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CHURCH MANY FIND HELP IS 12 STEPS AWAY
By Richard Higgins, Boston Globe Staff
04/29/1990 Page: 1
YORK -- The tidal wave success of "12-step" recovery
programs has sparked a grass-roots spiritual renewal across
the country, according to theologians, pastoral workers
and clergy involved in the recovery movement.
week, 200 types of 12-step recovery groups such as Alcoholics
Anonymous or Overeaters Anonymous draw 15 million Americans
to 500,000 meetings across the nation, according to estimates
by Terri Gorski, a therapist who has studied the movement,
and the National Self-Help Clearinghouse based here.
groups are based on the 12 steps to recovery, outlined by
the founders of AA, which include admitting one's powerlessness
over an addiction, taking an inventory of inner strengths
as well as weaknesses, and drawing strength from the group
and a "higher power."
the vast majority of the groups are formed to help people
deal with addictions to alcohol and drugs, and the effects
those addictions have on others, the groups also deal with
a range of problems from agoraphobia, the fear of public
places, to xenophobia, the fear of foreigners.
this spiritual renewal movement is largely bypassing organized
religion. "Twelve-step people are experiencing a spiritual
awakening that should make every pastor and person of faith
weep for joy," said Rev. Patricia Daley, a Presbyterian
minister who is working on ways churches can connect with
12-step groups. "But somehow, we of the institutional
church seem to be missing out on the party."
Daley spoke at a conference on "Twelve-Step Theologies"
at Union Theological Seminary, which drew more than 250
theologians, clergy and lay people who are involved in the
field of addiction and recovery.
analyzed recovery groups as a sectarian spiritual movement
from which churches and synagogues might learn. They also
pointed out the shortcomings of the 12-step recovery model
in dealing with the social and political structures of oppression
groups, sometimes called "the secret church,"
have elements of organized religion. Alcoholics Anonymous,
for example, has apostle-like founders: Bill Wilson and
Dr. Bob Smith. Some of the groups also have a form of holy
book, such as the AA founders' so-called "Big Book."
Other such elements are ritual structure, use of testimony,
meetings that end in prayer and even pilgrimages to houses
in which the founders lived, religion scholars have noted.
Twelve-step members run the gamut from those who believe
in and refer to "God" to those who are uncomfortable
with referring to a higher power. Some new 12-step groups
in Boston and Cambridge expressly omit reference to a higher
speaker used the metaphor of early Christians in the catacombs
to describe 12-step groups, which often meet in church basements
and have no specific leader.
many accounts of the movement in the national press and
broadcast media tend toward tongue-in-cheek criticism of
their trendiness, pain and suffering drive people through
the doors of their first 12-step meeting, conference participants
are a life-and-death issue for people who have them,"
said Beverly Wildung Harrison, a feminist theologian, who
also warned that "addiction is not a metaphor that
can be spread too loosely to express every ill in this society."
appeal of the groups, like that of AA, the pioneer 12-step
program founded in 1935, is that they allow people who could
not stop addictive or compulsive behavior alone to find
power and help in telling their stories to others -- and
in sharing others' pain.
success of 12-step programs in recent years has been a bittersweet
irony for organized religion, which, according to Rev. Daley
and others, has failed to reach out to 12-step participants.
millions of Americans troop into the meeting rooms of churches
and synagogues on weeknights or Sunday nights for recovery
meetings, they have often been ignored by the religious
communities that gather in those houses of worship.
one member may mutter to another about the smell of cigarette
smoke that lingers after the meetings or about 'those AA
people' taking up our spaces in the church parking lot,"
said Rev. Daley, who developed an outreach program to 12-step
groups while serving a Presbyterian parish in suburban New
Jersey. "But that's about it. Lost from sight, they
come and go without many good church people or synagogue
members much knowing or caring."
cited the example of a colleague in the ministry who, when
presented with the possibility of welcoming 12-step members
into his congregation, replied, "Well, I sure wouldn't
want a bunch of drunks in my church."
