The Clergy
Written by Alison Webb

For many people, the recovery journey includes a deepening conviction and dedication to what is holy, and for some this path includes Christian worship. I spoke recently with three pastors and two church members about the role of clergy and the faith community in supporting the recovery community:

“Every human being is a child of God who has sacred worth,” says the Rev. Allen Ewing-Merrill of HopeGateWay, a United Methodist Church in Portland that’s active in social justice issues, including changing the way we think and talk about substance use. “There is no ‘but’ attached to that.”

This is at the root of Christian faith and practice, and this is what grounds us.

The church has to acknowledge its role in stigmatizing substance use and change, Ewing-Merrill says.

“Churches need to go beyond hosting 12-step meetings and invest their best resources in supporting recovery,” he says. Churches can create spaces where it’s safe to use the language of recovery. In his church, people share recovery milestones in worship, and church members celebrate with them.

The Rev. Carolyn Lambert, pastor at Woodfords Congregational Church in Portland, agrees. She’s been active in restorative justice projects in Kennebunk, and serves as chaplain for the Kennebunk Police Department.

“First, we have to shift how we talk about Substance Use Disorder in the church,” she says. “It’s not a sin; it’s a disease.”

To educate her congregation, Lambert invited Kennebunk Police Chief Bob MacKenzie and Katie Rodriguez, a woman in long-term recovery, to speak during worship a few years ago. “You could have heard a pin drop,” she recalls.

Jennifer Gregg and Bonny Rodden are members of the Social Justice Committee at The Episcopal Church of St. Mary in Falmouth who helped educate their congregation and community about recovery. The idea of doing so sprang from a discussion with Bob Fowler, who spoke with the committee about stigma. Fowler runs Milestone Recovery, which offers emergency shelter, detox and other services to people with Substance Use Disorder in Portland.

“St. Mary’s is good at community education,” Rodden says. “We decided this was our role.”

The church hosted a series of community meetings on the root causes of addiction, the science of addiction, and the role of employment in recovery.

The meetings were helpful for the community at large and members of the congregation who have family members with Substance Use Disorder.

“It helped them feel safe, gave them information and education,” Gregg explains.

Asked about ministering to people affected by substance use on a one-on-one basis, Lambert says that’s what she does every day. Family members often come to her, and she sees her role as listening, showing compassion and teaching about Substance Use Disorder and community resources that can help family members cope.

She also shares her own story as the child of a mother with Alcohol Use Disorder. “When you open up, that helps.”

When Ewing-Merrill sees family members who are struggling, he focuses on teaching about the many pathways of recovery.

“We educate family members about their role in loving people through difficulties,” he says. “If it works, let’s not disparage it. We should never discredit anyone’s recovery path.” He also tries to link family members to resources, including to people in recovery who can share their stories of hope.

The Rev. Jane Field, executive director of the Maine Council of Churches, speaks eloquently about clergy as allies:

“Churches are on their own learning curve about recovery,” she says. “There’s so much we don’t know, and we need to be open to learning about how to be in community with people in recovery in a way that is authentic. … We need to explore ways to build bridges with the recovery community.”

Field envisions clergy that have broad and deep relationships with people in recovery, and churches where people in recovery feel welcome and where the focus is not on judgment, but on “a spiritual sense of shalom, of wholeness and health.”

To get to that place, she says clergy have work to do. Being an ally, she explains, isn’t something we call ourselves. It’s something we do, and “it’s up to people in recovery to call us allies.”

Lambert also is tied to the notion of changing the way clergy think about recovery, and being an ally in action. She leans forward in her seat and is passionate when she says, “We can’t change everything, but we can change the narrative.”

Alison Webb

Alison Webb

Alison Webb, MPH, PS-C, a columnist for Journey, is a public health professional with over 20 years’ experience in community outreach and organizing, substance use and overdose prevention, community based substance use recovery supports, and linking community members with healthcare services. Alison is a strong recovery ally in her own community, where she has been a member of the Portland Overdose Task Force, Young People in Recovery, and as a past member of the Board of the Portland Recovery Community Center. She is active in legislative advocacy to increase recovery support services.