The word "recovery" has been traditionally understood to refer to ideas such as bouncing back from financial distress or regaining one's health after an illness. In recent years our culture has adopted a spiritual meaning: recovery in the sense of overcoming the character defects that create emotional pain and strained relationships.
Two key concepts in recovery circles are addiction and co-dependence. Addiction may refer to a bad habit such as alcoholism or sexual excess that one is incapable of overcoming in one's own power. Addiction is also a modern term for besetting or cherished sin—some thing like the slavery to sin that Paul discusses in Romans 6 and 7. All of us are addicts in one way or another.
Co-dependence has to do with the relation ship that those close to the addicts take toward their abnormal behavior: Covering for their mistakes, obsession over their condition, and trying to control it. We all have codependent attitudes and behaviors, whether or not we are in a relationship with an addict. And since all of us are addicts and codependents, we all need "recovery."
My wife Lois and I became seriously involved in a recovery program in the early 1990s when we attended the Bridge, an addiction and codependency recovery center in Bowling Green, Kentucky. The Bridge is operated by Paul and Carol Cannon, both graduates of Andrews University.1 After leaving the Bridge, Lois and I attended many twelve-step meetings, including Alcoholics Anonymous (though neither of us has ever touched alcohol), Codependents Anonymous, Workaholics Anonymous, and Alanon. For the past eight years we have also led out in a weekly Christian twelve-step meeting at our home church in Caldwell, Idaho.
Prior to attending the Bridge Lois and I had no idea how broken our family relationships were. Today, thanks to the recovery principles our whole family has learned, our relation ships are very positive. On a personal level, I have made significant progress in overcoming character defects that had plagued me for years, and I now have the healthy self-esteem that I used to wish for.
Recovery from addiction and co-dependence requires brutal honesty—a willingness to admit one's own character defects and the negative impact they have had on interpersonal relationships. It also involves intense effort to overcome those defects. I am remind ed of Ellen White's statement that "a noble character is earned by individual effort through the merits and grace of Christ. ... It is formed by hard, stern battles with self."2
The twelve steps and other recovery concepts provided me with new tools for dealing with my character defects. Yet I have come to realize that the tools are not new: They are all found in the Bible (see sidebar on page 21).
Pastors and recovery
Recovery can enhance the pastor's ministry in a variety of ways. Consider the minister's sense of well-being, which permeates everything the pastor does. I will elaborate on three ways in which my ministry has become more effective.
Preaching. The Bible has taken on a whole new meaning to me since getting into recovery. I'm continually discovering ethical and relationship issues that had escaped me before. I am profoundly impressed by Jesus' life in light of recovery principles. His ability to discern what was going on in the minds of others is astonishing. He had extremely healthy boundaries, and He absolutely refused to be controlled by those around Him, regard less of how angry or manipulative they were.
Sharing these biblical insights from the pulpit has made my preaching less theoretical and far more practical than it used to be. Books and magazine articles dealing with recovery principles have also been helpful, including those written from a secular perspective. But I always make sure that I present these concepts from a biblical perspective. Biblical preaching has a power that is absent in the secular self-help sermon.
Administration. An understanding of recovery principles can make a significant difference in the way the pastor relates to administrative responsibilities, especially in the area of control. Most church conflicts are, at their foundation, control issues. Members try to control the pastor, and the pastor tries to control the members. Usually, neither side has a clue what's really going on, and even less do they understand how to solve the problem.
Pastors who have experienced a significant degree of recovery will quickly recognize when people are trying to control them, and they will know instinctively how to deal with it. As the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous says, "We will intuitively know how to handle situations which used to baffle us."3 I can honestly say that that is a true statement. Today I often size up very quickly the dynamics of interpersonal relation ships that used to totally confuse me. And because I'm no longer confused, I'm able to relate much more appropriately.
Pastors who have experienced significant recovery can also teach their members what they've learned. By their relationship to tense situations in board meetings and the responses they give when people try to control them, they are teaching the members to relate more appropriately to each other, to the pastor, and to issues in the church. Even in situations when they have to set tough boundaries— and effective pastors will do that— they are modeling healthy behavior to people who are enmeshed in co-dependent relationships.
Change won't come overnight, but with time and patience, pastors who practice and teach recovery principles will create a healthier environment for the entire congregation.
Counseling. One of the areas in which personal experience with recovery will be most helpful to pas tors is in counseling of individuals and families. They will quickly pick up on control issues, enmeshment, and enabling behaviors in their counselees that will help them to give much more practical advice.
You will notice that I said the pastor's "personal experience with recovery" will make this possible. Recovery is not just a set of principles that can be read out of a book and handed on to others. In each of the areas I have discussed, these principles must become an instinctive part of the pastor's way of responding to relationships, especially his or her own family relationships. And healthy family relationships are particularly essential in the area of counseling. The pastor whose spouse and children have experienced significant recovery will most quickly recognize the problems in the lives of others and will be able to offer the most practical advice.
I think I'm safe in saying that while most pastors have probably heard of recovery, few have actually experienced it to the extent that it is making a significant difference in their ministry. So how can pastors to whom these concepts are new make them a part of their life and ultimately a part of the life of his church? I will suggest several ways.
First, read up on addiction, co-dependence, and recovery. The sidebar lists several books that I have found helpful. My own book Conquering the Dragon Within applies recovery concepts in a biblical context.
Second, both pastor and the spouse attend twelve-step meetings. If possible, both should choose a meeting in an area of addiction that they themselves are struggling with. Attendance at half a dozen meetings isn't enough. In order to make these principles a way of life, regular attendance over a period of years is essential. Pastors need not fear that others in the church will find out that they are attending, say, Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. All twelve-step groups are scrupulously careful about maintaining confidentiality.
Third, ingrain recovery principles by journaling. Write down your thoughts and feelings, reflections on your relationships with each other, in the light of what you are learning from reading and attendance at meetings. Prayer is an important part of journaling—asking God to reveal character strengths and weaknesses and the meaning of confusing emotions.
I wish every pastoral couple had the opportunity of attending a recovery program such as the one that is offered by the Bridge. I particularly urge any pastor with a major addiction to seek the help that a recovery program can provide. These programs are expensive, but divorce and ruined careers are even more expensive!
Recovery and sanctification are about overcoming character defects, and both are the work of a lifetime. While I'm grateful for what I've gained, I know I have a long way to go. I'm glad I got started. I encourage every pastor and every pastor's family to make the same start.
1 The Bridge is a member of Adventist Laymen's Services and Industries (ASI).
2 Ellen G White, Christ's Object Lessons (Nampa, Idaho: Pacific Press® Pub. Assn., 1900), 331.
3 Alcoholics Anonymous (New York: Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, 1976), 84