Alcoholics In The Church

The initiative of some church members led to amazing results.

As a pastor, I know the feelings of frustration and helplessness that surround the counselor who attempts to assist the chemical-dependent person toward sobriety. Counseling the alcoholic is a time-consuming and often discouraging project.

I groped about for a solution to my dilemma as a busy pastor with an increasing number of alcoholics and their families to counsel. I attended seminars and read books and articles. Whenever a member of our staff came across an article on chemical dependency, a copy would land on my desk. I rapidly became the church's resident expert on the subject, even though I knew in my heart I barely had scratched the surface. Still, my awareness level rose dramatically. One point of view that kept surfacing through all my research was that "it takes one to know one." Generally speaking, an alcoholic is better equipped to minister to another alcoholic than someone who has never been there himself.

From Good Idea to Solid Beginning

Then, a delegation of five individuals approached me with an unusual request. They had at least three things in common: they were Bible-believing Christians; they were active in our church; and they were alcoholics. They asked for a church-related support group for alcoholic people in our congregation. We scheduled a meeting for the following week to discuss the feasibility of such a program in detail, and to come up with provisional goals and guidelines.

Twelve people showed up: alcoholics, recovered alcoholics, and members of their families, all with the ultimate purpose of sobriety and victory in Christ. It was an exciting evening. One after another, those people confessed their ongoing struggles with alcohol and drug abuse. Almost all of them had experience with Alcoholics Anonymous or Al-Anon, and spoke well of those organizations; but they admitted that without Christ they could not have coped at all. I'll never forget the testimony of one man who said, "I've attended many A A meetings over the years. They gave me the will to keep trying to stop drinking, but it was Jesus who made me dry!" Sitting next to that man was the non-Christian husband of an alcoholic woman who had recently started attending our church since her conversion. Though she could never get him to come to church, he wanted to be a part of any group that was interested in helping his wife deal with her problem. That evening "Lion Tamers Anonymous" was born with these verses as a reminder.

My soul is among lions. Psalm 57:4

Be of sober spirit, be on the alert, your adversary, the devil, prowls about like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. 1 Peter 5:8

We decided to meet weekly in different homes, and ask for volunteers to be prepared with a devotional or personal testimony. My wife and I were impressed with everyone's eagerness to pitch in and make this new thing work. In fact, we couldn't remember ever being part of a more enthusiastic group. They wouldn't be held back!

Though I promised to meet with the group regularly until goals and guidelines were established and leadership had surfaced from within, I made it clear that my schedule would not permit me to provide more than general oversight in the ensuing months. Little did I realize at that time how difficult it would be to break away from this loving collection of special people. We've found most alcoholics to be not only fun loving, but also sensitive, generous, outgoing, and responsive. When sober, alcoholics are easy to love.

The Lion Tamers Find Their Focus

There were a few early attempts by some to make Lion Tamers into a kind of Christian Alcoholics Anonymous by quoting memorized prayers together and revising the Twelve Steps of A A to reflect our evangelical posture. But the consensus now is that Lion Tamers is not a substitute for, but a supplement to, such groups as A A and Al-Anon. Nor does Lion Tamers take the place of medical rehabilitation programs. It merely adds a supportive, Christian dimension to whatever other good things are available to the struggling chemical-dependent.

Characterized by warmth, acceptance, accountability, loving confrontation, and a common purpose, the new ministry was destined to flourish. Once we settled on our goals and a workable format, we placed brief announcements in the church newsletter and Sunday bulletin: "Do you have a problem with drinking, or are you close to someone who does? Find support in Lion Tamers Anonymous, Wednesday evenings, 7:15 at Mr. C's home." The number increased. When average attendance reached twenty-five, we moved our weekly meetings to a secluded classroom at the church. Having a permanent place to meet encouraged attendance, especially among non-members of the church who are not inclined to seek out the homes of strangers.

Anything Can Happen During a Meeting

A typical meeting begins at 7:15 p.m. with a time of getting acquainted. We've found a little serendipity helps, where each person in the circle completes a sentence such as "My idea of a great vacation is …" or "The worst thing that happened to me all week was…" This is usually followed by an opening prayer and then a brief devotional or personal testimony that leads into a period of open, controlled sharing, ending with conversational prayer while standing and joining hands. We break for refreshments and fellowship by 8:30. Free literature about alcoholism and drug abuse is displayed along with devotional booklets.

One Wednesday a woman in the church with a long history of alcoholism telephoned me. She'd come to me for counseling three years before, so I was not unfamiliar with her condition. She was distraught. She was drinking heavily and her husband had moved out again-this time, for good. She needed to see me, but my afternoon was booked solid. A fog of frustration and despair moved in on me. Then I remembered that Lion Tamers was meeting that evening and I was planning to be there. I invited her to the meeting and she promised to attend.

That evening the meeting started on time, but my friend was not there as she had promised. I've learned that broken promises often characterize alcoholics; they have good intentions, but lack the self-discipline to carry them out. A half hour later, the woman showed up. She was warmly received by the group and was encouraged to talk freely about her situation. Characteristic of the alcoholic, she blamed her drinking problem on her husband; it was his fault because he wouldn't relate to her and was not understanding of her.