groups may threaten churches, she said, because their spirituality
"does not mean institutional religion." Members
of these groups are finding their own path to a "higher
power" or to God without priests, popes or ministers.
hit bottom and come to themselves, these men and women have
acknowledged that their lives had become unmanageable and
that they were powerless to save themselves," said
Rev. Daley. "They have come to believe that a power
greater than themselves can restore them to sanity. In that
recognition, they have made a decision to turn their wills
over to the care of God. From hopelessness and helplessness,
these people are discovering the reality of God's grace
of rejoicing in that discovery, many churches have reacted
with "a note of doubt or disappointment," she
said, and have shied away from efforts to integrate them.
not surprising that members of 12-step programs are not
pouring into the pews," she said. "In many ways,
intentionally and unwittingly, we have communicated the
message, 'not in my church.'"
Shriver Jr., a professor and seminary president, disagreed
mildly, saying that recovery groups have also neglected
the churches, from which "they have something to learn."
suggested the limitations of the 12-step process. Rev. Carter
Heyward, a feminist theologian and professor at the Episcopal
Divinity School in Cambridge, said the mainstream psychotherapeutic
model for addiction and recovery in America places too much
emphasis on the individual and not enough on the political,
social and economic "structures of injustice"
in our society.
Heyward, who identified herself as a recovering alcoholic
who has benefited from 12-step groups, said "the genius
of AA" is its recognition that alcoholism "is
a disease of disconnection and that recovery is always relational."
However the popular "addictionist model" espoused
in many self-help books, she said, continues to be "sexist,
racist and heterosexist" and uses the achievement of
personal serenity as a substitute for achieving justice.
don't think serenity is possible without justice,"
she said in an interview. "Twelve-step programs are
good at what they do best, which is helping people to stay
sober and drug free and to find a more peaceful way of living,
but we need more than that, in terms of raising consciousness."
Addiction, she said, is exacerbated by the "alienation"
of US culture and by political and social structures such
as racism and sexism.
a question period, Rev. Heywood was challenged by Rev. Kathleen
Noel, a United Church of Christ minister and suicide prevention
worker in Manhattan, who said that the reason AA has succeeded
is that one of its "12 traditions" is to take
no position on political matters. "AA was founded to
help people stay sober and for no other purpose," Rev.
Noel said. Rev. Heyward later said she agreed that 12-step
programs were not meant as a cure-all for US society.
Davis, a professor of religion and psychiatry at Union seminary,
said that in the 1980s the reigning metaphor for the growth
of groups that cater to spiritual needs was "the spiritual
supermarket." Today, he said, "it is more like
a spiritual mall, with 12-step groups having specialty shops.
The problem remains that no one specialty group integrates
ministers to the whole person."
who critiqued the 12-step recovery process said that it
has not rejuvenated the institutional church because the
church has not been as honest as 12-step groups.
seems to me that the church is like an alcoholic still in
the stages of denial" about its decline, said R. Stephen
Fox, a Cornell University psychotherapist who has studied
12-step recovery programs in India and the Soviet Union.
"Until it hits bottom about its own problems, it can't
begin its recovery," he said. The remark, which ended
the conference, was greeted with self-effacing laughter
We admitted we were powerless over (alcohol) - that our
lives had become unmanageable.
2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could
restore us to sanity.
3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to
the care of God as we understood him.
4. Made a searching and fearless inventory of ourselves.
5. Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being
the exact nature of our wrongs.
6. Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects
7. Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.
8. Made a list of persons we had harmed, and became willing
to make amends to them all.
9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible,
except when to do so would injure them or others.
10. Continued to make personal inventory and when we were
wrong promptly admitted it.
11. Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our
conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying
only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry
12. Having a spiritual awakening as the result of these
Steps, we tried to carry this message to others, and to
practice these principles in all our affairs.
Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc.)
The use of the masculine pronoun in referring to God is
the original AA language. Many 12 Step groups choose to
change the pronoun to the feminine or to not use a pronoun