What about pastors in recovery?

Anyone living in our culture today is vulnerable to addiction — including pastors. And anyone struggling with addiction needs recovery — including pastors. But recovery is hard for pastors; harder than it needs to be.

Recovery is hard for pastors for many reasons. Because of their position as spiritual leaders, pastors have a hard time admitting to problems in their lives, and reaching out for help. This is partly the result of pride, but it’s also the result of the system we have created in the church today. Pastors aren’t stupid: they realize that being too open about their problems — or open to the wrong people — could get them fired.

So they don’t get the help they need. And more often than not, when they do seek help, they do so in secret, and their fear and shame about discovery often hamper their recovery efforts.

Leadership Journal recently published a great article by Amy Simpson on Pastors in Recovery. She did a lot of research for this article, including reaching out to me, and I’m grateful to be included in the article. There is a lot of good stuff in this article!

Continue reading What about pastors in recovery?

Wayne Teasdale on How Spirituality Makes us Counter-Cultural

One of my favorite books of late has been “The Mystic Heart,” written by the late Wayne Teasdale. Just to be clear, I don’t buy all of his assumptions and arguments in the book, but there is a lot of really helpful teaching in it about what mysticism is and how it shapes our lives. I wanted to share a couple quotes from the book about how the pursuit of the spiritual life goes against the grain of our culture.

We live in a culture that is blind to the spiritual life. It is spiritually illiterate, morally confused, psychologically dysfunctional, and heavily addicted to violence, entertainment, and consumerism. It is “religious” to a point — that is, as long as it doesn’t cost much. Most Americans, we are told, believe in God, but too few realize that life is a spiritual process, a journey in which certain skills in self-mastery have to be learned. We cannot depend on our culture either to guide or support us in our quest. We must do the hard work of clarification ourselves.

Our life here is under a cloud of illusion and delusion; we are pulled now in this direction, now in that. It is important for us to be self-directed: We must decide where our life is going, what direction it will take and why. That kind of decisiveness requires courage and perspective; it means that we must cut ourselves free from our cultural conditioning.

In another place, Teasdale talks about the journey of life — the purpose of life in terms of an inner development that ultimately creates the foundation upon which our outward service and contribution to the rest of the world is built on. Here’s what he says:

Life is a journey from hypocrisy to sincerity, from self-centeredness to other-centerdness and love, from self-deception, ignorance, and illusion to self-honesty, clarity, and truth. We are all immersed in these struggles, whether we realize and accept them or not. Even if we reject them, have made a choice.

It is really only through an intense life of spiritual practice that we become aware of our human condition. As long as people are content not to look, not to embrace their ultimate vocation to [become like Christ], they will chase after every distraction that comes along as a substitute for a life of depth. In the United States, for example, entertainment has become our collective practice. We live from TV show to TV show, from The Today Show to The Tonight Show. The personal cost is great: deeper ignorance, confusion, and despair, and less authenticity.

The Bible is a menu, not the food itself

I want to know God as a follower of Jesus. The Bible helps me do that. The Bible points me to the Source of spiritual life, but it is not the source. The Bible points me to the One who I worship, but it is not what I worship. I’ve recently come across two quotes that have helped me out by articulating this in helpful ways. Enjoy …

In his book Integral Christianity, Paul Smith writes this:

Christians have sat down at the Restaurant of Life and the waiter has come to give us our particular designated menu, the Bible. Christians have studied their menu in every detail until they have understood what was offered. And, for hundreds of years, they have not ordered from the menu. Instead, they had tried to eat the menu!

No wonder they have been grumpy, under nourished, and doctrinaire. Eating the menu instead of ordering from it is the traditional church’s idea of having a spiritual experience (except for a conversion experience among evangelicals and worship among charismatics). When we learn how to order from the menu we can get a nourishing, great-tasting, wonderful meal. A cognitive framework is of great help and encouragement, but it alone is not enough. The map is not the territory. The menu is not the meal.

On a related note, Barbara Brown Taylor has this to say about the Bible:

I know that the Bible is a special kind of book, but I find it as seductive as any other. If I am not careful, I can begin to mistake the words on the page for the realities they describe. I can begin to love the dried ink marks on the page more than I love the encounters that gave rise to them. If I am not careful, I can decide that I am really much happier reading my Bible than I am entering into what God is doing in my own time and place, since shutting the book to go outside will involve the very great risk of taking part in stories that are still taking shape. Neither I nor anyone else knows how these stories will turn out, since at this point they involve more blood than ink.

