Admitting an addiction has its risks … and real ministry benefits.
When members of his congregation staged an intervention, Pastor Howard Hoekstra was ready. He had tried for 10 years to quit drinking—on his own. So when faced with others’ concern, he simply responded, “You’re right; I have a problem.” That was the day he started his recovery.
Ten years earlier, working as a youth pastor, Hoekstra first wondered if he might have an addiction. Preparing to lead his students in a study about alcoholism, he found a self-assessment in an Alcoholics Anonymous manual. He answered the questions and “flunked” the test. So he tried to curb his drinking.
Hoekstra’s parents had strictly prohibited alcohol and kept his grandfather’s alcoholism a secret. In college he joined a fraternity and started drinking a lot on weekends. “I didn’t think much about it; that was what all the guys did.” After college he went to seminary, where “three or four of us used to party a lot.” After seminary he drank to ease loneliness.
Later, married and working in church ministry, he reached the point where he believes he became addicted. To deal with marital strain, he drank more heavily. “I began to say to myself, ‘I think you’ve got a problem.’ I would pray, read what the book of Proverbs says about wine. I just could not stop drinking.”
On the day of his intervention, “my career didn’t really matter; I just knew I needed help.” He received it in the form of six weeks in a treatment program designed for clergy and other high-profile professionals. He found support in Alcoholics Anonymous. “The thing that really changed it for me was going to my first AA meeting. I surrendered to my higher power. God intervened in my life; the Holy Spirit said he would set me free. He took away the craving, and I give praise to God that he really delivered me.”
But he doesn’t discount the importance of his own commitment: “A real key was that I wasn’t in denial. I knew had a problem. I’ve never told myself, ‘I’ve beat this thing.’ At every wedding, at people’s houses, it’s right there. But God set me free, and I’m not going to touch it again.”
The first Sunday Hoekstra was in treatment, a retired pastor and recovering alcoholic preached at his church, Calvary Church in Orland Park, Illinois. He told the church where their pastor was and why, and for a few Sundays he educated them about alcohol and addiction. Church elders came to the treatment facility and sat in on sessions with Hoekstra’s therapist, who helped these leaders understand his addiction and create a plan for him to return to the church.
When Hoekstra completed treatment, the church invited him back—with stipulations—and he gratefully accepted. He was allowed to preach on a Sunday night, and church elders met with him before the service. Then, in a gesture that moves Hoekstra with emotion 25 years later, they stood at the door like soldiers forming a saber arch at a wedding, showing their support as he walked in.
Pastor Hoekstra’s recovery, and his openness, changed the nature of his church. Others were inspired to go to Alcoholics Anonymous, and the church developed a recovery ministry serving 60 to 100 people each week. He continued in ministry at Calvary for two more decades, until his retirement.
Retirement didn’t last long. When he received an invitation from Downers Grove (Ill.) Community Church, he jumped back into pastoral ministry. But first he made sure the church’s leaders knew about his ongoing recovery. Then after he took the job, he told his story to the whole church on a Sunday morning. The response was positive—and inspiring. “People were thankful that I was in recovery,” he said. “When you’re willing to share that, all of a sudden people come out of the woodwork. It touches every family in one way or another.”
How Recovery Enhances Ministry
Hoekstra is not the only one to see ministry enhanced by a recovery story. Tom Kragt was asked to resign from his church when he told the congregation he had a problem and needed to get help. He acknowledges this was painful but for the best. He now serves as pastor of congregation life and recovery at EverGreen Ministries in Hudsonville, Michigan, and he is open about his addiction. He admits people are sometimes stunned at his honesty, and he says his addiction affects the way he relates to others: “When anyone has experienced a really difficult thing, it’s usually those folks who are most effective at helping others because they absolutely know the journey.”
Matt Russell agrees. He serves as senior associate pastor of faith formation at St. Paul’s United Methodist Church in Houston, Texas, and on his first Sunday at the church, he publicly acknowledged his recovery from addiction. “It sets the marker for other people—this becomes a place for people in recovery to say, ‘This is a place I can work out my faith with fear and trembling.'”
