FORGOING CHURCH MANY FIND HELP IS 12 STEPS AWAY
Author: By Richard Higgins, Boston Globe Staff
Date: 04/29/1990 Page: 1
NEW 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.
Each 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.
The 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.”
Though 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.
However, 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.”
Rev. 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.
Speakers 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 in society.
Twelve-step 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 power.
One 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.
While 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 said.
“Addictions 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.”
The 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.
The 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.
While 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.
“Sometimes 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.”
She 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.”
Twelve-step 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.
“Having 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 and forgiveness.”
Instead 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.
“It’s 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.'”
Donald 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.”
Others 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.
Rev. 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.
“I 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.
During 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.
Russell 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.”
Others 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.
“It 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 and applause.
THE 12 STEPS
1. 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 of character.
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 that out.
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.
(SOURCE: Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc.)
NOTE: 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 at all.