The whole purpose of the Bible, it seems to me, is to convince people to set the written word down in order to become living words in the world for God’s sake. For me, this willing conversion of ink back to blood is the full substance of faith.

How to help someone who’s struggling with sexual compulsion, but is not a sex addict

Over the years in my work with sexual strugglers, it became clear that there is a spectrum of struggle … some people simply fight a battle with sexual temptation (and periodically lose), while others would fall into the category of sexual addicts. The line between the two is not always clear — it’s more like a spectrum, not a simple either/or — and many people struggle to honestly face the extent of their problem.

I have come to call this group of people — who fall repeatedly into sexual temptation, but don’t fit the diagnostic criteria for addiction — “sexual strugglers.” Often people in this category don’t have the patterns of emotional and sexual trauma from early life, and they don’t give evidence of other problematic addictive behaviors. But for some reason, they still struggle with behaviors around sex — often related to Internet pornography.

I believe that sexual strugglers need to focus on four things. I wrote an article about his on my sexualsanity.com website. I’ll include a link to the article, but just FYI here is the list of four things that people need to focus on:

  1. Vigilance – Recognizing that this is an ongoing issue that won’t go away, and continuing to pay attention to dangers
  2. Boundaries – Establishing limits and “bottom lines,” and identifying the places and situations where you get into trouble. Then finding ways to minimize or avoid them.
  3. Support – Creating a network of friends who (a) know the whole truth about your struggle, (b) are willing to help you in it, and (c) you enjoy being with.
  4. Emotional Awareness – Being attentive to your emotional states, and finding healthy ways of caring for yourself (so you don’t find yourself sad, resentful, and/or anxious and looking for unhealthy ways of coping … ie. acting out).

Click here for the full article

Overcoming Overwhelm in Ministry

I’ve noticed a theme in the lives of leaders I work with — most of whom are involved in church work: they are overwhelmed.

They are overwhelmed by the demands of church ministry, they are overwhelmed with the needs they encounter, and they are overwhelmed by the amount of information available to them. There is a virtual flood of ideas washing over them every week for how to do their work better, new conferences to go to, new programs to implement, and on and on. They struggle to manage their time, because there is a never-ending que of messages to respond to, emails to process, messages to prepare for, and problems to deal with.

To be clear: the issue of overwhelm is more than just about feeling busy. Busyness is not new … people have always felt busy. Remember that Henry David Thoreau felt so overwhelmed by the busyness of life that he needed to withdraw from the world and move into a cabin in the woods. He did this because life had become too hectic … and this was in the 1800s! This was before electricity, cars, planes, radio, television, the Internet, cell phones.

The problem of overwhelm in church ministry runs deeper than just full calendars and long to-do lists. This is a crucially important point, because if we misunderstand the problem, the solutions we try to solve it won’t work.

When it comes to pastors and other church leaders, I think there two bigger issues going on.

1. Overwhelming needs in the lives of people we serve

One is that leaders are faced with tremendous need and brokenness in the people they work with. It doesn’t matter what ministry setting we are in … we will find deep brokenness and dysfunction everywhere. We are as likely to encounter extreme sexual immorality in the sheltered rural community as we are in the city … drug abuse in the upper middle class community as in the working class community … relational brokenness and abuse in the suburb as in the urban core.

To put it mildly, the needs are overwhelming. Continue reading Overcoming Overwhelm in Ministry

The way we approach crime, punishment, and prison is terrible

I’m getting ready to conduct a recovery workshop at a prison in Texas in February. Lately I’ve been reading up about the realities of incarceration in our country … and I am appalled. Right now more than one out of 100 Americans is behind bars. We imprison more of our people than any other country.

A big part of the problem is our failed war on drugs, with mandatory sentencing in drug related offenses. I am no fan of drugs, but I’m fed up with our country’s approach to this very important issue. Isn’t it time that we declare the “war on drugs” to be a colossal failure, and instead push more money into addiction treatment? If we took just a FRACTION of the money we spend today on law enforcement and incarceration for the “war on drugs” and diverted it treatment, we could actually start to make some headway.

At the very least, we could reduce the crazy mandatory sentences we have for drug-related offenses, and institute more restorative justice approaches.

prison

Take a look at the infographic in this article, and ask yourself, “Who is benefiting from the war on drugs?” Obviously drug cartels and dealers, but also (and here’s the disturbing part) … so are police departments, which have seen their budgets grow exponentially to “stem the tide” against illegal drugs, the companies that supply weapons and technology to both drug cartels and the police departments that fight them, and — most disturbing — PRISONS.

