The Church as Enabler: Further Thoughts on Heather Cook, and the Rest of Us

“Did you ever get a DUI?”

“No.”

“Were you ever arrested?”

“No.”

“Did you ever lose a job because of your drinking?”

“No.”

He looked at me confused for a moment, then said, “I don’t think you were really an alcoholic.”

“Really?” I said. “Because I do.”

That conversation could have happened pretty much anywhere. As much as the discussion on addiction has changed in recent years, too many people still cling to the stereotype of an alcoholic as someone who is a falling-down-drunk, lying in the gutter. The idea of a well-educated professional with a retirement fund never crosses their minds.

But this wasn’t just anyone asking me the questions. It was the counselor who was conducting my routine denominational psychological exam when I switched my ordination to the UCC. I had honestly written about the fact I was in recovery in my pre-interview paperwork, and I was prepared to talk about it. But here I was, at the center where prospective clergy for my denomination and several others were screened for red flags, and I was having to educate the one doing the assessment on what addiction looks like.

In my case there was no rock bottom crash. There was just the awareness that I was looking for answers at the bottom of a bottle, instead of from healthier places. Added to that was the knowledge that my extended family has had trouble with alcohol for generations. I was still a young adult when it became clear to me that I could either quit drinking then, with relatively little lost, or I could quit drinking years later, when I had managed to destroy everything.

Untitled copyI consider myself to be especially blessed by the fact that my family, friends, and clergy “got it”, and supported me. But I know that in the stories of others too often those same people become “enablers”. They help the alcoholic to justify their continued drinking by either refusing to admit there is a problem, being too scared to intervene, or, in the worst of cases, actively covering up another’s addiction.

Addiction is a family disease. And when a family member enables an addict, the entire family remains sick. That should hit home for those of us who are church members, because we often talk about the church as a large family. And there’s a hard truth we need to admit.

Our family has an addiction problem,

A few weeks ago I wrote about Bishop Heather Cook and who is qualified to be clergy. In the weeks since I have been struck by what has been revealed about what the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland did and didn’t know. On one hand we’ve been assured that the diocese had no knowledge there was an issue. Given the graphic description of Cook’s first DUI, complete with a blood alcohol level three times the legal limit, a shredded front tire, and more, I don’t know how anyone could say that there was no evidence there was an issue. Add to that the most recent revelation by the diocese itself that other bishops had been concerned that Cook was drunk at a pre-consecration dinner, and it’s clear that the diocese had some inkling Cook had a problem.

Heather Cook is responsible for the death of Thomas Palermo. Nothing I am writing here should in any way be taken as an attempt to excuse her actions. But we in the mainline denominations, with our extensive theologies around systemic sin, must admit that there is more than enough responsibility to go around here, and the church bears some of it. Because far too often we have been enablers.

The research is incomplete, but it has long been acknowledged that clergy have high addiction rates. I believe this is especially true in mainline and progressive denominations that often put an emphasis on not being like “those Christians” who do things like ban alcohol. When I’ve suggested that maybe every clergy event does not need a cocktail hour, I’ve more than once been told, “We’re not like those Christians…we don’t believe anything is wrong with drinking.”

Neither do I. If you can drink safely, and are able to stop, then I say go for it. I don’t even mind being with people who are drinking. I’ve never had an issue with someone having a drink or two while we are out at dinner, or with sitting with someone who is having a beer while we talk theology. But when cocktail hours, or trips to the bar, become the main source of community and fellowship at wider church events, I begin to wonder how many of my colleagues might be walking a fine line between responsible drinking and addiction. And when I go to dinner parties and watch respected clergy drink to excess, and say things I know they will regret in the morning, I feel incredibly sad for them.

