On Bishop Heather Cook, Sobriety, and Who is Qualified to be Clergy

A few people have asked me, as a clergy person openly in longterm recovery, what my thoughts are on whether Bishop Heather Cook, the Episcopal bishop in Maryland who struck and killed a bicyclist and who had a history of driving under the influence, should have been serving as a bishop. Here are my thoughts.

First of all, the person we should be remembering, and whose family we should be lifting up in prayer, is Thomas Palermo, the man who was struck and killed by Bishop Cook, and then left to die in the roadway. Mr. Palermo and his family, including his children, should be our first concern as the church. In fact, if you would like to make a donation to his children’s education fund, here is the link: http://www.youcaring.com/tuition-fundraiser/children-of-tom-palermo/283939#.VKQf_XwNgGw.facebook

But to turn to Bishop Cook, and the discussion of clergy and alcoholism, this is what I can say. In the aftermath of Bishop Cook’s actions, I have seen a number of posts on social media debating whether or not a person with substance abuse issues should have been elevated to bishop. In my mind, most have lacked nuance. Several things need to be taken into account.

Untitled copyFirst, there are many clergy persons in recovery from addictions. Second, there are many more who should be in recovery. Third, I don’t know to which group Bishop Cook belonged.

That said, her 2010 DUI charges were particularly disturbing. Many of us in recovery never drove drunk, but the facts of her prior case seem to indicate that substance abuse was indeed a problem. My hope is that when she was charged she saw the need to get sober. My other hope is that the Episcopal Church supported her in that endeavor.

But as far as her consecration as bishop, a very short period of time had elapsed between her DUI incident and her elevation. If she was sober, she was still in “early sobriety” and taking on a position like this, with higher stress and demands on time, would have likely been discouraged. And, if she relapsed, as now seems likely, it was on her to step back and say “I need to focus on getting healthy.” But Bishop Cook alone is not at fault. Church communities are often too quick to push those who have had major falls back into the spotlight. They are not doing the one who is recovering any favors by pushing a false rhetoric of “forgiveness” or “grace”. Sometimes grace means saying “you need to work on yourself for a while”.

With Bishop Cook too many questions are unanswered, and too little time had elapsed since her “rock bottom” of a few years ago. Something went wrong, and she found an even lower “rock bottom”, and this time a man is dead, not because she was in recovery but because of her own choices. Add to that the fact that this was a hit and run, and Bishop Cook took no responsibility for her actions until she was chased down, and it is clear that her behavior is exactly the opposite of what we are taught in recovery, regardless of whether or not she was drinking when she hit Mr. Palermo.

The question for me is not “should a person in sustained, active recovery be elevated to a position of leadership” but instead “should Heather Cook been elevated”? Because what we don’t need in the discussion of Heather Cook’s actions is a knee-jerk response that people in recovery shouldn’t be in leadership positions anyway. That will only add more reasons for people to hide when they are struggling. And I know plenty of clergy who are struggling, and who fear the reaction of the church and their parishioners should they seek help. In the end, if they do not get sober, they will cause far greater harm than if they continue to carry on as functional alcoholics.

In the recovery community we have a saying: “you’re as sick as your secrets”. I believe that’s true. And I believe that the church is sick when it makes people who need treatment hide out of fear for their professional lives. This is what happens when we don’t encourage honest discussions around alcohol and addiction within clergy circles. We need to be able to talk about it, and to encourage recovery.

In the end this will not just benefit clergy, but the entire church as well. As I have written elsewhere, our inability to talk about our imperfections as clergy has only been a detriment to the church. We have somehow communicated the idea that Christians must be people of perfection, and not people of grace.

That’s too bad, because when the day is done, I think that people with long-term sustained sobriety actually are assets to the ministry. Staying sober requires a sort of spiritual journey and honesty that can only help clergy. I would not hesitate to elevate a person with sustained recovery to a position of leadership.

And in the end, a story of recovery is a story of grace, and a story of the healing power of God’s love for us all. This is the story the church should be telling, because it is a Gospel story. I long for the days when our clergy’s stories of recovery are celebrated, and our stories of tragedy and destruction are avoided. This is possible. But it’s going to take a huge cultural change in the way we talk about recovery and addiction in the church.

The good news is that, like Jesus said, the truth can set us free.

8 thoughts on “On Bishop Heather Cook, Sobriety, and Who is Qualified to be Clergy

  1. This is very thoughtful and helpful. Someone I care about is in long-term recovery and I daily think of what that means to them, and really can not imagine very well I don’t think.

  2. I had the same reaction: Why was she elevated to, or even seeking the position such a short time after her DUI incident? I wouldn’t hire a corporate executive who had been sober for such a short period of time.

    As a life-long Episcoplian, Christened in the Cathedral in Baltimore, I’m saddened for the church, but I am also angry at Bishop Cook for running away when she had the perfect opportunity to demonstrate what it means to be a Christian by stopping to aid Mr. Palermo and taking responsibility for her part in his injuries and death.

    A nice long prison term will give her the opportunity to contemplate her actions.

  3. well-thought-out and well-written — i’m on the west coast, so was unaware of the incident until a friend referenced your article! your response to the question put to you about the heather cook story applies to so many situations. thank you for sharing!

  4. Great points. I quit drinking in 2009. Thank God, I never hit anyone while driving. As someone one said “we don’t have secrets, our secrets have us”. Heather should have been referred to an inpatient facility after the 2010 DWI. If she had been, there is a good chance Tom Palermo would be alive today. One bad choice by one person can have diasterous effects on many people. It’s like someone kicks out the chock blocks and the garbage truck goes rolling down the hill, destroying everything in its path. The Baltimore Sun and Baltimore Brew had excellent coverage of the case. Thank you for posting a link to contribute to the Palermo Family Educational Fund.

  5. Great points, Emily. I like the references to “rock bottom”. I heard a great quote recently. It reads “You hit rock bottom when you stop digging”. Heather Cook never stopped digging and a man is dead as the result. Honesty is a hallmark of recovery. HC was not honest with the electors who in turn elected her with limited information.
    ” We don’t have secrets, our secrets have us”.

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