After patiently hearing her out, members of the group proceeded to confront her in a loving yet direct way. A woman who had nearly died of alcoholism said, "Honey, it's obvious you have some domestic problems. But your number one problem is your drinking!" Her husband added, "Have you ever tried to relate to a drunk? Have you thought about how your husband must feel coming home to you every evening?"

I just sat there watching this thing happen: Christians counseling and confronting each other with truth. I'd never been that direct or effective in an initial encounter with an alcoholic. Others were saying things to this woman that I, as a teetotaling pastor, could never get away with. Though the woman never had seen any of these people before, she could somehow sense that they loved her and fully understood where she was coming from. There was instant acceptance and camaraderie. She was completely open and receptive to everything they were saying.

Someone suggested we pray for the group's new friend. Have you ever sat in a circle where several people you've never met before were praying aloud for you and your specific needs? Well, it's therapeutic. The woman was overwhelmed and greatly encouraged. But that wasn't the end of it. When we broke for refreshments, a couple moved in alongside her and invited her for breakfast the next morning. At breakfast, she was presented with a description of the successful treatment offered by a nearby hospital. The man, an alcoholic himself, had achieved sobriety through the treatment. And she could too. Finding her receptive to the plan, the couple contacted the woman's husband, and three days later she was admitted into the hospital Not only was the treatment a success for her, but her husband returned home. Both of them have been regular participants in Lion Tamers ever since. They're a delightful couple whose home is beginning to reflect Christ.

Someone suggested we use the pattern of A A and Al-Anon and divide into two separate groups: one for alcoholics, and the other for members of their families. When the idea was discussed at the next meeting, it was unanimously and vigorously opposed. The feeling was that they all wanted to be together for mutual encouragement as they became more aware of their struggles. Some of the couples indicated that Lion Tamers contributed more to the success of their marriages than anything else the church had to offer

One day a young wife called to inquire about Lion Tamers. She explained that her husband was an alcoholic but wouldn't admit it, and it was putting a severe strain on the marriage. She was pleased to learn of our support group, but was reasonably convinced that her husband would not attend. She wondered if it would be okay and helpful if she went, whether her husband did or not. I assured her it would, but encouraged her to suggest to her husband that they attend together. There was to be a meeting that very evening.

The woman called back later, crying. She'd talked to her husband about Lion Tamers and he was furious. What should she do now? I advised her to simply ask her husband for permission to go without him. If he refused, that would be that. She should stay home.

That evening both of them showed up at the meeting. And they loved it! The husband, though relatively quiet through the meeting, opened up during the refreshment time. He admitted openly he hadn't wanted to come, but figured he owed his wife a favor. Now he was glad he'd come. That couple has seldom missed a meeting since and have become part of our leadership core.

Such a successful ministry is not without inherent weaknesses and unresolved concerns. Since many who come have not yet achieved total abstinence, it's not uncommon for some to have a nip or two on the way to the meeting. This makes for greater difficulty in adhering to our format. It also weakens the credibility of a group leader if it's discovered that he or she has not gained victory over the bottle. Occasionally, in addition to general exhortations by me and others in our meetings, we've had to privately confront those who continue to set a bad example for the rest of the group. Their response is usually positive.

It's impossible to predict how a meeting will go. Depending on who is there, what the needs are, who is leading, and exactly what dynamic will prevail on any given evening, there could be riotous laughter or bitter weeping. No two meetings are alike.

Meeting Individual Needs

The Wednesday meetings serve as a springboard to meet individual needs. Members agree to pray for each other and hold themselves accountable to their prayer partners. It helps for an alcoholic to know someone will be checking up on him as well as praying for him. A timely phone call or word of encouragement through the mail works wonders in reinforcing a determination to endure the drying-out process for at least another day.

It's comforting for me as a pastor to know that if I should receive a distress phone call from an alcoholic or drug addict, I can refer the matter to a Lion Tamer. Most of them have indicated they are available to help out in such emergency situations. After all, they've been there themselves; they know what it's like to need a caring friend to assist them through a crisis. Chemical dependents comprise their own special fraternity. The best thing about dispatching a Lion Tamer to the rescue is that the troubled one will be introduced to the Savior. Obviously, a program such as Lion Tamers can become a real boon to a busy pastor in a large church.

One of our concerns has been the dozen or so teenagers who have visited Lion Tamers only once, never to be seen again. We had hoped that age differences would not be a liability. But a nineteen-year-old girl stayed for only five minutes and then left. Her mother told us later that walking into a strange group of people who were much older was unnerving for her. We hadn't been realistic. After that, Lion Tamers Anonymous spawned a new support group for chemical-dependent individuals in their teens and twenties. Our college pastor provides oversight, but the leadership core is from within. Early predictions are that this new group will also be successful. But it has its own set of challenges relating to the delinquency resulting from alcoholism and drug abuse among youths.

Thankfully, there has been no detectable spirit of self-righteous disdain expressed toward Lion Tamers by the rest of the church. Instead, I have felt the support and encouragement of everyone, from the senior pastor to the newest member. Three years before starting Lion Tamers, we began a ministry to single parents in our congregation. No one was declaring by such a move that we were in favor of divorce. Nor is anyone now attempting to flaunt and defend alcoholism. But the people who fall prey to alcoholism and drugs have genuine and unique needs that can be best met through a specialized ministry.

Our church, like every other church, has people with needs. Because needs vary from church to church, each congregation must become aware of special needs and develop biblical plans to meet them. Lion Tamers is meeting one of ours.

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