Mark Brouwer, pastor of Jacob’s Well Church Community in Evergreen Park, Illinois, speaks of self-examination and spiritual honesty that come in dealing with addiction. “If you’re going to recover, you have to be willing to relook at everything. People come into recovery as Christians, and they think it’s just the addiction that needs to be fixed and that will improve their relationship with God. But what if your understanding of the Christian faith is part of the problem? That needs to get looked at. And in some ways needs to get blown up and rebuilt.”
For him this process produced a greater sense of humility and compassion: “I can identify with people who are struggling. Part of what happens over time in recovery is that you learn to live life on life’s terms rather than raging against it. Acceptance has allowed me to live with a lot more peace as a pastor. I don’t take myself so seriously and don’t view myself as indispensable to the kingdom.”
Ed Treat, contact person for the Fellowship of Recovering Lutheran Clergy, also serves as senior pastor at Transfiguration Lutheran Church in Bloomington, Minnesota. His experience with addiction recovery “informs my preaching a lot. I hardly ever talk about my recovery in sermons, but I’m not afraid to talk about problems. My recovery—not anything in my pastoral training—has taught me to do that.”
Serving in ministry and being in recovery is not just about benefits; it comes with challenges too. Teresa McBean is senior pastor of North Star Community in Richmond, Virginia, and executive director of the National Association for Christian Recovery. She says many churches are unsafe for pastors with addictions, partly because congregations elevate pastors to a level they can’t possibly live up to. “The expectation for pastors to have it all together is very, very high. After all, the assumption is, if your pastor hasn’t got it all together, can you believe what you’re hearing from the pulpit?”
Once an addiction is acknowledged and treated, another danger is naiveté. For churches that don’t understand the disease of addiction, it’s too easy to believe a course of treatment has cured the problem and everything can go “back to normal.”
“We confuse forgiveness with the restoration process,” McBean says. “We don’t understand how much time it takes to do the work of recovery.”
There’s a tension between ministry expectations and what is necessary for ongoing recovery. “In ministry there’s so much pressure to smooth over one’s life story. But what recovery and what Christianity require are rigorous honesty.” It’s not easy for pastors to be honest about who they really are when their churches ask them to be something other than human.
Another stressor is the nature of the relationships that fill much of a church leader’s time. Brouwer says one of his greatest challenges is doing so much relational work as part of his ministry, then needing to invest in relationships on his time off. His relationships as a pastor are different from what he needs as a man in recovery. “In the role of pastor, I feel a bit guarded. I have a lot of relationships, but I need strong recovery relationships, people I can be completely honest with.”
Dale Ryan, associate professor of Recovery Ministry at Fuller Theological Seminary, says it’s important for churches to recognize addiction as a systemic issue. Instead, most see the addicted person as the problem—and getting rid of that person as the obvious solution. “The addicted person is not always the sickest person in the system. They may be easiest to identify, but there are plenty of codependents whose lives are just as unmanageable as any addicted person. If the systemic issues are not addressed, you don’t get to the root of the problem.”
The good news about systemic problems is that healing and change can start anywhere in the system. “It doesn’t have to be the addicted person who gets help first,” Ryan says. The person who gets help will have a systemic impact. And when a pastor is in diligent recovery, that healthy work has an impact on the whole church.
Changing a Warped System
So how do churches support pastors in recovery and the health of their congregations? They can start by understanding the nature of addiction.
Addiction lends itself to easy judgment, but it is not merely a moral issue. In fact, Ryan says, addictions often start with a perfectionistic desire to do and be better. Seminaries are full of addicts in training, he claims, because seminaries are full of idealistic perfectionists. “Perfectionism leads to compulsive behaviors, and they don’t present themselves as problems initially because you get rewarded for them.”
Pastors, like everyone else, require grace and understanding. “Understand that addictions are about being absolutely powerless,” Hoekstra says. “It’s not that I was a bad person or evil. It was just more than I could deal with without God’s help.”