The fastest growing population in the US is our prisons … and as the graphic shows, we now imprison 1 out of every 100 citizens. We imprison more of our citizens than any country in the world. AND … half of federal prisoners and 1/4 of all prisoners are there because of no-violent, drug-related offenses.

Who is paying for this?

WE ARE.

According to the latest figures I could find (2007), it costs taxpayers an average of $31,267 per year to feed, house, and guard each and every prisoner. I’m sure it’s gone up since then. Amazingly, NYC just released that in 2012, it cost them $167,731 per prisoner.

And of course incarceration is just the tip of the iceberg. Continue reading The way we approach crime, punishment, and prison is terrible

Great advice for parents of teens experimenting with drugs and alcohol

Teen drug use freaks parents out more than just about anything. Parents desperately want to keep their kids safe and healthy, and when they find out – or even suspect – that their kids are using drugs, they don’t know what to do. The two most common mistakes are the opposite extremes:

Some parents under-react, making excuses for their kids and/or denying reality. They may not be sure what’s going on, and may choose to not learn more, because they don’t want to know. They may try to pretend nothing is happening, while their child is headed down a very destructive path.

Other parents over-react. Their fear causes them to lash out, react with hysterics, and try to enforce punishments that are either too unrealistic to be followed through on (like being “grounded” for a year), or so serious and damaging that they escalate hostility and push the kids further away. Parents who over-react tend to make decisions that harm their children, damaging their relationship, and driving them into addiction, rather than steering them away from it.

There’s got to be a better way. Continue reading Great advice for parents of teens experimenting with drugs and alcohol

Is it Time to Remodel How We’re Living?

simplify-your-lifeI’ve been reading a lot lately about simplifying and streamlining life. One interesting book is The Not So Big Life by Susan Susanka. She is an architect, and the author of “The Not So Big House” series of books on home design. So when she talks about adapting to our increasingly overloaded lives, it’s not surprising that she uses a house analogy: “remodeling.” Here is how she opens her book:

We are facing an enormous problem in our lives today. It’s so big we can hardly see it, and it’s right in our face all day, every day. We’re all living too big lives, crammed from top to toe with activities, urgencies, and obligations that seem absolute. There’s no time to take a breath, no time to look for the source of the problem. We are almost desperate for a solution. If we stop and consider what our lives would be like if things got much faster, we might feel overwhelmed by hopelessness and futility. We just don’t have any more time to give. We’re at the end of our rope.

We need to remodel the way we are living, but not in a way that gives us more of the same kinds of space we already have; that would simply create an even bigger life. What we need is a remodeling that allows us to experience what’s already here but to experience it differently, so that it delights us rather than drives us crazy.

That’s the world we are living in, and that’s the primary challenge people in our churches are facing. People are overwhelmed. Overwhelmed with the pace of life, overwhelmed with challenges of making a living, overwhelmed by the problems they are bombarded with in the media, in their neighborhoods, and in their families. They are working crazy hours, commuting to work on congested roads, and coming home to chaotic homes with spouses and children struggling to manage their own overloaded schedules.

People who are overwhelmed are looking for help — they are searching for direction, encouragement, and insights about how to navigate  the world of stress and overwhelm. On amazon.com, for example, you can find 777 books on “simplifying your life.” A search on google for the phrase, “simplifying your life” creates 2,470,000 results. People are looking for help.

People struggling with overwhelm come to churches, hoping to experience peace and strength there, and hoping to hear wisdom from spiritual teachers about living well in the face of busyness and stress.

And what do they find?

All too often, people find that, instead of offering a place of refuge from the epidemic of stress and overwhelm, churches are just another place that adds to it. They find leaders who themselves are stressed out and overwhelmed. They find leaders who can offer no genuine wisdom for how to live differently, because they are as harassed and rushed and anxious as their parishioners (and in some cases more so). So people are really lost … they are like sheep without a shepherd.

My study and the writing project of “The Not So Overwhelmed Leader” is based on belief that this issue gets to the heart of our integrity as a church. We promise that people can experience an “abundant life” (as Jesus promises in John 10:10), a life where we experience joy and peace, even in the midst of the ups and downs of our fallen existence. But if we can’t live that ourselves … if our lives are as burdened, anxious, and stressed-out as anyone else’s … then why should anyone listen to us?

Overcoming overwhelm is not just a good idea for pastors. It’s not just something optional we can try to implement that will help us feel happier. It is essential for us to learn to live differently, so we can help people in our churches to live differently. It is the need of the hour.

If we fail to subdue the three-headed monster of busyness, anxiety, and stress in our own lives — we have no credibility in trying to help others deal with this issue.

