VOL 2, NO 4
CONGREGATIONS AND 12-STEP RECOVERY
PROBLEM: Each year, millions of Americans seek help for addictions
of all kinds.
SOLUTION: Some congregations host 12-step groups, and other congregations
form their own recovery and support groups.
Several years ago, when a local chapter of Alcoholics
Anonymous found its meeting space too small and began searching for a more spacious
place to gather, Allisonville Christian Church offered the use of its building.
“I’ve always thought a church is better off having
as many people in and out as possible,” says Rev. Robert Riester, whose church
also hosts a Boy Scout troop, a quilting club, and numerous other groups. “We
give them a key and ask them to turn off the lights and lock the door when they
Congregations all across the city play the same
role. Every day, AA and other 12-step recovery groups gather in sacred spaces,
conduct their meetings, and leave. In most cases, members of the group have
no other contact with the congregation.
“We have a few people visit the church from the
group,” Riester says, “but if we saw it as an evangelistic tool, we would have
to say that it’s not very effective. It’s more a matter of what we can give
than what we can get.”
The result of this relationship is a striking
imbalance. Congregations are highly important to the 12-step recovery movement
because of the meeting space they provide. The directory of AA meetings for
the Indianapolis area lists more than 350 groups; of these, more than 100 meet
in churches or synagogues. Yet congregations’ influence in the movement is negligible.
As Allisonville Christian’s case indicates, they usually have no sense of “ownership”
of the 12-step programs that meet in their buildings. The groups aren’t ministries
of the congregation.
Yet there is much more to the relationship than
this tenuous connection suggests. If congregations have not had a significant
role in the rise of 12-step recovery programs, that movement has had an influence
on congregations, and it poses important challenges to them.
Since its conception in the 1930s as a tiny,
grassroots recovery program for alcoholics, the 12-step movement has flourished.
AA does not keep official records, but it estimates that there are currently
about 1 million AA participants—50,000 groups—in the United States alone. Other
groups based on the 12-step model address every sort of addiction and disorder,
including addictions to drugs, gambling, sex, food, and work.The number of people
attending support and recovery groups suggests these groups are meeting real,
widespread needs in American culture. “There are important issues of intimacy
and care—giving and receiving of care—that get worked out in a 12-step group,”
says David Chaddock, clinical director of the Center for Family Life Ministries
at Second Presbyterian Church. “Addictions grow out of isolation; the more you
can get involved in community—the more you get involved in relating to others—the
less isolated you feel.”
But if the demand for support and recovery groups
is clear, congregations have been hesitant and uncertain in responding. Some
have ignored the 12-step movement altogether. Others host a group but have no
connection to it. Others have tailored the 12 steps to fit their own purposes
and programs. These varied responses are, in part, a result of the movement’s
origins in evangelical Christianity.
The enigmatic nature of this relationship is
reflected in the story of Bill Wilson, AA’s founding father. Wilson, an alcoholic
who was hostile to religion, came to sobriety through a crisis moment of transformation:
“I lay on a bed,” Wilson wrote of the experience, “but now for a time I was
in another world, a new world of consciousness. All about me and through me
there was a wonderful feeling of Presence, and I thought to myself, ‘So this
is the God of the preachers!’ ”
Soon, Wilson joined the Oxford Group, an informal
gathering of evangelical Christians meeting in a New York City rescue mission.
This group, which would serve as the model for 12-step meetings, was lay-driven.
Unlike a church service, its meetings revolved around testimonials and prayer
rather than preaching.
In the late 1930s, Wilson put the principles
of the new 12-step movement in writing. With the help of other recovering alcoholics,
he wrote Alcoholics Anonymous, commonly referred to as the Big Book.
The publication remains critically important to AA. It not only serves as the
organization’s “bible,” but sales of the book—about a million copies annually—continue
to help finance AA.
In the Big Book, Wilson and his co-authors set
forth the 12 steps to recovery that would guide AA and the recovery groups that
have spun off from it. In the 12 steps, AA’s Christian origins are apparent.
Step three, for example, states that “we made a decision to turn our will and
our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him,” an action that recalls
the idea of conversion. Step five states that “we admitted to God, to ourselves
and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs”—in Christian language,
confessing their sin. Steps six and seven state that “we were entirely ready
to have God remove all these defects of character” and “humbly asked Him to
remove our shortcomings,” reflecting the theological concept of justification.