When churches expect pastors to be better than anyone else in the congregation, they feed the problems that create addictions and undermine recovery. As Brouwer puts it, “The greatest gift churches can give their pastor is the gift of humanity.” People in the church must recognize that pastors have limitations and need support and accountability. Brouwer states, “This can only come from people who realize the pastor is a good person, and at the same time is human and has struggles and issues too.”
Churches can help pastors adhere to healthy work habits. Overwork leads to depletion, which can lead to seeking comfort or escape in addictive behaviors. It can also lead to an addiction to work itself. Ryan says, “It’s easier to cloak a work addiction in a ministry setting than in another setting. It’s hard for people to complain about you devoting everything to working for God.” It’s important to recognize that many addicts switch addictions or develop multiple addictions, and one addiction can easily turn into another. But when churches set expectations discouraging overwork, they help create a system where all kinds of addictions are less likely to develop.
In fact, many churches need less activity overall. “I wish we could slow down and enter recovery from our programing,” says McBean. Churches are so busy, she says, they don’t provide space for people to slow down or to be thoughtful, curious, and reflective. “Skills necessary for building healthy, sustainable recovery communities are at odds with the nonstop lifestyle that most churches require their pastors to have.”
Like every other sector of society, churches are full of people with potential, active, or managed addictions. The process of getting sober can deepen faith and reliance on God in ways nothing else can. Honesty about vulnerability and addiction is a critical part of being in relationship with God. “Our communities are full of people who, if they’re going to hear the good news, it’s got to be crafted with a deep understanding of addiction issues,” says Ryan.
Why Hiding It Doesn’t Help
For pastors hiding addictive behavior, the shame that causes hiding also fuels addiction. Ryan calls shame “the engine for the addictive process.”
Russell points out that when pastors feel compelled to hide serious problems, something is wrong in the church as a whole. “When you start with shame and use shame as a means to bring healing, it doesn’t work!” He echoes others who counsel pastors to get honest with themselves and reach out for help. “Some people have to lose their jobs in order to regain their soul. Not being a pastor is not the worst thing.”
Ryan recommends pastors, like anyone else, go to a 12-Step meeting, get a sponsor, and start working through the steps. It’s also important to find a therapist who specializes in addiction and recovery. While it can be difficult for a pastor to risk being recognized while seeking this kind of help, all of these steps can be taken in expectation of confidentiality, before making the struggle public.
In addition to well-known 12-Step programs, other resources exist specifically to help clergy.
The Fellowship of Recovering Lutheran Clergy formed with the cooperation of Evangelical Lutheran Church of America and Missouri Synod Lutheran leaders. The group of about 200 welcomes clergy from non-Lutheran denominations as well. They provide 12-Step meetings by phone, an annual retreat, and connections between local pastors.
The Clergy Recovery Network, whose motto is “where ministry professionals find grace and hope,” serves pastors, missionaries, and other religious professionals and their spouses. Executive Director Dale Wolery is a former pastor with his own recovery story.
For some pastors, seeking help means job loss—and pastors in recovery say this is a risk worth taking. Brouwer cautions against trying to hang onto ministry by avoiding confrontation of a problem: “They say, ‘Whatever you put before your recovery, you will lose,’ and it’s true.”
Hoekstra agrees: “I knew this would destroy me if I didn’t get help. My job was of secondary importance.”
Kragt acknowledges it’s difficult to seek help. Yet he warns against “waiting until the situation isn’t repairable. There was a saying hanging on the wall when I was in treatment: ‘The only way out is through.’ It’s really scary, but God will be faithful if you surrender.”
Brouwer challenges, “Talk to people who got help and stepped out of ministry and got better. I would defy you to find someone who regrets that decision. It was the best decision I ever made. I would do it again in a heartbeat.”
Amy Simpson is author of Troubled Minds: Mental Illness and the Church’s Missionand Anxious: Choosing Faith in a World of Worry (both IVP). She’s a life and leadership coach, and editor at large editor of Leadership Journal. AmySimpsonOnline.com and @aresimpson.
Copyright © 2016 by the author or Christianity Today/Leadership Journal.
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