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

“Did you ever get a DUI?”


“Were you ever arrested?”


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


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:

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: 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.

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:

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.

The Religious Right (Side of History)

For Christians in the mainline Protestant denominations, this has been an interesting summer. First, the Presbyterian Church (USA) rejected an amendment which would have opened the church up to blessing same-sex marriages. Then, less than a week later, the Episcopal Church approved a new liturgy to bless same-sex unions and also affirmed the ministry of transgender clergy.


For the rest of us mainline folks (members of the United Church of Christ, United Methodists, Lutherans, Disciples, and others) it has been both fascinating and heart-wrenching to watch. Regardless of the outcome, the emotion has been clear. After the PCUSA vote, youth cried on the floor of the General Assembly. The day after the the Episcopal vote, one diocese walked out.


Many speculate that some mainline denominations may be headed for an ideological schism. The narrow margin of the Presbyterian decision, just 30 votes, is one indication of just how split that denomination is on major issues of inclusion and Biblical interpretation. Other denominations face similar quandaries. It’s clear that mainline Christians of all stripes are at a watershed.


It helps to remember that we have been here before, and more than once.


I was ordained in the PCUSA (before having my own departure over LGBT inclusion and becoming UCC). I was always struck by the fact that the denomination had split in two during the Civil War over slavery. The same happened in many of the other major churches of the day. For some, the split was temporary. Methodists rejoined one another in 1939. It took the Presbyterians until 1983. Some never reunited. (Which is one reason the North is filled with American Baptist congregations, while Southern Baptists prevail in the South.)


You would think American mainliners would have learned their lesson, but they didn’t. Further splits occurred over the ordination of women, desegregation, Biblical inerrancy, and more. And now, the splits are coming over LGBT inclusion.


We’ve known this for years. One of the reasons LGBT inclusion has not yet occurred is that we are so afraid of what a schism will mean. We want to preserve the body of Christ, because that is what we are called to do. But, if we are honest, we also want to remain relevant. Relevance is the catch-phrase in the shrinking church, and a denomination half its size is seen as even more irrelevant.


Except, here’s the rub: size does not determine relevance. Doing the right thing does.


When I was in the PCUSA I often heard straight allies decline to push harder for LGBT rights for fear it would “split the church”. No one wanted that, but the reality was that the church was already splitting. LGBT people, and their families and friends, were walking out the door. This was true of many churches, and the irony was that each time they failed to do the right thing, the prophetic thing, for fear of losing relevance, they lost it even more.


When Jesus told his disciples to go out two by two he gave them clear instructions: Preach a prophetic truth.  If you are rejected, if your message is not heard, move on. Shake the dust from your feet and keep moving.


I don’t think Jesus was telling his disciples to not care about the people who rejected them. I don’t think he was saying “give up hope that they will change their minds”. I think he was saying this: sometimes you won’t get everyone one board, but the train has to keep moving forward. Otherwise it will derail.


We talk a lot about the power of the religious right to negatively influence the fate of LGBT civil rights, but we are talking about the wrong religious right there. What LGBT people need now is not more of the religious right. We need more religious and on the right side of history. We need more Christians ready to stand up for the right thing no matter what, even if it means some won’t follow them. We need religious folks ready to shake the dust of fear and rejection off their feet and follow Jesus anyway. People who are willing to take the big risks their faith demands no matter the cost.


This will not be the last issue to divide the church. Give it thirty or forty years and something else will come along. By that point the country as a whole will have evolved and moved on and non-inclusion of LGBT people will be an embarrassing chapter in our history, just like all the others through the years. My hope is the mainline church will be re-united by then, but history tells us it may well not be.


That’s okay. Because the mark of faithfulness is not found in our membership numbers. It’s not found in a commitment to an non-controversial faith that never makes anyone uncomfortable. It’s found in how well we follow Christ, who taught us to love one another and work for justice. The only fate worse than schism for the church is being lukewarm when it comes to issues of justice. Jesus never accepted us being lukewarm. For those of us who want to be standing on the religious right side of history, that’s a good reminder.

The Episcopal Church, Equal Marriage, and Religious (il)Literacy

Today the Episcopal Church voted to approve a liturgy which blesses same-sex unions. It’s a great step forward for equality, and a time for thanksgiving. It’s also another opportunity to watch the way that stories about mainline churches are often mis-reported by the media.

The headlines today say the Episcopal Church is the first maichurch denomination to approve same-sex marriage. That’s wrong on two counts. First, the Episcopal Church is explicitly avoiding the use of “marriage” in describing these same-sex rites. Second, the United Church of Christ, a denomination roughly the same size and with as deep a heritage as the Episcopal Church, affirmed marriage equality in 2005 and calls all unions (gay and straight) “marriages”.

This is just the latest example of reporters,including religion reporters, getting it wrong. Last year, for example, the ordination of the “first out LGBT Presbyterian minister” was heralded in religion sections everywhere. For the sizeable number of PCUSA clergy who had been ordained when they were also out, this was surprising news.

So why do journalists who often pride themselves on accuracy so often get it wrong?

I think it points to a greater issue: the lack of mainline voices in the public arena. Members of the religious right have co-opted the public square and professed to speak for all Christians. Whether it’s birth control, LGBT rights, or the role of women, they’ve somehow convinced the news industry, and those who rely on it, that they are the voice of Christians everywhere. In doing so, we in the mainline have become less relevant, less well-known, and less distinguishable.

So, mainliners, how do we change that?

The Summer of Mainline Dreams

An interesting movement is popping up on Twitter. Mainline Christians of several denominations have started “dream” movements in which they tweet about their hopes for the future church and how to get there. One tweeter called this the “mainline summer”.

The United Methodists came first and are already holding tweet-ups. Their hashtag is #dreamumc and they facilitate with @dreamumc

The Presbyterian Church (USA) followed in the aftermath of General Assembly 220. Their hash is #dreampcusa and they facilitate with @wedreampcusa

The United Church of Christ folks came next with #dreamucc and @dreamucc

UPDATE: An Episcopal conversation is taking place under the hashtag of #Acts8 (see comments below).

There is also a hash starting for Disciples under #dreamccdoc

I’m hopeful the ELCA, and others will join in soon.

There’s also another hashtag for ecumenical conversation at #mainlinedreams with an account at @mainlinedreams. Since our futures seem more and more likely to intersect, it makes sense that we should start talking now. My hope is we will share our thoughts, sermons, and writing with one another, and that we will start the next chapter in mainline Christian renewal.

This is an ever-changing list, so please be sure to share what you know in the comments.