Recovery Ministry and The Local Church

If you told me five years ago that recovery ministry would make as much progress in the Christian community as it has made during the last five years, I would have said you were crazy. There is still a long, long way to go of course… but significant progress has been make. It occurred to me recently that I have seen six distinct ways in which local churches invest in recovery ministry and I think it has some value to distinguish between these different approaches.

AA In The Basement Strategy

Historically the most common way for local churches to be involved in recovery ministry is for the church to allow AA or NA or some other organization to meet in church facilities. It is difficult to imagine where AA would be today if it were not for this kind of participation by local churches over the years. Literally hundreds of thousands of people have begun their sobriety in AA meetings in church basements. This is a wonderful kind of ministry for a local church. Even though most of us are very supportive of AA and other ‘secular’ programs, however, something makes us anxious about congregations whose commitment to recovery is limited to this strategy. Why is it that the power for personal transformation is facilitated by an organization external to the local church while the local church contributes only space? Why is recovery ministry at the margins of congregational life rather than at the center? Don’t misread me here – I am not suggesting that the church become more entangled with AA. What I am suggesting is that if recovery ministry remains at the margins of congregational life, we will miss enormous opportunities.

Bridge Strategies

One way local congregations have attempted to integrate recovery more fully into the life of the congregation is to develop what I call ‘bridge’ strategies. Most Christians in recovery want a way to ‘bridge’ the ‘recovery’ world with the ‘Christian’ world. Typically local congregations have responded to this need by developing distinctively Christian support groups. These groups are not usually intended to replace secular resources but rather to ‘bridge’ to them. Literally thousands of congregations have established such ‘bridge’ groups in the last five years. These ‘safe places’ are a wonderful resource. In most cases, however, they are still marginalized within the congregation. People within the ‘bridge’ group find help, but the life of the congregation as a whole is only rarely impacted by the ministry.

Recovery Department Strategies

A third approach to recovery ministry is for a local congregation to develop a recovery ministry in parallel with it’s other ministry ‘departments’ such as the music ministry ‘department’ or children’s ministry ‘department.’ In this model, recovery ministry becomes one of the mainstream elements of congregational life. Recovery would not be the central feature of the congregation but it would be fully integrated into the life of the congregation. Congregations which take this approach often develop a wide range of services in addition to ‘bridge’ support groups. These might include educational programs, long-term 12 Step study groups, retreats and other ministries. Connections with counseling ministries might be part of this strategy as well as employment of pastoral staff members to supervise and coordinate the ministry. The strength of this approach is usually the range of resources that are developed and the impact of the ministry on the congregation as a whole.

Treatment-related Strategies

A fourth, and less common, approach to recovery ministry is for a local congregation to operate or identify with a long-term residential treatment program. Victory Outreach is an example of a network of churches most of which are connected with a half-way house or other facility for long term care. A lot of good work remains to be done to adapt this kind of strategy to congregations in a variety of social and cultural settings but it can be a particular effective way for a local church to invest in recovery.

The Church in Recovery

There are not yet many examples of congregations who have taken an approach I call ‘the church in recovery’. In this model, ‘recovery’ becomes the central paradigm of the congregation. Participation in recovery becomes as much a part of ‘doing church’ as participation in worship services – in some cases (following Wesley!) participation in recovery groups may be a prerequisite for participation in large group meetings. It is still too early, or so it seems to me, to know how effective this approach to recovery ministry will be. I suspect we may need to make more mistakes in this direction before we know how to do it well!

The Recovery-Friendly Church

It is important to emphasize that congregations need not have ‘recovery programs’ to be actively supportive of recovery. A congregation that ‘does grace’ instead of shame in all of its affairs will be profoundly helpful to people in recovery even though it lacks support groups or other elements of recovery programming. I once encouraged a pastor who did not think it was possible to develop a recovery ministry in his congregation to change the way he did the ‘welcome’ at the beginning of each worship service. This was the smallest part of the worship service and the part he thought would be easiest to change. His assignment was to welcome the people who actually came to church. One Sunday, for example, he said “I know that many people who come to this church experienced very abusive childhoods and that sometimes an experience like that makes it difficult to come to church later on in life. If that fits your situation, I want to particularly thank you for coming today. I appreciate your trust and value your participation.” That’s all he did. The effect was profound. Without inventing new programs he was soon well on his way to reshaping the congregation into a place both safe and helpful to people in recovery. Learning to tell the truth was the key. It is the heart of all recovery. And it will be at the heart of any local church that wishes to be involved in recovery ministry.