It might be a long-term residential program, or a half-way house, or a sober living facility. Connections of this kind can have a powerful impact on congregational identity. A lot of good work remains to be done to adapt this kind of strategy to congregations in a variety of social and cultural settings but it can be a particular effective way for a local church to invest in recovery.
The Recovery-friendly Church
It is important to emphasize that congregations do not necessarily need to have ‘recovery programs’ in order to be actively supportive of recovery. A congregation that does grace rather than shame in all of its affairs is likely to be profoundly helpful to people in recovery even though it lacks support groups or other elements of recovery programming. I once encouraged a pastor who did not think it was possible to develop a recovery ministry in his congregation to change the way he did the ‘welcome’ at the beginning of each worship service. This was the smallest part of the worship service and the part he thought would be easiest to change — because most people were not yet paying attention. His assignment was to welcome the people who actually came to church. One Sunday he said “I know that many people who come to this church experienced very abusive childhoods and that sometimes an experience like that makes it difficult to come to church later on in life. If that fits your situation, I want to particularly thank you for coming today. I appreciate your trust and value your participation. Let’s begin by singing Hymn number . . .” That’s all he did. The effect was profound. Without inventing new programs he was soon well on his way to reshaping the congregation into a place both safe for and helpful to people in recovery. Learning to tell the truth was the key. It is the heart of all recovery. And it will be at the heart of any local church that wishes to be involved in recovery ministry.
Another approach to being a recovery-friendly congregation without developing recovery programming is to become an information resource for people who need recovery resources. If when you walk into a church you receive a list of all of the recovery resources available in the community, people will pay attention. It sends a powerful message. The message is: “You don’t have to be well to be a part of this congregation. We are all struggling. And that’s okay. This is a safe place to seek progress not perfection.”
The Church in Recovery
Recently there have been an increasing number of people who are not satisfied with having a church with a couple of ‘bridge’ groups or even a Recovery Department. They want everything about their congregation to be about recovery. The worship. The missions program. The Christian education program. Everything. There are not yet many examples of congregations who have taken this approach. In this model, recovery becomes the central paradigm of the congregation. Participation in recovery becomes as much a part of ‘doing church’ as participation in worship services–in some cases participation in recovery groups may be a prerequisite for participation in large group meetings. This is a kind of strategy that works best, of course, in church planting situations rather than in existing congregations with existing commitments to a particular conception about the nature of the Church. It is still too early, or so it seems to me, to know how effective this approach to recovery ministry will be. I suspect we may need to make more mistakes in this direction before we know how to do it well.
The Church as Advocate
An eighth and final example of strategies for developing recovery ministry in the local church is to create a coordinating committee of some kind to oversee not only recovery ministry but also efforts in prevention/education and public policy advocacy. Probably the best example of this approach is the Faith Partners program of the Rush Center of the Johnson Institute. Faith Partners has trained hundreds of congregational teams to facilitate a comprehensive congregational response to the problem of addiction. The strength of this approach is that congregations develop a central organizational unit that can encourage a wide range of activities involving prevention, education and advocacy tasks in addition to recovery.
As I emphasized at the beginning, there is no “right” way to do recovery ministry. And there are probably many other options than I have listed here — and many others that have not yet been invented. I am convinced that recovery ministry is just at the very beginning of the process of development. This is a time for creativity and exploration — and making mistakes, and taking risks, and trying new things. May God grant you the wisdom to know what the ‘next step’ is in your particular situation.