It works if you work it!

Helping professionals need a helping program that works.

Teresa S. Caine is a freelance writer from Grand Bay, Alabama.

Statistics indicate an alarming rise in divorce, family violence, teen age delinquencies, addictions, and a host of other dysfunctional problems within every church of every denomination. A survey by the Fuller Institute of Church Growth and Evangelism reveals that 90 percent of pas tors do not know how to resolve dysfunctional issues that arise within their churches. Much of the help given by pastors may not even be appropriate. The result? Troubled persons are often driven further into their dysfunction.

Paul Cannon, a Seventh-day Adventist pastor and director of The Bridge, an institution that helps addicts and their families through recovery, says he gets calls from pastors who admit they don't know how to handle many of the problems they face in the ministry. "They care," he says, "but they admit that they are untrained in therapeutic work."

H. B. London, director of Focus on the Family's Pastoral Ministries, says that "most pastors, like other helping professionals, come from dysfunctional backgrounds themselves." Even leaders behave dysfunctionally when they tend to deny the existence of problems or when they attempt to get rid of the persons with the problems. London warns that "the statistics that are true about problems in the overall Christian world are just as true at the local church level."

Cannon also complains about some statistics that are purposely underrated to present a false image. Take, for example, the statement "Only 10 per cent of my church members drink alcohol" when the statistics are much higher. "Any group minimizing statistics to protect its ranks hinders the drinker who feels alone."

That hurting cry

Here's a sample of what many members and former members say about much of the church and its leadership:

"They'd like to think the church can handle any problem themselves, but they can't," says one former Adventist who is now in a recovery program for chemical dependency. "They need to understand that my problem is a disease that couldn't be re solved just by their quoting scriptures at me. I needed help beyond what they could give, and they stood in my way of getting it. Rather than admit that they failed, they just got rid of me."

"I still don't understand why I was told to remove my name from the books," confided a former Seventh-day Adventist writer. "I had already received treatment for my alcohol problem and was making amends for past wrongs through a recovery pro gram. Why punish me when I was doing the right thing?"

"I don't see why the church has to treat me like I've just committed the unpardonable sin for divorcing my husband," cried a woman who left her husband because of an abusive situation. She finally left the church also because of the emotional abuse she received from her pastor and fellow church members.

"I was told that it was because my life was centered on self, that I was led into sin, and since I had fallen from God's grace, I was a lost soul," relayed a person who committed adultery. "Through therapy I discovered that it was my early childhood fear of abandonment that led me to sin, not a life centered on self. The irony is that in the end it was the church that abandoned me, but God's grace saved me anyway and got me through recovery."

"I knew the church didn't like my mom because of her problems," said a teenager who attempted suicide be cause he felt rejected by the church. "But I was really giving my heart to Jesus and trying to be a good Christian. Why couldn't they accept me? Why did the pastor have to give up on me?"

"Why should I respect and obey my teacher when she never treats me with any respect?" retorted an angry 9-year-old about his Christian teacher who used shame and intimidation tactics to control her students. "I think the grown-ups should practice what they preach!"

Time to listen

If we would only listen to the pain and frustration coming from hurting church members, we would realize the importance of therapeutic skills needed to face today' s problems. Drs. Pancoast and Garland, authors of The Church's Ministry With Families, say, "A church can minister more effectively to families if it understands the developmental crises and issues which families face. . . . When natural support net works (the church) cannot meet the needs of their individual members, they can be supported by self-help and professional groups designed to deal with specific problems, such as Alcoholics Anonymous and Al-Anon for family members."

London, who pastored a 3,500- member church in Pasadena, California, and later joined Dr. James Dobson at Focus on the Family, says, "Every church should have recovery programs or support groups to meet these needs. The most successful churches are those that can deal with dysfunctionalism."


Most large denominations have established institutions with professional, well-trained staff to help recovering addicts, codependents, victims of abuse, etc. These programs have shown a good success rate. So why does the problem still exist at the local church level? It is because the message is not getting to the people.

"Members are being told not to go to AA or other support groups," says Cannon. "We should not think that our doctrines will solve every problem."

London agrees. "Religion alone does not bring the healing we desire. Don't just hope that prayer will make it go away," he says. "Use the resources of the church to bring help. And don't discount good Christian counselors."

"I lost trust in God completely," says one recovering codependent. "I had so many 'why' questions, and I wasn't getting the answers from pastors or church members. They didn't understand my crisis anymore than I did. Then I began attending ACOA (Adult Children of Alcoholics), and there I not only found my answers, but rediscovered God in a whole new healthier light. I think I will always trust Him now, no matter what!"

"I'm a better person since I went through recovery," says a former drug addict, "but it has been difficult finding church acceptance. They never let me forget my past sins. I wish they would forgive and forget like God does. But they don't understand how a recovery program works, and so they don't trust it."

Because the 12-Step concept is the most effective remedy for dysfunctional problems, pastors, evangelists, and church leaders alike would find it a powerful soul-redeeming tool. To use it, they must be educated in it and accept its principles in their own lives. The members would greatly benefit from a pastor who understands the true nature and cause of their problems, and who knows how to refer them to help.

Even before they enter the ministry, prospective pastors should be taught about the cycles of family dysfunctionalism. Seminary courses need to focus on counseling and referral techniques. Pastors already in the field could benefit greatly from seminars and work shops by trained professionals. The Institute of Alcoholic and Drug Dependency at Andrews University has information and materials designed to educate pastors about these issues.

But any recovery program can work only if pastors and church leaders get involved with it. "It works if you work it!"

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Teresa S. Caine is a freelance writer from Grand Bay, Alabama.

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