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Clergy's Pivotal Role in Helping Children

April 1, 2008
by Linda Kaplan, MA
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Faith leaders and counselors should partner to help children of addicted parents

Our society treasures children and, in many ways, takes a communal responsibility for nurturing, supporting, and protecting them. For example, we try to protect children from family violence, inoculate them against infectious diseases, and provide sound public education. Yet the greater community has shied away from dealing with one of the most common causes of adverse childhood experiences: parental alcohol and drug addiction, which according to a paper presented at a 2006 National Association for Children of Alcoholics (NACoA) Forum may cause lifelong physical and emotional harm.1

One in four children lives with a parent who is addicted to or abuses alcohol.2 This number does not include children living with drug-dependent parents. The stigma and shame associated with substance use disorders usually means that these diseases are kept as a family secret, hidden from view. Family members, especially children, are confused and embarrassed by the behavior of the addicted parent and learn early on to hide their pain and obey the “Don't talk” command.

Members of the clergy and addiction professionals can be wonderful allies in helping people find and maintain recovery. Clergy, armed with the right information, can encourage people to seek treatment and can support patients and families during and after treatment. Approximately 10 percent of those who need treatment actually seek services. Building bridges between the faith community and treatment professionals can lead to more people obtaining treatment and recovery services, which would offer an enormous public health benefit. In addition, clergy can offer programs for children who are hurting and can help build recovery-friendly communities, all of which can improve treatment outcomes and long-term recovery.

However, in order for clergy to partner with addiction professionals and provide the appropriate support they must have a basic understanding of the disease and its impact on families and communities. That is why it is so important that clergy, who are trusted members of the community and who regularly come into contact with children and families in their congregations and communities, learn about the signs and symptoms of addiction and how to assist family members in getting help.

Educating faith leaders

Faith leaders are vital to maintaining healthy communities. They can increase the resilience of children in their midst by offering a supportive, safe environment. They can play a crucial role in providing hope and help to families, referring individuals to treatment or other services, and supporting ongoing recovery and prevention.

Families affected by addiction often will turn first to their faith leaders for help. However, most clergy have little understanding about addiction and its impact on family members or the community, how they can assist people in crisis caused by addiction, or how they can help establish a faith community that supports recovery. In addition, many faith leaders are relatively unfamiliar with the treatment and recovery community.

A 2001 white paper from the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University entitled So Help Me God: Substance Abuse, Religion and Spirituality reported that while 94% of clergy indicated that substance abuse was a problem in their congregations, only 12.4% had any education on the subject. Unfortunately, members of the clergy's lack of knowledge about addiction has led some to ignore dealing with the issue in their congregations. In other cases, clergy might provide incorrect information, such as telling a spouse to be “more supportive and pray” in discussions about an addicted partner. Without an understanding of the role of denial, clergy may believe the alcohol- or drug-dependent person who promises to stop using, or who blames circumstances beyond his/her control for problems.

Members of the clergy can play an important role in supporting recovery. Since we know that some people with substance use disorders and their family members often turn to faith leaders for help, we can encourage these leaders to provide social supports that help maintain recovery, including:

  • Supporting children through youth programs;

  • Creating caring communities that can help eliminate stigma;

  • Providing space for 12-Step and other mutual aid support group meetings; and

  • Welcoming people in recovery into their congregations.

Addiction professionals' role

It would behoove addiction professionals to begin a dialogue with local clergy across denominations. Some of the steps that could help facilitate the process are:

  • Inviting clergy and pastoral counselors to your treatment center;

  • Offering to provide training to clergy in your community;

  • Considering partnering with pastoral counselors and clergy on grant applications;

  • Offering intervention services to clergy or pastoral counseling centers;

  • Offering to speak at a congregational event;

  • Organizing a Recovery Month activity and inviting local clergy to help plan and/or attend the event; and

  • Encouraging interested clergy to obtain the Certificate in Spiritual Caregiving to Help Addicted Persons and Families.