And make no mistake, this is one of the essential issues of our time. Failing here, we fail everywhere.

I’m not saying it’s easy, and I’m not claiming to have mastered this myself. It’s an ongoing priority in my life to balance an active and engaged life with a heart that is serene, joyful, open, and loving. If people come to church and find the pastors are stressed out, anxious, overwhelmed, and resentful … they will filter the teaching that comes from the lips of these pastors. There will be part of them that realizes that these pastors are not able to help them with one of their greatest sources of pain.

What addiction and recovery taught me about “believing in God”

The Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines belief as: “A state or habit of mind in which trust or confidence is placed in some person or thing.” The experience of addiction messes this up for Christians, whether they want to admit it or not. They say that they “trust God” to help them be happy in life, and to help them overcome their addiction … but somehow this “faith” doesn’t seem to be working. Why not?

My experience of addiction and recovery has forced me to admit that professing to believe something doesn’t mean I really believe it. It has forced me to be attentive to situations where what I observe and experience in “real life” don’t fit with the set of beliefs I espouse.

beleiveComing to believe is a process

In 12 Step language, recovery is a process where people “come to believe” in a Higher Power who can help them overcome their addiction. It’s not assumed that anybody is doing this when they start. It’s a process … and it takes time. And for people who come into this process with a set of beliefs about a “Higher Power” already established, the scary reality is that part of their problem is likely that some of those “beliefs” are inaccurate and destructive.

Religious people hate hearing this. They want to think that their spiritual life is all fine, just the way it is. In fact, they think that recovery should be easier for them than for “non-religious” or “non-Christian” people … because they have the spiritual part all figured out already. But what if they don’t?

Suppose I believe that God is a magic fairy and that if I ever get into a big problem, I can spin around in a circle four times and say “help me help me help me fairy God” … and then all my problems will be solved. I am very earnest and sincere about this … and I go to a church that teaches this as the correct interpretation and application of the Bible’s promises about prayer.

But then suppose I come into a recovery program with my life in a shambles and my addiction raging out of control … but I still have this belief about God and the spiritual life. It should be obvious that the magic fairy prayer beliefs need to go. They aren’t working … and in fact are keeping me from doing the things that would work.

Look honestly

So when we go into recovery, it’s wise to go into the process holding our “beliefs” loosely. Maybe our beliefs are wrong. Maybe our beliefs about who God is, and how God relates to us, are more a part of the problem for us than part of the solution. Maybe some of these beliefs reflect the dysfunction of the family members, church life, and traumatic experiences that shaped us in early life.

To me this is part of the genius of 12 Step recovery. By keeping the God language vague and recognizing that “coming to believe” is a process, 12 Step recovery offers Christians a golden opportunity to ask themselves important questions about their spiritual life.

The irony

I find it sad and ironic that this aspect of recovery — the recognition that our spiritual beliefs need to be looked at and will likely undergo some changes — is the great wisdom of the 12 Steps but is also the reason why so many Christians don’t like the 12 Steps.

I come from an evangelical, Bible-based Christian denomination, and I’ve met a lot of people who don’t like the 12 steps because of the language in Steps 2 and 3. They won’t go to a 12-step program which talks about a “Higher Power,” and “God as you understand God”. They want to go to a Christian program, which specifically talks about Jesus Christ. They see 12 Step spiritual vagueness as a threat, and assume that if Jesus isn’t mentioned by name in the steps, that somehow He will be ignored in the process of recovery.

I have come to a place where I see this broad, non-specific language about a higher power as a good thing. I was a pastor for many years. I had concrete beliefs about God, and devoted my life to studying this belief. I had the impression that I understood the pure, unadulterated image of God and that I was giving the “true gospel.” But at the same time I was struggling with addiction.

After being in recovery 12 years, I’ve come to a place where I see things differently now.  I see how important the language in this step really is. This language allows people of all spiritual backgrounds to be able to take part in the 12 step program, but it also forces those who already have a belief in God to really dissect that belief and figure out what might have been missing in the first place.

The 12 steps asks us to turn our lives over to God as we understand God. If we don’t understand who God is, how can we in any meaningful way turn our lives over to God?

The great news

Here’s the great news: it’s okay to do this step by step, and it’s okay to do this imperfectly, knowing that “more will be revealed” as we continue the recovery process. As we continue the recovery journey, we will “come to believe” in new and deeper ways, and thus “turn our will and our lives” over to the care of this God in new and deeper ways.

What you do is important. I want to help you keep doing it.