Alcoholism: what pastors can do

On Health and Religion

Hal Gates, J.D., has been a successful businessman and attorney, and an alcoholic. Now he is pastor of the West Seattle Seventh-day Adventist Church.

I entered the ministry after many years of alcohol and drug misuse. At the age of 43 I was destitute and nearly dead. I was able only to get out a faint plea of "God help me." But by the time this article is read I will have had eight years free from alcohol and seven and a half years free from drugs. Like the Gadarene demoniac, I sit at the feet of Jesus, clothed, in my right mind, healed. To God be the glory!

My story illustrates the progression of the disease of alcoholism and drug addiction. E. M. Jellinek developed a curve that is the standard for plotting the course of the disease of alcoholism (see figure). Starting with occasional or experimental use, the user progresses into the early stages of alcoholism, then into the crucial phase, then the chronic phase, and finally into the obsessive-compulsive squirrel cage of drinking away the symptoms of drinking too much.

I started experimenting with alcohol when I was in the sixth grade. As I grew older my desire to be accepted by the older crowd kept me drinking. At this point alcohol use was a sin and not a sickness. But continued use soon led to psychological as well as physical addiction.

During my high school years I attended a Christian boarding school for part of a year, but my behavior led to expulsion. Back at public high school the sin and physical dependence took control again.

I attended a Christian college with the intention of becoming a medical doctor. With much prayer and determination I began to get my spiritual house back in order. The goal of becoming a doctor took precedence over my drinking, until one day when I went on an outing with a group of "good" students. I was surprised when some drinking occurred. That time I had only a swallow or two, but I soon found myself drinking more and more of ten. I ended up back in public college and fell back into my old pattern.

When I married, my wife and I went into business, and our social life soon began to revolve around alcohol. Overindulgence in alcohol was not only accepted but encouraged by my peers.

When our daughter was born, we tried to provide her with a good home, but the relationship ended in divorce just a couple of years later.

Alcohol helped me to deal with the loneliness, insecurity, guilt, and doubt. I continued to work hard at the business, and my staff covered up for me, "enabling" me. At this point sin was ripening into a chronic, habitual, and personally unmanageable condition.

I had an opportunity to enter law school at the age of 27, and I commuted a long distance so that I could continue to run my business and attend classes. I thought this might be the opportunity to get myself back together since I would be too busy for continual drinking. I rigidly controlled my drinking during the week and got drunk only on weekends.

When I finished law school, I sold my business and joined an established law firm. My law partner and I enjoyed the "good life"--which included abuse of alcohol and other drugs. After five years of this lifestyle, I found myself out of control.

I felt that I needed to get away from those people and that place, because I thought they were causing my problem. Actually I was lying to myself, because I was unwilling to admit that alcohol and drug use had anything to do with my problem. My life was unmanageable, but I was not willing to turn my will or problems over to God.

By this time sin had ripened into the full-fledged, medically defined physical, mental, and spiritual disease of chronic alcoholism. On the Jellinek curve, I was at the bottom. I dropped out of society and escaped to the San Juan Islands of Washington to live aboard a boat.

In the film The Disease Concept of Alcoholism II, Dr. David Ohlms states that 96 percent of alcoholics either die or go insane; few make it into recovery. But God was with me when, with a weak and quivering cry, I asked for His help. He heard me and, by His grace, ministered to me--in large part through the under standing and compassion of the members of a small church. I thus began the long process of recovery.

Understanding addiction

The Jellinek curve is a valuable tool for the pastor who needs to understand more about alcoholism and addiction. The facts, circumstances, and time stages may vary from person to person, but the curve of descent into and ascent out of alcoholism is quite predictable. The earlier in the downward spiral of the Jellinek curve the user is confronted with his or her addictive behavior, the better the prognosis for recovery.

As I look back on my addiction, the course can be plotted step by step on the curve, the sin leading to a diseased condition of the mind and body. I wish some one, anyone, would have recognized my plight and intervened. As with many addicts, the "I can" syndrome reigned in my life: "I can do it myself," "I got myself into this; I can get myself out," and "I can quit any time I want." We deny our in ability to control our lives, the shame and guilt become unbearable, and the spiral continues downward until it is interrupted.

There are an estimated 10 to 15 million alcoholics in the United States and nearly that many addicted abusers of illegal drugs. Young people comprise the fastest growing group. Many have multiple addictions, generally to alcohol and another drug. Figures show that sub stance abuse is a problem for all ages, races, socioeconomic strata, and religions.

Each of us has in our congregation substance abusers who, because they are afraid to admit they have a problem, end up denying it. Denial is often fueled by the addict's perception of other members of the congregation. Fear of rejection is a strong adjunct to denial. We need to foster an attitude of mutual trust so that people are able to communicate their needs and still find acceptance. "God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind" (2Tim. 1:7). It is often said that a church is a hospital for sinners. People expect us to be able to help them find solutions to substance abuse problems.

Assuming the ostrich posture does not help. Too often I have heard substance abusers say, "I went to my pastor, and he didn't even know what I was talking about. He said I needed to trust Jesus more and said a little prayer; that was all." We must be prepared to put community and church resources to work to help substance abusers.

How to help

In order to help, pastors must avail themselves of all the tools available. Our congregations need to be giant support groups, reaching out in love, compassion, and understanding to the hurting ones. This can be done successfully if the people are informed about such things as alcoholism's effects on users and their families.

The relationship between evangelism and substance abuse also needs to be understood. Christ's commission to go into all the world, preaching, teaching, and baptizing, is the essence of evangelism. As we go forth into our communities to lead people to Christ, we encounter sub stance abusers and individuals who live with substance abusers.

