As a child, Rev. Tim Spykstra did not look forward to Christmas time. Instead, the gently falling snow and tinseled decorations were always accompanied by feelings of dread. This uneasiness stemmed from the fact that Spykstra’s father abused alcohol, inciting chaos whenever he was on a binge. Sometimes—often during the holidays—the family was forced to escape to a hotel room for safety.
When asked about how the church cared for his family during those painful childhood years, Spykstra remembers that support was virtually nonexistent. “It was a pretty lonely world,” he says.
Where Was the Church?
Over the last few decades, the church has made strides to better help people struggling with addictions. However, as stories like Rev. Spykstra’s suggest, the collateral damage of addiction—namely, the affected family—still rarely receives the appropriate level of attention.
As a pastor I have counseled many people with various types of addictions, and I am now providing addiction recovery resources to thousands of people in prison. While I have learned a lot about people’s families in counseling sessions, I’ve also seen how the well-being of family members often becomes ancillary to the more immediate problem of an individual’s addiction.
So how can the church do a better job of ministering to families of people with addictions?
To answer this question, I gathered a panel of pastors, professors, and psychologists for a roundtable discussion in the Hendrik de Cock Conference Room at Crossroad Bible Institute. I wanted to hear from people who are in the trenches and on the cutting edge of this vital ministry; each participant (see sidebar) brought valuable expertise to the discussion.
We started our discussion by defining the term addiction, since addiction is not limited to substance abuse. Rev. Carlinda Peoples noted that she prefers to use the more encompassing term of “spiritual bondage” when referring to addictions, since people can become addicted to almost anything. However, generally speaking, addictions occur when any behavior becomes a habit that negatively affects a person and the people around him or her.
Whether that person’s addiction is to alcohol, drugs, porn, gambling, romance, or even shopping, it will isolate his or her immediate family in a living hell, often unbeknownst to the church. However, although such families have long been off the church’s radar, each roundtable participant inspired great hope that it’s not too late for the church to change.
For most churches, the stumbling block to helping families is rarely a lack of willingness. Most churches simply don’t know what to do, or what not to do, when they become aware of a family that needs help. To address this need, our roundtable discussion identified six major “landmines” that churches should avoid stepping on if they want to cultivate holistic healing for families in their communities.
1. Ignoring cries for help. Like any dysfunctional family, the church can also go into modes of denial, shame, and image management when it becomes aware of one of its families in crisis. The congregation may even hope the family just goes away. Like Rev. Spykstra said, his family was a member of the church on paper, but it was a lonely world.
2. Over-outsourcing help. Over-outsourcing help for families runs the risk of relegating the problem of addiction away from the church body. In other words, relying on professional help or even internal “niche” programming as crutches instead of using them wisely as appropriate solutions can leave a church bereft of honest, vulnerable conversations that open doors for more people to get the help they need.
3. Fueling cultures of shame. Similarly, churches that are overly reliant on shuttling people “away” to Alcoholics Anonymous or external therapy groups can exacerbate feelings of shame and of being an outsider. Moreover, sending this kind of message makes it all the more difficult to identify dysfunctional families caught in cycles of denial (“This is not happening”), shame (“We hope no one finds out”), and, consequently, image management (“We need to appear as perfect as everyone else”). Preaching openly from the pulpit about addiction recovery or featuring testimonials from recovering addicts and their families in a service are some practical ways a church can resist fueling cultures of shame.
4. Misidentifying the needs of the person with the addiction and the needs of the whole family. Dr. Mary Vander Goot, a professional addictions psychologist, said that one major pitfall she sees is that churches often can’t delineate between the needs of the person with the addiction and the needs of the whole family unit. The individual with the addiction initially needs professional, one-on-one intervention because his or her sense of community has “deteriorated.” However, the family generally recovers best within a community of people, which offers some sense of normalcy and support.
5. Reinforcing institutional biases. Rev. Peoples believes that perhaps one of the most difficult quandaries to navigate is the institutional bias within a church structure that prioritizes helping certain families over others. While no church has bottomless funds or resources to help every family, Rev. Peoples noted that this should not be an excuse to unfairly dish out resources to an “in-group.” She suggested Dr. Harold Trulear’s Healing Communities Model as one resource to help congregations avoid funneling resources to privileged demographics.
6. Failing to recognize cultural barriers. Dr. Danjuma Gibson of Calvin Seminary noted that the inability to recognize a family’s “God-talk” can be a huge communication stumbling block for churches, since basic understandings of addiction vary across cultures and economic brackets. Some people, for instance, view an addiction as a sign that a person is not “born again.” Others will see overcoming addiction as a normal part of the sanctification process. Sometimes a person’s God-talk can be a hindrance to healing as opposed to a help, so churches cannot underestimate the value of astutely listening to the God-talk that families in addiction recovery are speaking.
Ways the Church Can Help
Apart from avoiding these landmines, what can the church do to restore shalom to families in need? The roundtable participants suggested eight action steps the church can take to make a difference, all of which embody two key words: intentionality and relationship.
