Lutherans in the Twin Cities

Twin Cities Lutheran congregations are facing addiction challenges head-on

Ministry group “Faith Partners” is a catalys for proactivity

The time has come to get programs dealing with drug and alcohol addiction out of church basements and up into the sanctuaries as major ministries of congregations. That’s the conviction of proponents of an interfaith group with substantial Lutheran participation.

Leaders of the organization Faith Partners believe these addictions are a disease that is both preventable and treatable. And, recovery from addiction, which has a spiritual dimension, ought to be celebrated as much as that from other major health disorders.

Addiction to alcohol and other drugs is not a sign of moral weakness, not a condition that should be stigmatized, they assert.

Founded in 1996 with pilot programs in Austin, Texas, and Minneapolis, the group now has between 150 and 175 addiction ministry teams trained in congregations nationwide. Forty of those are in Minnesota, mostly in the metro area, including 15-20 in Lutheran congregations.

Among participating Lutheran parishes are Grace of Apple Valley, Transfigura-tion of Bloomington and Gloria Dei of St. Paul, all ELCA members.

A major sponsor of Faith Partners in the beginning was the Johnson Institute, founded in Minneapolis in the 1960s by a recovering Episcopal priest. He, along with his supporters, was interested in earlier intervention to prevent addiction.

Now headquartered in Washington, D.C., Johnson Institute merged with Faith Partners and Rush Recovery Institute of San Francisco in 2004. It is since then that Faith Partners has been growing rapidly. It now has offices at The Rush Center of the Johnson Institute in Austin.

Drew Brooks, project coordinator for Faith Part-ners, was in Minneapolis recently to conduct a ministry-team training session at Bethlehem Lutheran (ELCA) in south Minneapolis. Brooks cited a number of reasons congregations ought to be aggressively involved in addiction issues.

Churches have the basic task of reaching out to all people who have in some way “fallen short,” he said, and addiction to chemicals is one more way in which human beings have “become broken.”

In addition, he noted, studies show that one out of every five persons in a congregation has a family member who is affected by addiction to alcohol or drugs.

Every person must make a decision about the use of alcohol and other drugs at some time, and a sweeping program of education on the dangers of misuse is the first step of four that Faith Partners urges congregations to take.

The other steps, following prevention, are early intervention when a problem with drug abuse becomes evident, referral to community treatment facilities when that is necessary, and strong support of members who are in the recovery stage.

The key to a successful congregation program for prevention and recovery in the area of chemical abuse, Faith Partners believes, is the formation of a ministry team that is passionate about the issue and will keep it up front in the life of the parish.

Such teams usually have about seven members. They’re anchored by persons who have had a long period of success in recovery themselves, along with professional people in the congregation with expertise in the addiction field. Often teams are rounded out by older persons with a deep concern for the youth of the church.

Both Brooks and the Rev. Robert Bagley stress the importance of reaching youngsters early with prevention programs. Bagley is a retired ELCA pastor and a leading advocate for Faith Partners in the Twin Cities area. He works part-time at Regions Hospital with youths in outpatient alcohol and drug-abuse treatment,

Conversations that point out the dangers of chemical abuse and set standards are critical in both families and congregations, Bagley and Brooks agree.

Bagley said that cigarette smoking by adolescents is often the first step along the road to chemical abuse.
“It’s been proven that nicotine is a gateway drug,” he declared. “Young people develop a social life around cigarettes, then go to marijuana or alcohol in their social life. The kids I see in alcohol and drug treatment started about 11 with cigarettes, then marijuana at 12 and they’re out of control by 16.”

Bagley added that there is a much lower rate of addiction if kids grow up in, and are active in, the church. Most youngsters he sees in the treatment program at Regions Hospital come from broken homes, are raised by a single mother and have no involvement with the church, he said. “They’re just ‘floating.’”

Brooks described what he called the “three hows of prevention and recovery” in chemical abuse. These are:
n looking closely at family relationships;
n providing meaningful involvement in life; and
n setting high expectations.

Where better can one find these but in congregations, he asked. “That’s what we’re doing as faith communities, but we need to do it intentionally,” he said.

For post-confirmation youths, the congregation is a place where they can find older people who take an interest in them and provide activities for meaningful involvement instead of letting them “fall off the face of the planet,” Brooks said.

He added that there are times of transition through all of life when people are most vulnerable and will have to make decisions about using drugs. Besides the move from middle school to high school and from high school to college, he cited marriage, loss of a job, getting cancer, and retirement as examples.

A key asset of faith communities is that they are one place that is intergenerational and can prepare members for these points of vulnerability throughout life and assist them if necessary, Brooks said.

“Having support, knowledge, information, skills and alternatives at these times of transition — the points of vulnerability that people don’t foresee — that’s what prevention is to me,” he declared.

When Faith Partners ministry teams refer congregation members to treatment programs in the community, Brooks said, they regard the 12-step programs of Alco-holics Anonymous as one valuable resource but not the only one. Not all congregations embrace the 12-step programs initially, he pointed out.

However, he said, “I don’t know of many recovery programs that are long-lasting that aren’t based on the 12-step program.”

Congregations interested in starting a Faith Partners program generally follow three steps:

* Order a “Call to Action” kit of materials from Brooks at the Johnson Insti-tute office in Austin. Call toll-free 1-888-451-9527 or send an e-mail to drew brooks@johnsoninstitute. org.

* Have congregation leaders attend a half-day informational session.

* Have members of the ministry team, once it is formed, attend a two-day training session.

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Further information about the Faith Partners program locally is available by calling Pastor Robert Bagley at 651/ 773-0192.