125 Unitarian Universalist congregations now offer ministries to people struggling with addiction.
The cover story of the summer 2004 issue of UU World profiled the Rev. Dr. Denis Meacham’s drive to help congregations develop ministries to those who struggle with addictions. When Meacham started his own addictions ministry at First Parish in Brewster, Massachusetts, in 2000, there were no others. Today around 125 congregations have such ministries and a move is underway to gain official recognition and support for addictions ministry from the Unitarian Universalist Association.
In 2004 Meacham wrote The Addiction Ministry Handbook, now considered the bible of UU addictions ministry. One person who bought the book after reading the UU World article is Bill Norton, a member of Shoreline Unitarian Universalist Church in Shoreline, Washington.
“I had an epiphany when I read that article in the World,” said Norton. “My own addiction and recovery experience and the possibility of ministry for addictions came together. I stood up in the middle of church and waved Denis’s book and said ‘I’m interested in doing this. Come see me if you are too.’” People did, and now Shoreline has a thriving addictions ministry. Norton is the program’s co-facilitator.
Shoreline’s addictions ministry includes Chalice Circle, a covenant group focused on addictions. The ministry also provides workshops and an occasional worship service, and has trained people as “first responders” to react to immediate needs. “Now anyone in pain knows where to come,” said Norton. “We don’t fix the problems, but we’re a source of information and support.”
Julie Hernandez is a coordinator of the Addictions and Recovery Ministry at Pacific Unitarian Church in Rancho Palos Verdes, California. The UU World article also sparked a conversation among members of her church. They bought the handbook, started a committee and within a few months an addictions ministry was formed. “We launched it and people came to our events and now we have a vibrant program,” said Hernandez.
The addictions team brings speakers to the church and organizes seminars on addiction-related topics. The team is visible every Sunday with an information table. Articles on addiction appear regularly in the church newsletter, and the ministry has trained a team of first responders. A “Twelve-Step, Seven-Principles” group has evolved into a covenant group. Said Hernandez, the group “provides people who are on a spiritual search, as they try to overcome addictions, with an opportunity to explore a twelve-step program that uses the lens of the UU Principles.”
“There are a lot of people who are troubled by the Christian and male-oriented language of the Alcoholics Anonymous meetings,” added Hernandez, who turned away from alcohol five years ago. “That’s why I came to Pacific Unitarian after entering recovery. After I read the Seven Principles, I knew for sure no one there would tell me what I should be thinking. Unitarian Universalism is in a wonderful position to help people like me.”
The program is working on a variety of levels, said Hernandez. “There are lots of people now that we can call on for help. The interest in events is very much on the rise and the feedback just gets better and better.” She said events attract from fifteen to fifty people. Ministerial support is also important, she noted. “A very large part of our ministry’s growth and vitality is due to the Rev. (John) Morehouse’s unflagging support and enthusiasm.”
The Rev. Alex Holt, who recently moved from the Woodinville, Washington, Unitarian Universalist Church to become consulting minister in Yakima, Washington, has become the facilitator of a UUA task force on addictions ministry. It is working toward official UUA recognition and support of addictions ministry. The Rev. Jory Agate, the UUA’s ministerial development director and a member of the task force, notes that ministers, as well as lay people, struggle with addictions. She anticipates that a UUA addictions ministry would be developed through the collaboration of many UUA staff groups, including Ministry and Professional Leadership, Congregational Services, and the youth and young adult offices. “We all need to work together on this issue,” she said. When Holt, a recovering alcoholic, visits a church that’s thinking about an addictions ministry, he’ll ask at a Sunday service, “How many of you, over your lives, have been affected directly or indirectly by addiction, including behaviors and substances?” Nearly everyone responds.
Holt notes that most of the people in a congregation who will respond to an addictions ministry will be family and friends of people with addictions. “People who have a family member in crisis want to know what they can do.” The primary addictions are alcohol, drugs, sex, food, and gambling, he said.
When Holt is invited by a congregation, he generally leads a Sunday service and follows it with a three-hour workshop in the afternoon. “We find people have an incredible craving to share their stories,” he said. “Out of that we help them develop the basics of an addictions ministry program that is safe, open-minded, and supportive, but not therapy. We try to give people resources and community without judging them.”
The UUA’s Pacific Northwest District, where Holt’s congregation is located, has one of the first district-wide addiction ministries. Eleven PNWD congregations have such ministries.
At Saltwater Unitarian Universalist Church in Des Moines, Washington, a worship service about members’ experiences in 12-step groups led to the formation of an addictions ministry there, said Kristen Parman-Bethard, addictions ministry team chair. The ministry includes a lending library with information about a wide range of substance and behavioral addictions. There are alternative Alcoholics Anonymous and Al Anon (for family and friends) groups that allow people to define “Spirit of Life” for themselves. The team held a class on prescription medications and has sponsored two “Recovery Sunday” services. “They weren’t terribly well attended,” said Parman-Bethard, “however, I believe the people who needed to be there were there. Several people contacted members of our team to say how much the service touched them.”
“Our church has been helped by making this a topic that is more open for discussion,” said Parman-Bethard. “Many people have concerns about family members or other loved ones and now they have safe people to talk to. Some have concerns about themselves and they also know we are here. I would say we don’t have a dynamic presence, but rather a ‘ministry of presence’ that is always visible and supportive.”