I don’t think you have to be in recovery yourself to feel the same way. As the national Episcopal Church prepares to gather this summer for their General Convention, Bishop J. Scott Barker of the Episcopal Diocese of Nebraska has made a commitment to not drink during the gathering. Barker writes, “I’m mindful of the recent tragedy in Maryland, and the chance to make a small witness for delight in sobriety as a bishop of the Church. I note that in the Episcopal Diocese of Nebraska so many wonderful disciples are in recovery and could use some support – and so many parish churches are hobbled by alcoholic family systems long in place.” (Read more here: http://nebraskaepiscopalian.org/?p=2578)

It should be noted that Bishop Barker’s stand is especially prophetic given the fact that others going to General Convention seem to be a bit tone deaf about the church’s public image problems around alcohol. For instance, the House of Deputies is holding a fundraising competition with a grand prize of a beer tasting: http://houseofdeputies.org/campaign-for-episcopal-relief-development-kicks-off.html Surely, if a denomination can’t take a step back from alcohol for at least a few months after one of their own prominent clergy kills someone while drinking, that is a sign of a problem.

So, how does the church move forward? How do we stop being enablers?

First, there has to be the will to change. And that will not come until people who have been touched in some way by addiction, either their own or that of others, speak up and say “enough”. Then, there has to be a willingness to tell the truth about how we have failed to address the crisis of addiction, both in our own ranks, and in the larger community. And then we have to start the work of healing.

We need to follow the examples of the legal and medical communities who have set up fair and rigorous systems for those who wish to get clean and sober. We need to provide clergy with a way to get help when they need it, without worrying that stepping forward and getting healthy will ruin their careers. We need to educate everyone from parish pastors to denominational execs to those who screen candidates for ministry. We need to talk to our seminarians about what addiction looks like, and how to take care of themselves. And we need to be willing to lovingly intervene when we see someone struggling, no matter how big their steeple may be, or how angry they might get.

Our country is in the midst of a full-fledged addiction crisis. We in the church, with our belief in new life, should be leading the charge for recovery and healing. But we can’t do that if we are too sick to even deal with the addiction crisis in our own house. Now is the time for our whole family to get some recovery. Because if we can’t look at what happened in Maryland and say “we’ve finally hit rock bottom” I am scared to death of what our next family tragedy will look like.

7 thoughts on “The Church as Enabler: Further Thoughts on Heather Cook, and the Rest of Us

  1. “When I’ve suggested that maybe every clergy event does not need a cocktail hour, I’ve more than once been told, “We’re not like those Christians…we don’t believe anything is wrong with drinking.” ”
    yep. Coping skills developed in formation are the skills we will rely upon in professional ministry. If we don’t have more ways to relax than drinking, we’re in deep trouble.

  2. Wow! Well said. I too come from a family with lots of addiction problems, add abuse of others to the problem, and I cannot understand any way of living except to keep myself clear of all forms of things that can be addictive, though I have to admit to sometimes turning to work too much. Perhaps that is why I am part-time at what I do. Thanks for the post, it should give many lots to ponder.

  3. Yes:
    “Addiction is a family disease. And when a family member enables an addict, the entire family remains sick. That should hit home for those of us who are church members, because we often talk about the church as a large family. And there’s a hard truth we need to admit.”

    We study family systems theory as preparations for pastoral counseling, but we need to recognize the church community as a family system as well. And understanding the role EACH of us plays is vitally important.

    Also, the flip side to your opening sequence with the counselor is my experience explaining my husband’s recovery when he has chosen NOT to use a twelve-step program. Just because he doesn’t do AA doesn’t mean his four years of sobriety from alcohol are not an achievement.

    1. I have a friend who has been sober longer than I have (oh, I’d say about 30 years) and does not go to AA. I think whatever works for people is what they should do. There are many ways to find recovery. Congratulations to your husband!

  4. thank you for sharing your own recovery! I too am a grateful recovering alcoholic. It was recovery in AA that brought me back to faith in G_D.

  5. I really enjoyed your blog post. I have been in ministry for 35 years and I have 31 years of sobriety. The Denomination I was with had no understanding concerning recovery so that when I faced a medical crisis post Bariatric Surgery they allowed the myth that I was addicted to prescription drugs to go unchecked! Please check my blog out http://www.realgreatness.com I would love to dialog with you some time!

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