Despite the parallels to Christian teachings
and practice encoded in the 12 steps, however, Wilson did not intend for them
to be exclusionary. Under his influence, in fact, AA purposely distanced itself
from the conservative evangelicalism of the Oxford Group, and Wilson’s Christian
commitment later became a subject of speculation. As Christianity Today
once observed, disapprovingly, he “never pledged his loyalty to Christ, never
was baptized, never joined a Christian church, and the rest of his life was
Wilson’s steps refer to God in vague terms—“a
Power greater than ourselves” and “God as we understood him”—allowing room for
interpretation. This tension between the 12-step movement’s evangelical origins
and its spiritual relativism—any “higher power” that keeps a person sober is
legitimate—has provoked debate about the nature of 12-step spirituality.
For many congregations, any potential controversy
is defused by their hands-off role in the movement. After all, hosting a 12-step
group does not necessarily imply an endorsement of—or require a defense of—the
12-step philosophy. Other congregations, such as the two described in the following
profiles, have developed a response to the 12 steps, either because they are
so large that an in-house recovery ministry is expected of them, or because
they have chosen to make addiction recovery one of their ministries. These congregations
are mainly Protestant; the movement has not generated the level of debate and
interest in Catholic and non-Christian communities that it does among Protestants—perhaps
a lasting legacy of the movement’s origins in an evangelical milieu.
East 91st Street Christian Church
Celebrate Recovery, the name given to the support
and recovery program at East 91st Street Christian, was founded in
early 1999 through the initiative of a church member who is also a recovering
addict. Celebrate Recovery comprises three groups: two addiction groups—one
male and one female—and a codependency group for women. Each meets Sundays,
from 6 to 7:30 p.m., and the men’s addiction group also meets for an hour on
Wednesdays in the church’s Community Life Center. About half the participants
(15 to 30 people per group) are members of the church. East 91st
advertises the ministry on the radio, with flyers distributed in the local neighborhoods,
and through listings in the newspaper.
Celebrate Recovery uses a variation on the 12
steps developed by a Southern Baptist megachurch in California. It sets forth
“eight principles,” each related to a beatitude and paralleling one (or more)
of the 12 steps.
The first principle, for example, is to “realize
that I’m not God” and admit that “I am powerless to control my tendency to do
the wrong thing and that my life is unmanageable.” The corresponding beatitude
is, “Happy are those who know they are spiritually poor.” The fourth principle
is to “openly examine and confess my faults to myself, to God, and to someone
I trust.” The related beatitude is, “Happy are the pure in heart.”
In tandem with these principles, Celebrate Recovery
groups also practice a version of the 12 steps, slightly modified to deliver
an explicitly Christian message. References to “God as we understood him” in
the original are reduced to simply “God.” More important, each step is accompanied
by its “biblical comparison.” For example, step two—“we made a searching and
fearless moral inventory of ourselves”—is twinned with scripture from Lamentations:
“Let us examine our ways and test them, and let us return to the Lord.”
In addition to these formal, curricular differences,
the general tone of a Celebrate Recovery meeting is different from its secular
12-step counterpart. Noticeably absent is the coarse language often present
in a secular group. Instead, Celebrate Recovery groups are filled with testimonies
to the transformational power of Christianity. The groups straddle a line between
recovery group and evangelistic outreach.
“People talk about what scripture means, how
it applies, what God is doing through them,” says Kristi Thompson, director
of the church’s support and recovery groups. “Not everyone who comes is a Christian.
I wouldn’t say it’s openly evangelistic, but it is in the sense that they meet
some of the people whose lives have been changed through Jesus Christ and what
it means to form a relationship with him.”
Second Presbyterian Church
Whereas East 91st Street Christian’s
addiction recovery ministry is mainly the work of Celebrate Recovery, individual
counseling makes up the bulk of the work done by the Center for Family Life
Ministries at Second Presbyterian. Since its founding in 1987, the Center has
also offered educational programs—for example, marriage enrichment, premarital
counseling, and parenting classes. Its funding comes from the church, from the
Center’s endowment, and from fees for services. About two-thirds of the Center’s
clients are from outside the church’s membership.