Those who have lived for years with substance abusers have felt inadequate or have feelings of incompleteness in comparison with other people. This feeling is amplified when they come into close communion with "good" church members.

Those who come from homes in which there is a substance abuse problem are often found to be as sick as the abusing family member. The ideal is, of course, for the family to recover together. How ever, the family can recover even if the addicted person does not seek recovery. Care must be taken with these families because often they are similar to battle field casualties, the shell-shocked walking wounded. To help them requires honest, up-front compassion and concern, coupled with a knowledge of the burdens the family bears.

One of the most damaging misconceptions about addiction holds that if the substance abuse stops, the problems will go away. The divorce rate actually is higher for recovering addicts than for those making no attempt at recovery. Longstanding problems and behavioral patterns do not just suddenly disappear. Unresolved problems, guilt, anger, repression, hatred, fear, mistrust, and denial that have not been dealt with are all manifestations of the past. These not only threaten the marital relationship and the relationship with other family members, but also contribute to the re lapse of the person trying to recover from substance abuse.

Not only is the recovering person or family self-conscious in the midst of the congregation, but uninformed people in the congregation may unconsciously react negatively to the recovering person. This happens in a screening process we call the "leprosy syndrome," or "unclean, don't touch." Only by patient education of the body of Christ will the congregation be able to break this pat tern and allow the recovering families to be nurtured and assimilated into the congregation.

This also holds true for backslidden members who wish to return to the church. Guilt and shame are even more menacing to Christian alcoholics than to their secular counterparts. In addition, the recovering alcoholic may return with a chip on the shoulder. Even a slight misunderstanding may lead the alcoholic to accuse church members of hypocrisy.

The SDAXA program

Members of the Seventh-day Adventist Church have started a Christ-centered support network for people re covering from addiction. The group is called SDAXA Regeneration and includes people with substance use/abuse backgrounds as well as family members. There are now 44 such groups operating in eight states. The support group is open to all who wish to accept Jesus Christ as the highest power and to work the 12 steps, as we have adapted them to Scripture, together with claiming the Bible promises for victory in their lives. The group serves as a bridge between the sub stance abuser and the church, and works as an adjunct to, not a replacement of, other treatment programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous and Al-Anon.

The support group starts out with a pro gram of information and education for the whole church. Later the leaders of the group are brought together for training. The entire church must be educated so that the congregation can assist the group.

As church members learn about sub stance use/abuse, they can be of real help to one another. They can also reach out to their neighbors and friends with the loving hand of Jesus. Often backsliders can be reunited with their church family through this kind of understanding ministry.

Some people who are currently in one of the 12-step programs are looking for more understanding of spiritual issues. This Christ-centered support group sup plies what they have been seeking. Then if the people want to learn more specific information about Scripture, Bible studies can be arranged on an individual basis. Discussion of Bible issues is not encouraged during the support group sessions. A separate Bible study group is the place for that type of discussion. The support group is a place for people to talk about their Highest Power, Jesus Christ, and to claim Bible promises.

Victory is the name of ministry for alcoholics; victory for the church body over their narrow and often cutting view of the dependent person is necessary if the church is to assimilate him or her into a strong, lasting, and eternal fellowship in the love of Jesus Christ. Through loving acceptance and nurture, the church can help the dependent person gain the victory over feelings of inadequacy, shame, guilt, anger, and frustration. The family members also need to sense victory in being assimilated into a sharing, caring, giving, and loving family.

"By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to an other" (John 13:35). We need to see the victory of Christ over Satan in this great controversy over the souls of men and women, and the victory of Jesus Christ is in healing the disease of addiction.

Guided confrontation


In their book Dying for a Drink, Dr. Anderson Spickard and Barbara Thompson outline concisely the process known as "guided confrontation," or intervention," which was pioneered by the Johnson Institute in Minnesota. Thousands of addicts and their families are now on the upward spiral of the Jellinek curve because someone cared enough to intervene.

"Intervention" is a simple, well-planned and well-rehearsed confrontation, well carried out within the context of established guidelines and rules. The "confrontation team" is made up of the user's inner support group people who are significant in the life of the alcohol/addict, such as family members (including children), employers, employees, the doctor, the minister, and friends. They follow a carefully planned and practiced confrontation under professional supervision.

Most qualified treatment facilities have a free community service of intervention and supervision. The steps necessary to prepare for an intervention are:

1. Find professional help: a person to counsel, supervise, and prepare the team and to direct the actual confrontation. Family members are usually too emotionally involved to lead the intervention team.

2. Choose members for the team on the basis of their close relationship with the user and a willingness to be involved. Anyone too psychologically frail to withstand the emotional impact should be excluded. Also excluded are those who would preach to berate the alcoholic or the family members.

3. Choose data to be presented by each member. The data should be three or four good, current, graphic, factual examples of the erratic behavior of the substance abuser and how it has impacted the presenter.

4. Choose a time when the alcoholic will be sober.

5. Practice the intervention. This allows the team members to vent their feelings so the intervention can be done in loving firmness. Practicing also allows role modeling and preparation of the team members for the manipulative behavior of the alcoholic/addict. The team can then respond to the alcoholic/addict's excuses and promises with answers and alternatives. The object of the intervention is to move the alcoholic/addict to agree to a treatment plan.

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Hal Gates, J.D., has been a successful businessman and attorney, and an alcoholic. Now he is pastor of the West Seattle Seventh-day Adventist Church.

November 1988

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