When Your Pastor Has an Addiction

Maxine Phillips Interviews Don Jones

MP: You’ve written a memoir of your time as an alcoholic while you were serving as a pastor. There’s been a lot written lately about the pressures on clergy  as well as the costs of alcoholism. Many clergy have had to leave their positions and in some of the worst cases have been involved in vehicular homicides. What are some of the pressures on clergy that are different from those on, say, therapists or others in what are called the helping professions?

DJ: Your question brings up clergy being forced to leave their positions. There is also the question of clergy suicide, which has happened in at least one case after a person was forced out. Clergy suicides continue to plague our profession. Depression is high among Protestant clergy. A clergy person is in the public eye more often than people serving in other helping professions. Many clergy feel they are competing with nostalgia expressed by their congregants who reflect on when their community was different, when they were younger, and social pressures were more manageable. 

Christian clergy people are believed to have a vocation or to respond to a spiritual calling. It can lead to narcissistic tendencies as well as inferiority complexes. It is a bad mix when this despair takes over.

MP: You are critical of the philosophy that somebody has to hit bottom before they can be helped. What would have helped you and what do you think faith communities should do?

DJ: The myth that one must first hit “rock bottom” before they can get better is based on people self-reporting that they turned around when they were at the lowest point in their lives. The point is that they decided they had suffered enough. The rock bottom myth allows a person to claim they have yet to do so. 

I had reached out in the past to get help from a few counselors. But I always drew back. I am not sure what could have been done differently. Faith communities can live up to their promise of mutual support and compassion. Recently, I had to close a church. When we recognized our situation, a member of the congregation came to me privately to say, “All this stuff we are going through is not worth your sobriety. We love you.”

MP: How helpful do you think something like Al-Anon, which is for relatives and partners of alcoholics, would be, say, for lay people who want to help their faith leader?

DJ: Al-Anon and Nar-Anon are not set up for people to help the addicted person. They are clear to their members that they cannot keep us sober. It is not their job to do so. These are different 12-step programs for people who put up with us. Al-Anon and Nar-Anon help the loved ones understand what is going on and to manage their codependency. 

MP: Recently, some faith communities that allow alcohol consumption have used bars or other venues as a way to attract young people. Have you had experience with this and what do you think of it? 

DJ: United Methodists do not encourage this practice. Churches started trying to attract young people when I became too old to be considered a young adult. My father once said that his Amvets Post should allow AA to meet there. That is a bad idea because the bar would make cravings worse for some people who are newly sober. Churches are often places where addiction recovery groups meet. Is the church building a safe place then?

MP: Many socialists also gather in bars after meetings. How can DSAers be more aware of how that excludes people, or does it? I attended the 2019 convention where the first ever “sober socialists” workshop was provided. I had spoken to an NPC member the year before about needing such a space only to learn the problem was already being addressed.

Socializing in a bar is not a barrier. I drank a lot of soda water during a gathering we had in Knoxville. Various comrades who knew I was working to get sober asked me if I was okay. No one asked why I did not have a beer or a glass of wine. DSA members are better about making space for people’s needs. However, I do not make a regular habit of being in bars.

MP: You are critical of people who graduate from detox programs to become counselors but have no credentials other than having once been addicted. The 12-step programs have a system of sponsors who presumably don’t have training either. What’s the difference and how can detox programs improve?

You are not required to have a sponsor. Most people have one. I do. There is no formal “system of sponsors.” It is about voluntary mutual accountability. The sponsor is a person who has more experience being sober. 

Counselors in a treatment facility are placed in positions of authority over patients. The 28-day residency model for treatment gives too much power to counselors. A patient is thought to be there voluntarily. Yet, if they have been sent by an employer or the court, the counselor knows that person cannot simply walk away. Once a person has been medically detoxed an out-patient program can be an option. It should not be required. 

MP: You present a bleak picture of the faith communities you’ve been involved in, and yet you are still serving one. What keeps you in church?

DJ: There is this wonderfully tragic film I mention in the book. The title is Calvary. It is about an Irish priest who is told by one of his members in the confessional that he will murder him in seven days. Why does the priest stay? We learn that the community he serves needs his ministry, including the person planning to kill him.

What keeps me in church is that despite everything done to me and by me, we are willing to help each other grow and be better. I still serve because love is ultimately healing. You may as well ask why stick with DSA? We have our own factions and dysfunction. What we are doing and building toward is more important than our internal struggles. Still, working out the internal struggles is part of building a better world and life for everyone. 

Don Jones is a member of Knoxville Area DSA and a United Methodist pastor. He writes the Progressive Christian blog Glorious Life for Patheos.

Image credit: AddictionHope.com