The Center offers no 12-step support and recovery
group, but this absence is not intentional. Clinical director David Chaddock
says that the Center’s four counselors frequently deal with addiction issues
on an individual basis, and he welcomes the idea of establishing a 12-step group.
He even speaks occasionally to other congregations about developing a Christian
perspective on the 12 steps.
“I think it’s very sound psychologically,” Chaddock
says. “What you’re trying to do is get people to reconnect with a spiritual
understanding of themselves, to be awakened to the choices they’ve made and
how they’ve harmed themselves and others, and to work toward a reconciling through
making amends. It’s a beautiful model for how you help someone move through
a spiritual journey.”
The problem, Chaddock has found, is that his
role as a counselor in the Center interferes with his attempts to establish
a group. The movement’s lay-centered philosophy de-emphasizes the importance
of professional credentials and counseling.
“When it comes to the actual group work, they
don’t want a professional there,” Chaddock says. “They’re basically looking
for churches that will let them have their meeting there, but they’re not really
interested in developing a leadership position.
“In the 12-step system, you have a sponsor who
will be your primary confidant guiding you through recovery,” he says. “They
want you working very closely with a caregiver, and they can be apprehensive
about the role of a clinician. But there are people who say, ‘I really want
someone who’s been trained in counseling and psychology.’ Those people, I’ve
had the opportunity to work with and establish a good relationship with.”
The implications of these two examples are that
any congregation with energetic, motivated lay leadership may be capable of
starting its own 12-step group, and that a professional counseling program is
not only unnecessary, it may act as a barrier. This might be considered good
news for congregations without a counseling center—the vast majority. But the
subject is complicated by several issues.
One is simply the effectiveness of 12-step groups.
The approaches of East 91st Street and Second Presbyterian reflect
two schools of thought about addiction recovery. Since the mid-20th
century, the scientific model, represented by Second Presbyterian’s Center for
Family Life Ministries, has competed with the lay-driven, talk-therapy model,
represented by the recovery groups at East 91st Street Christian.
The two have little common ground.
Research on the relative success of treatment
programs is not conclusive, but it is fair to say that the 12-step movement
has many critics. They argue that the 12 steps are no more effective—perhaps
less—than other treatment programs. Some critics say the movement is too simple-minded,
others that its emphasis on powerlessness is positively harmful. This debate
will not be resolved soon.
For most congregations, a more relevant consideration
is finding leadership to organize a recovery group and lead the discussions—particularly
for congregations that want to shape their groups to square with their values
and theology. East 91st Street’s Kristi Thompson says that, even
with lay leadership willing to take the initiative, implementing Celebrate Recovery
“took a lot of time and investment to make sure it was being done up to our
standards, and that people were getting the care they needed.” She trained leaders
for about eight hours on how to lead discussions and handle various types of
personalities in a group setting. She now meets with them once a month for updates.
Of course, this training isn’t necessary if a congregation simply hosts an outside
Finally, if congregants are reluctant to admit
that anyone among them needs help, they might resist the idea of starting a
group. The stigma is probably less severe now than it once was, if only because
recovery groups are so common. At East 91st Street, Thompson says
that some people questioned the need for a support ministry when other 12-step
programs are already available, but she met with little resistance once she
made her case.
Lighthouse Mission in downtown Indianapolis offers
a 12-step class called Rapha, one component of a six-month program designed
to help unemployed, homeless men find work and live independently again. The
program can accommodate 26 men at one time, but anyone is welcome in Rapha.
Unlike most AA groups, the meetings are full of Christian references. “In AA,
you just pick a power,” says Ted Baker, who came to sobriety through Rapha more
than a year ago and is now the development associate at Lighthouse Ministries.
“In Rapha, we say that Jesus Christ is our higher power.”
The Christian Center rescue mission in Anderson,
Ind., sometimes offers Alcoholics Victorious, a 12-step group that parallels
Alcoholics Anonymous. The mission also hosts a chapter of AA, but “a lot of
our guys, when they become Christians, try to get away from that old language
and behavior, and they’re more comfortable in the AV setting,” says the mission’s
AV and Rapha—as well as the “eight principles”
program used by East 91st Street Christian Church—are weapons in
an effort by evangelical Christians to win back influence in a movement that
began in their ranks, quickly distanced itself from them, and went on to achieve
widespread cultural influence.
