Sometimes the people in the pews are well-educated, successful career professionals raising families in pursuit of the American dream. Sometimes they are struggling, debt-ridden addicts immersed in toxic relationships and lost to unhealthy compulsions, pursuing the next high and an artificial peace.
Often the people in church are both.
“Families who are struggling with addiction don’t talk about it because they don’t want anybody to know about it,” says Lary Iwanowski, a member of Lake Magdalene UMC, Tampa, and coordinator of an upcoming one-day conference focused on prevention of alcohol and drug addiction among youth.
“Addiction Prevention Conference: Prevention Strategies for Youth Empowerment,” scheduled for Sept. 27 at Carrollwood Golf & Country Club, is one of many efforts by Florida United Methodist churches to tackle the longtime, growing problem of addiction in the U.S., state and local communities.
The Lake Magdalene church has teamed up with the United Methodist General Board of Church and Society, the Hillsborough County Anti-Drug Alliance and other community sponsors to craft an event aimed at parents, youth pastors, faith leaders and others who work with youth. The conference will emphasize addiction prevention.
Other outreach ministries focus on healing and recovery.
It is Iwanowski’s hope that attendees will come away from the Tampa event, not so much with solutions to the addiction problem, but with heightened awareness and resources to guide youth away from choices that can lead to addiction. Iwanowski believes it is the faith community’s responsibility to empower youth with education and prevention strategies that will nurture high standards of personal discipline, along with social and spiritual responsibility.
“It goes beyond just being accepting of church members who are alcoholics,” he says. “We don’t just say, ‘Go get sober first and then come back to our church.’ We must embrace and help people who are in the middle of a lifelong struggle.”
One way many churches are striving to do just that is through Celebrate Recovery, a Christ-centered, 12-step program founded in 1991. The ministry is now offered in more than 19,000 churches around the world, including at Niceville UMC in the Florida Panhandle.
“The hardest step is walking through the door,” says Stephanie Case, who oversees the program as part of her duties as Group Life minister at Niceville. “We have people who came and just sat in the parking lot for two months before they worked up the courage to come in. That’s why I now have ‘parking lot sweepers’ who go out before each meeting to look for newcomers sitting in their cars and welcome them.”
|Edgewater UMC, Port Charlotte, is among churches offering the 12-step Celebrate Recovery ministry to help community residents heal and recover from addictions. Photo from Edgewater Celebrate Recovery Facebook page.|
Case says the weekly meetings, which include large-group Bible study and small-group discussion by gender, offer a safe place to be open and heal the hurts behind addictive behaviors. Celebrate Recovery groups meet at the same time and weekday, even if the scheduled time falls on a holiday. The program also includes The Landing for teens and Celebration Station for grade-school children.
“Just anecdotally, I know that there is a very high likelihood that the children of addicts will face very similar challenges,” Case says. “Many of the group members who share their struggle with alcoholism say they grew up in homes with alcoholics.”
Case works with local churches interested in starting their own weekly Celebrate Recovery program. She noted that the goal is to have a Celebrate Recovery meeting available every night of the week.
“Recovery is a lifelong process,” she says. “I have members who haven’t had a drink in 35 years, but they still attend five meetings each week.”
|The Port St. John UMC youth mission team joins with residents and staff for prayer at His Mansion Ministries in Deering, N.H. Photo from Colleen Hart.|
Other recovery options include even more extensive processes. Through annual youth mission service and donations, First UMC, Port St. John, supports His Mansion Ministries, a Christian community-focused rehabilitation and counseling program in which participants spend a year as residents of the ministry’s Deering, N.H., campus and headquarters. The program’s “Healing in the Context of Community” includes a daily schedule of early rising, quiet time, family-style meals, work assignments, Christian classes and counseling, and evening routines.
The structure is designed to allow residents to face their “brokenness” as part of a community that also helps them understand the causes of addiction and the behavior it spawns.
“Our mentors and staff are fellow travelers on this journey with Christ -- hopefully just a little further along,” says Dr. Michael Tso, director of training and interim CEO at His Mansion Institute. “Our goal is to help residents learn how to form a healthy foundation for living out their lives to be the person God asks them to be.”
And that, as Case points out, is the key to facing addiction, whether it’s food, alcohol, drugs or even work.
“As a child, you can’t choose who you model for behavior,” she says. “But when you become an adult, now you have a choice. To get through addictions and other hurts, you have to choose to have Jesus Christ with you.”
-- Colleen Hart is a freelance writer based in the Cocoa area.