1. Eliminate “us vs. them” mentalities.A church body must realize that no family functions as perfectly as God intended it. A family struggling in the throes of addiction is not that different from a family that isn’t. If that’s the case, then no church member should ostracize, fear, or patronize any family member in need. Church members should treat families of people with addictions as they would anyone else—as equal imagebearers of God who have gifts the church desperately needs (1 Cor.12:12-31). Rev. Mark Vander Meer intentionally eliminates “us vs. them” mentalities by addressing them head-on. “Every Friday when our church’s support groups meet, I begin by saying, ‘Hi, my name is Pastor Mark. I’m messed up, how about you?’” Rev. Vander Meer noted that acknowledging our brokenness with transparency is not celebrating sin. Rather, it’s accepting the reality that we are all broken, but through the power of Jesus Christ we can change.
2. Create and empower a recovery task force. Churches should empower congregants who already have a passion for ministering to families of people with addictions to start a recovery task force. Ideally, these congregants would have personal experience with addiction. In this role, they would take responsibility for helping the church destigmatize addictions, improve transparency, and educate congregants on addiction’s impact within a family unit using knowledge of Family Systems Theory.
3. Start a recovery program. Programs like Celebrate Recovery provide a methodology to create consistent weekly gathering spaces for families, which in turn fosters trust, safety, and accountability. This program can involve the whole church across all demographics. Rev. Vander Meer started such a program at his church. “On a given Friday you’ll see lawyers and homeless people sitting down in a group together and learning from each other,” he said.
4. Invest in relationships.All congregants—no matter what personal experience they have—can invest in relationships with other church members. As pastor Jennifer Ellison explained, sometimes the best care for struggling families is providing practical things like rides, dinners, a safe place to stay, or child care while parents go to counseling.
5. Organize church projects for laypeople. Intentionally organizing projects—such as a church clean-up day or a community service project—is a great way to bring together people from different backgrounds to “rub shoulders.” While these activities may not directly assist a family in crisis, they provide opportunities to include families who feel like outliers and foster a spirit of openness among congregants. Encouraging more informal gatherings can also build emotional support and create sustainable relationships that go a long way toward replacing specialized programming, which is especially helpful for churches with limited financial resources.
6. Minister to the surrounding community. Improving addiction recovery outreach to people outside the church can help congregants become more accepting of families inside the church and vice versa. Rev. Peoples believes internal and external ministries to families in bondage are inextricably linked. “If people don’t want to come here on Sundays, that’s OK,” she said of the outreach program at Muskegon’s Bethany CRC. “We’ll be obedient to Christ and come to you with the help you need.” This kind of outreach inadvertently fosters a culture of acceptance at a church.
7. Remember families in the post-recovery phase. It’s easy to think that once the person with addiction is in recovery, the family will automatically get better too. But this assumption is rarely true. In fact, many spouses divorce after the alcoholic gets sober, which often mystifies church congregants who are eager to see the family “move on.” But as Pastor Ellison said frankly, “It’s a lot easier to forgive someone you just see on Sundays than it is to forgive someone who has ruined the last 22 Christmases for you.” Moreover, according to Dr. Vander Goot, “There are often several stages people go through when a family member is in recovery: (1) fear; (2) eggshell-walking; (3) anger; and (4) peace, but with lingering post-traumatic stress disorder.Thus, even after a family member is in recovery, churches need to continue creating formal or informal spaces for families to share experiences, receive pastoral care, and move toward restoration and forgiveness on their own timelines.
8. Include families in church functions throughout all stages of recovery. Perhaps the best thing for families, according to Dr. Vander Goot, is refusing to “over-victimize” them and intentionally including them in church activities. Doing so reminds families that one person’s addiction does not define their lives. Whether through volunteer work, kids’ events, service projects, or Bible studies, inclusiveness emphasizes that these families need not feel shame or be reduced to a single problem, and more important, it sends the message that they are needed in the community too.
Help, Hope, and Healing
As the roundtable discussion disbanded, I was flooded with hope. Many families in our congregations are struggling mightily, but the insights of the panelists reminded me that we serve a God who is mightier than the power of addictions, who forgives all our sins and heals all our diseases (Ps. 103:3).
Moreover, I felt great comfort in knowing that Christ’s church is the key to unlocking the healing power of his love. Through the intentional pursuit of transparent relationships, the Holy Spirit will work wonders as we become increasingly aware of hurting families in our churches.
The problems of families affected by addiction can appear baffling and hopeless at first, but they are not. In fact, former addicts and families in recovery can become a church’s most valuable assets.
“People who have overcome their addictions alongside their families often have this amazing ability to empathize with others and speak transparently and humbly about their brokenness and the hope of restoration,” said Rev. Spykstra, a pastor dedicated to transforming churches and helping hurting families recover. “If I could plant a church with such Christians, there’s no limit to the kind of difference they would make in their community.”
While Rev. Spykstra’s parents did eventually divorce, he now has a healthy relationship with his recovering dad, his mom and her new husband, and his own family. And these days, everyone looks forward to Christmas.