Their progress in this battle is uneven. The
Christian Center’s Alcoholics Victorious program is currently on hold, awaiting
leadership. Similarly, First Church of the Nazarene, a local church that offers
a Christian 12-step recovery group, has suspended its group for the moment.
Meantime, AA programs, and the 12-step recovery
movement in general, are thriving. Their growth suggests that, whatever the
result of evangelical Christians’ quest to regain influence in the 12-step recovery
movement, congregations of all kinds have something to learn from it.
“A majority of my clients involved in 12-step
programs tell me they would rather go there than church,” says Second Presbyterian’s
David Chaddock. “Everyone knows that if you’re in a 12-step meeting, you’re
struggling. Whereas, when people go to church, their sense is that they have
to go all polished and put together, and nobody talks about what they’re struggling
with. I’ve said that the church of the 21st century may look more like a 12-step
group than a traditional church. People want to have that safe place to go and
say, ‘I’m struggling.’ And congregations haven’t done a good job of creating
that kind of space. If you talk about how you’re struggling, too often that’s
taken as an absence of faith.”
POINTS TO REMEMBER:
- Congregations provide the meeting space for many 12-step programs, but relatively
few have started their own groups.
- The 12-step recovery movement began among evangelical Christians, but the
leadership soon distanced itself from evangelicalism in an attempt to reach
a broader base of people.
- Congregations that offer their own recovery groups usually tailor them to
fit their own purposes and theology.
- Starting a recovery program based on a 12-step group involves a significant
amount of time at the outset to train the group’s leadership.
- A congregation interested in starting a 12-step group may face resistance
among congregants to offering an in-house recovery program.
- The qualities that have helped 12-step groups flourish—their emphasis on
honesty and acceptance—may be compatible with the values and theology of some
CONTACTS & RESOURCES:
136 E. Market St., Suite 1030
Indianapolis, IN 46204
Allisonville Christian Church
7701 Allisonville Rd.
Indianapolis, IN 46250
Center for Family Life Ministries
Second Presbyterian Church
7700 N. Meridian St.
Indianapolis, IN 46260
Counseling Center at the Crossing
9111 Haverstick Rd.
Indianapolis, IN 46240
East 91st Street Christian Church
Office of Support/Recovery Groups
6049 E. 91st St.
Indianapolis, IN 46250
(317) 576-6127, ext. 381
520 E. Market St.
Indianapolis, IN 46204
Founded in 1986, Rapha describes its treatment program as “Christian-centered,
integrating quality medical and clinical care with biblically based therapy.
1 (800) 383-HOPE
Books and articles
Davis, Diane Ruth and Golie G. Jansen. “Making meaning of Alcoholics Anonymous
for social workers: myths, metaphors, and realities,” Social Work,
March 1998. Reviews the opposing arguments about the effectiveness of 12-step
recovery programs and includes an extensive bibliography.
Kurtz, Ernest. Not-God: A History of Alcoholics Anonymous (1991).
The standard history of the organization that established the model for 12-step
recovery groups. A much condensed version of the same story can be found in
Tim Stafford, “The Hidden Gospel of the 12 Steps,” Christianity Today,
22 July 1991. This article also contains an evaluation of the 12 steps from
an evangelical Christian perspective and an interview with an advocate for
Lemanski, Michael. “The tenacity of error in the treatment of addiction,”
The Humanist, May-June 1997. Forcefully presents a case against 12-step
The “Twelve Step Homepage” at www.twelvestep.com
has links to several useful resources: numerous 12-step programs, news and
discussion groups, and miscellaneous recovery-related sites.
Christian Recovery International is “a coalition of ministries dedicated
to helping the Christian community become a safe and helpful place for people
recovering from addiction, abuse, or trauma.” Its Web site, www.christianrecovery.com, has links
to sites for clergy in recovery and people recovering from “spiritual abuse,”
along with various other 12-step resources. CRI is associated with the National
Association for Christian Recovery, whose page at www.christianrecovery.com/nacr.htm
has links to an on-line bookstore and library with numerous relevant books
The Web site of Christian Recovery Connection, http://crc.iugm.org, has an “FAQ” section that
includes a defense of recovery programs from a Christian perspective. It also
links to Christians-in-Recovery, www.christians-in-recovery.org,
which offers a database of established Christian recovery programs across
the nation. Click on the “Resources & Tools” section, then on “Database
of Recovery Resources.”