Practice Justice

Anonymous or Not?

Addiction/recovery support can be more than an outreach ministry
by Peter Johnson | September 16, 2022

When the restlessness within my soul became too much to bear, I relinquished myself to the notion that Jesus could actually be relevant to all people and church could actually be applicable for all people, regardless. Period. It’s not that I didn’t already believe this (my faith inadvertently already validated that); it was more of an acceptance of the paradox of what is and what could be for the Church universal. That is, we already have a faith community filled with both sinners and saints; and as Martin Luther suggests, a member is both sinner and saint, that which makes up the body of Christ. Therefore, in the promise of the Holy Spirit, we will continue to be the church—a sustaining and ever transforming body of Christ made up of beautifully broken and redeemed sinners/saints. 

Then why is it that most (or all?) of us sit in the pews on Sunday morning and wonder where everyone is? Or watch our church council members spend their time during a council meeting discussing (arguing about?) the Sunday morning decline in attendance or the challenges of finding enough volunteers to support the church’s Matthew 25 ministries dedicated to serving the least of these? Is it possible that we’ve lost the message of hope found in Jesus Christ, or that we are no longer a place of sanctuary within our sanctuaries? 

What would happen if someone came to your church on a Sunday morning under the influence? 

This scenario was not uncommon where I was serving as a lay leader in an evolving faith community that was dedicated to the inclusion of all people, regardless. Period. The answer for us at that time was simple. They will be welcomed, given voice, and empowered. This was our dominant culture; and the dominant voice was a message that we could not assume limits to the movement of the Spirit in their life, even during active addiction. Therefore, if a sinner/saint came to worship while under the influence, they were accompanied and nurtured by a fellow sinner/saint. The faith community (and its culture) was called to look beyond the manifestations of symptoms, most notably that of being under the influence of drugs or alcohol. We were called to re-frame the First Step: the faith community claims powerlessness to the ability of God’s redemptive and hope-filled work in Jesus Christ, in the same way that some claim powerlessness to their addiction. Thus we accept that the church’s true power belongs to a Higher Power; we confess our Higher Power as described in and through our ecumenical creeds. 

Keep recovery and church separate? 

Knowing that recovery ministry continues to be a focal point for some congregations, and for some congregations, addiction and recovery are the interweaving ethos of their existence, I served a congregation as an ordained pastor where its members in recovery suggested that the congregation not use the 12-Step Program as a point of ministry in their church. I was extremely surprised, especially when one of the traditions of recovery is the belief that as a gift from your Higher Power (God), sobriety is kept by giving it away. It took several months before I was able to finally learn why the recovery community within the congregation had such a strong desire to keep recovery separate from ministry. Their answer was simple: What if I drink tomorrow? An individual in recovery in our congregation then can no longer look to (just) me for hope. They need—we need—the whole recovery community for sobriety … if their Higher Power is God—or Jesus, and we come together anonymously to worship the Higher Power that is greater than our ability to manage our own life, then we worship together in solidarity, but always anonymously to and within the faith community. 

The rationale for this approach to (recovery) ministry is not one that I encountered before or since. Nonetheless, considering the confidential nature of pastoral ministry, members of the congregation that were also part of the recovery community, without my asking, offered and granted me permission to share their contact information as a resource for persons seeking a way out of active addiction and into the recovery community. Although this is not a conventional approach to recovery ministry, I learned that it is one approach that honors both the steps and traditions of the 12-Step Program and the call of the church to be the hands and feet of Jesus through congregational connection.

First questions

I began serving in my current call only one year ago. One of the first questions I asked was, “How do people in recovery participate in communion?” Their response was one of genuine desire to honor the needs of all people, especially the recovering. They had the practice of the split chalice—the option of either wine or grape juice. If the communicant needed the grape juice, they would have to request the grape juice by holding up one finger. This practice was widely accepted, even by those in recovery. Inquiring further, I asked, “How does this way of serving communion offer anonymity?” The question allowed the worship team and council to take pause and evaluate how they were welcoming all to the Lord’s banquet of forgiveness and renewal. Thus began our work together of truly seeing the “other” in the pew next to us or the empty seat in the pew. 

Who really was that person in the pew next to me? Did someone not come to worship today because even the smell of wine is a trigger that would potentially jeopardize their recovery? Has that family abruptly stopped coming to church because a parent or sibling would have to break anonymity in their early days of recovery; and the stares or questions, or even offers of support, would be just too much? 

We quickly attempted to put ourselves in the shoes of the addicted and recovering as best we could. It wasn’t hard really, there were recovering alcoholics and close friends and family of recovering addicts at the table—all sharing their insights, wisdom, and stories as they felt comfortable. 

Today, we use only grape juice, acknowledging the importance of having a path paved clear to the table of grace in Holy Communion; recognizing that each of us are at some level connected to a community of hope where sanity can be restored. So, if recovery is the restoration of sanity, and God as our Higher Power as we understand them is the source of hope and restoration, then is it possible for Faith, Addiction, and Recovery to be more than an outreach ministry? I’d say it is a foundation which we as the church can use to be the relevant expression of Jesus’ love for all people through the power of the Holy Spirit.    

Your turn 

In your faith community, how do people in recovery participate in Holy Communion?

About the Author

Peter Johnson

Pastor Peter Johnson lives in Southeastern MN, where he serves as pastor at Moscow Lutheran Church in rural Austin, MN. He spends most of his time with his lovely wife Heidi, raising and parenting their extremely active, medically complex sons, Jakobe (6) and Thunder Luke(5). He is passionate about special needs parenting, adoption, and the importance of living one day at a time.

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