Ministering to People With Addiction: The First Step

The future can tiptoe in any day: One morning you’re leading worship, and in he walks, clearly high on something. Or you are in the office of the suburban church that you pastor, preparing for Sunday’s sermon, and she knocks on your door, asking for advice about her husband’s compulsive use of porn. Or your worship leader begins showing up to practice with the smell of liquor on his breath.

Any number of real-life scenarios can propel your congregation into its prodigal future. The question is not whether you will encounter addicted people, but how you will respond when you encounter them. Will you encounter addicts with an effective pastoral response that points them in the direction of recovery—or not?

Chances are that when one of these situations or a variation of them occurs, your first and most pressing question will be “How can I get this person into recovery?” And if you are asking this question, you are not alone. My survey of one hundred church leaders found this question to be the one that most plagues church leaders—next to its corollary, “How do I help an addict stay in recovery?” This chapter offers some answers.

The Essential Prep Work First

Far too often, even the most experienced pastoral caregivers with all the right recovery resources at their fingertips view their main task at this juncture as one of providing one or more referrals, such as to the local AA/NA group or a therapist. And knowing whom to refer to, so that addicts can connect with the right providers who can help, is a very important part of the answer.

But too often church leaders’ care for addicts ends with this referral step. Sometimes the referral can serve as a convenient way to hand off a thorny problem to the “real pros.” Busy pastors already have a multitude of other pressing concerns on their plates, and pastoral dealings with addicts can be messy and inconvenient. Beyond this, a church leader often feels less equipped than a trained clinician to deal with all the issues that might arise, so there is a certain level of comfort in knowing that the matter is now in the hands of a specialist. The feeling is not just understandable but even commendable to a degree. Pastors should not have to be, or expect to be, the experts on every issue that walks through their door, addiction included. Connections with trusted Christian recovery programs in your area, AA groups and therapists are essential, and you may find some in your own congregation.

Still, I want to correct the knee-jerk assumption that loving the addicts in your midst ends with a referral to the pros or a twelve-step group. When the homeless stranger on crack sits down in your pew or when a spouse unburdens the secret she has kept hidden all these years or when your worship leader shows up late to practice for the umpteenth time with liquor on his breath, that is actually just the beginning, not the end, of an opportunity to encounter the prodigal God who loves you beyond your wildest imagination. This critical first encounter with the problem of addiction in your midst can be the start of a life-giving transformation that happens not just in the life of the addict seeking your help but also in the very DNA of your congregation.

Such transformation is not essentially about learning to minister to an at-risk population. At its heart, this process of growing in God’s grace is ultimately about tapping into your community’s potential to be transformed into prodigal people by the grace of a prodigal God. And this ongoing journey can’t be reduced to a quick fix (pun intended) in the form of a referral.

Transformation happens when we see our own crippling brokenness and need for God’s grace in the face and story of the addict in front of us. When addicts are not just the heroin pushers or prescription pill junkies “out there,” but are in our pews and among us, we are in the right position to begin helping addicts step into recovery. And this identification can’t be emphasized enough: my own secret cravings, patterns of self-destructive behavior and unchecked forms of consumption (of money, power, approval—you name it) may not manifest themselves in quite the same way as those of the crack addict in front of me, but they fall within the same realm of human bondage. So getting addicts into recovery means first standing in solidarity with the addicts, recognizing that their plight and their stories are hitched to our own and in many ways are similar.