No pastor is immune to the effects of the raging epidemic of alcoholism. Tentaclelike, the symptoms and pathology reach into every parish in the nation. The disease disables 15 million Americans annually, including 3.5 minion adolescents, and distorts the lives of one in four. It truly is the number one public health problem.1
This disease devastates the total being physical, psychological, and spiritual. But the primary site of this illness is in the human spirit. All the rest--shakes, weeping, horrors, vomiting, hallucinations, delirium tremens--are physical and psychological reactions to an underlying spiritual illness.
Alcoholism jeopardizes the victim's link with God, smothers faith, demol ishes self-esteem, undermines moral values, and closes the heart's door to grace. If left untreated, it cripples and eventually destroys the basic elements of spiritual life. Sadly, only 35 to 40 percent of sufferers ever experience recovery.2
Clergy, along with other professionals, have not been effective healers in this field. But ministers have more to offer, both in preventing alcoholism and aiding in recovery, than any other professionals.
Pastors as healers
Several factors make the clergy potentially very effective healers for alcoholics. First, we have easy access to homes. No other professional caregiver enjoys such a close relationship with individuals and families. Second, we are approachable. Research has consistently shown that the majority of people needing help turn first to a minister. Third, pastors are viewed as family educators and exemplars. And fourth, we speak regularly on issues of social and moral responsibility.
These four elements form the basis of a positive therapeutic relationship that we can use to deal with alcoholism. But we will need more than just a relationship if we want to be really helpful. We will need education and understanding.
In light of the seriousness of the alcoholism problem, it seems strange that many ministers graduate from semi nary without having had any instruction in dealing with it. The first step to becoming an effective healer is to understand the disease. It is important for ministers to recognize alcoholism for what it is--a treatable disease. The next step is to accept the alcoholic as a helpless victim, not a hopeless sinner. We must treat him or her as someone who can be helped, not like a criminal who must be put out of fellowship, out of sight, and out of mind.
Understanding the relationships that develop within the family of the alcoholic is important also. Alcoholism is a social disorder, a family disease in which roles play an important part. The main role, of course, is that of the alcoholic--the dependent, isolated denier who needs to drink. Then there is the victim--the person who assumes responsibility for and does the work of the alcoholic, and by so doing, protects the user from the consequences of the disease. The provoked one is the family member who acts out anger in various ways, and attempts to coerce the drinker to quit, but only adds to his or her guilt. The enabler plays the key role in the family system and actually unconsciously perpetuates the alcoholic's abuse and continued denial. The enabler is the guilt-ridden "Mr. Clean," who assumes the role of savior.
Typically, the spouse of the abuser gets caught up in the role of enabler. In an attempt to keep peace or preserve the marriage relationship, the enabler covers up problems: calling in sick when the user can't make it to work, making excuses to the children when a drinking parent's behavior is questionable, turning the other cheek when the drinking spouse becomes abusive. This enabling behavior becomes part of the denial system and encourages the drinker to continue abusing alcohol. Avoiding direct confrontation does not help, it perpetuates the problem.
Pastors often forfeit their opportunity to be healers by assuming the role of savior and becoming enablers. By attempting to reduce the tension and pain in a family system victimized by alcoholism, clergy often join hands with the enabling spouse and in effect become part of the problem. The appropriate clergy role in the recovery process is to lead the alcoholic and family into a treatment program and to help them stay there.
Treatment for alcoholism focuses on the recovery and growth of the spirit. It moves the alcoholic: (1) from an "I'm the boss" attitude to an awareness of God as the Source of help; (2) from "I don't need help" to reaching out to the Source of help; (3) from "There is nothing wrong with me" to confession: "I'm an alcoholic"; (4) from "I'll do it my way" to an act of faith--"I'll do it Your way"; (5) from "I'm unforgivable" to grace, making amends and restoration--"Please forgive me"; (6) from the loneliness of "I don't need anyone" to the security of a healing community--"I can't do it alone"; (7) from the hopelessness of "I am worthless" to a sense of personal value and vocation--"I want to share with you what I have been given."
Recovery rises out of intense suffering and pain. It comes in response to treatment that fosters honesty, true values, and responsibility. The alcoholic learns through moral and spiritual education that faithful and unselfish work, reverence for family and others, selfless love, obedience to truth and to one's Higher Power, produce a rewarding life. Spiritual conversion plus abstinence equals recovery. This treatment works. Statistics show that 65 to 75 percent of alcoholics who want to recover do when they follow this treatment plan. 3
Getting an alcoholic involved in treatment may require the pastor to confront the family with the reality of the disease by intervening in the denial system. This will inevitably increase family anxiety and tension. But the pastor must be prepared to be an agent of pain in order to bring about recovery.
From a theological perspective, clergy must forgo the urge to be the good Samaritan and instead be the father of the prodigal. The father avoided being the enabler and, painful though it was, permitted his son to suffer the consequences of his actions. Ultimately this detachment permitted the son to come to himself and return home. Offering dignity, love, and acceptance, the father warmly restored his son to the family.
In our parishes countless prodigals--victims of this menacing epidemic--silently struggle alone, searching for understanding and acceptance. They are powerless and need help. As pastors, we are in a unique and coveted position. We can direct our hurting people to expert professional and volunteer resources. We can educate and motivate our churches and parishes to become healing communities that give affirmation and support to the prodigals. We can offer dignity and restoration. We need to join hands with other concerned caregivers--physicians and nurses for physical needs, psychiatrists and social workers for psychological and social needs, and spiritual healers, both lay and clergy, for spiritual needs.
Organizations equipped to help you in helping alcoholics include Alcoholics Anonymous for the abuser, Al-Anon for the family, Al-Ateen for the children, and local referral centers for professional treatment. The National Council on Alcoholism, 2 Park Avenue, New York, New York 10016, also supplies informa tion and materials.
1 "Current Drug Use, March 30, 1984:
National Household Survey," NIDA Capsule,
U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services.
2 N. J. Estes and M. E. Heinemann, Alcoholism
(St. Louis: C. V. Mosby), 1982.
3 NIDA Capsule, loc. cit.