The Church is not a Sanctuary for an Alcoholic

Many of you may have read this post on Facebook, but I am writing it here as well with some additional thoughts.

As an alcoholic in recovery, you could say that I am biased in terms of how I see alcohol used and talked about in the church, in clergy groups, and in church social settings. Now, one could argue (and I’ve had a number of pastors–but one in particular, make this argument to me), that we have come so far in being accommodating to those who suffer from addictions (and He said it in such a way that he ignored the fact that I was one of “those” who suffer from from addictions). And there is some truth to it. There are many congregations who serve grape juice at every service. For those who have made efforts in their ritual services, I thank you. But there are many congregations and pastors that still find serving grape juice instead of wine (or even as an alternative) to be an “abomination.” “It must be wine! Jesus used wine! And once it’s consecrated, it’s not wine, it’s his blood!”

Yeah… it’s still alcohol. And if I drank it, it would not be a good day for me. So, if there is any reason to doubt that the church is using wine or I can’t quickly identify the grape juice, I do not take from the cup. I cannot take that risk.

Even if an alcoholic in recovery is completely transparent about their recovery, no setting can be described as safe. And I know this because I feel that my recovery has been threatened in the church.

I will generally inform groups pretty quickly of my recovery. Even after only a few times of meeting (sometimes in the first few minutes of meeting certain people). For example I led off with it in my Candidacy documents and Call Documents so that whatever church I was going to would know that I am in recovery and that I would need to take care of my recovery.  In Call interviews at the church I now serve at, I told my entire story of recovery and why I believe it is an incredible gift to my ministry but something that I will always need to watch. I mention it to my clergy colleagues very frequently and I preach about it every so often, wanting my congregation to know my story and to know my situation.

My attempt for transparency is to hold myself accountable but it is also a safety measure. My hope is that in saying it enough, maybe parishioners or colleagues will be able to hear and remember that I shouldn’t be offered a drink. [Even though I know how to say “No,” every time there is an ask, I have to have courage and determination. That is how alcoholism works. It creeps up on you the minute you stop working on it.]

However, being in an institution that literally glorifies wine (Jesus is the best wine), we do not have a vernacular that helps us with conversations of alcohol, it’s abuse, or the recovery process. We tend to neglect and not pay attention to how a person in recovery will have to navigate our settings.

In seminary, I told my fiancé Sarah about all the complexities of communion. Because some bulletins don’t write their practices, and because some pastors don’t announce the options (is it wine or grape juice, is it two chalices or are there awkward shot glasses for the alcoholics to shoot their grape juice), I enter into panic mode when it’s time for communion. I needed to watch like a hawk as professors poured the wine into one chalice and the grape juice in another and not take my eye off the grape juice.

It sounds extreme but it was necessary for my safety because there was no precedent for caring first for those who might be in recovery. Instead, we care for the “normal” people first. “Alcoholics”, “gluten free people”, “people with mobility issues”, and all the other problems can be taken care of by outing yourself or waiting till the end.

I cannot tell how much it means to me that Sarah looks out for those things with me. Every new service that I attend is a moment of panic. I have to scan the bulletin to find what they use. I have to watch what color liquid their pouring into the chalices. I can never go first, because I need to be able to ask someone who went ahead of me, “Is there grape juice up there?” Hoping that one of these members knows if that’s even an option. Having Sarah there is one of my greatest comforts. She watches for all these things now too and helps me to find out. She goes in front of me to ensure that she can taste first to warn me. There has been far more than one occasion when she has turned to me and said, “I don’t think there’s any grape juice.” And I nod and only take the bread. Even in moments when I know I can’t take the cup, I am grateful that she spares me from the moment of hesitation.

Unfortunately, our cultural fixation on alcohol in the church does not stop with ritual practices but in almost all of our celebrations and functions.

At social settings like weddings and church celebrations, catering companies will be given specific instructions on how to stock the bar with every alcohol imaginable (we need this many options of red and white wine, a selection of beer and a vast array of hard liquors) but the options for non-drinkers may be “punch, tea, and coffee.” And I’m sure the punch is okay, but from years of drinking… you never know what’s in the punch.

Transparency is wonderful for my ministry because I can connect with my parishioners and those who need support from me as a pastor in recovery. It influences my preaching and makes me more deliberate in all my actions. But transparency has not helped me in the institutional structures.

As the Church, whether we are Lutheran, Episcopalian, or Catholic, we have a fixation on alcohol. And it is not going away.

Why is it that we need it at all of our functions? Why is it that we try so hard not to be accommodating and try to hide the grape juice and make it so difficult to find? Why are so inclined to do theology on tap and beer hymn sings? What alternatives have you thought of instead?

I urge us to look at our use of alcohol in our settings. To this point, I too have ended up in AA rooms seeking to be consoled from my siblings in recovery because “sanctuary” can be a stretch for an alcoholic in church.

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