Reflections on the Council on Alcohol and Drugs’ “Spirituality Summit”
By Stuart Nelson
August 13th, 2012
Today I had the pleasure of attending a “Spirituality Summit” at the Council on Alcohol and Drugs’ beautiful facility here in Houston. The theme for the summit was “Understanding the Impact of Addiction & Supporting Recovery,” and the content was geared towards clergy and congregational leaders who are interested in fighting addiction in their communities. James F. Crowley, MA, President of Community Intervention, and Sis Wenger, President/CEO of the National Association for Children and Alcoholics (NACoA) spoke to us about the problems associated with addiction as well as strategies and tools for congregational leaders to use to battle those problems. Though every portion of the schedule contained useful information, I felt that the speakers made two points that were especially relevant to the work that we do here at the ISH.
Within the first few minutes of the presentation, Ms. Wenger spoke to us about what she calls the “Two Great Disconnects” that are apparent when we talk about addiction treatment and communities of faith together. The first great disconnect is that though clergy recognize the problem of substance abuse in their communities, they are not often trained on how to deal with those problems. In other words, even though congregational leaders know and understand the problems that addiction brings to communities and can understand the spiritual significance of such problems, they do not always know how to deal with them in ways that have been proven to work in health fields.
An inverse problem also exists – the second great disconnect is that healthcare providers who have formal training in addiction treatment do not know how to take advantage on the importance of spirituality and religion to substance abuse prevention and treatment. These professionals often do not have the intimate access to communities and individuals that congregational leaders have.
To address these disconnects, we talked a lot about training that clergy might find beneficial. We heard that schools of theology should train clergy to recognize and know how to respond to substance abuse. We also learned that clergy should address substance abuse in their ministries and that they should develop relationships with treatment professionals. What we didn’t talk about, however, was how treatment professionals might be trained to understand and become more attuned to religious and spiritual issues that arise from substance abuse. Likewise, we didn’t hear about how healthcare professionals might be able to become closer to communities of faith in order to take advantage of the importance that religion and spirituality have in the minds of most Americans. It occurred to me that this is where the ISH comes in – indeed, part of our mission is to engage healthcare professionals in order to impart knowledge about these very issues. I found this to be reassuring. The ISH is addressing the second of these disconnects as we educate healthcare professionals around the powerful and necessary role that spirituality and religion play in the attainment of healthy individuals and communities.
The second point that I found especially important was brought up when we heard about the consequences that addiction has on the children of those who are substance abusers. First, Mr. Crowley spoke to us about some intuitive consequences: higher rates of depression, more illnesses, and poor performance in school. Those were impactful, but it is what he said next that really got me thinking. He spoke to us about the work of McIvyn Raider, Ph.D, a scholar who assess the role of religion in family functioning. Raider notes that kids raised by addicts often have tangled relationships in which “God” becomes the image of Mom or Dad, co-dependent behaviors develop, and poor-self images evolve. Furthermore, there is an underdevelopment of intrinsic religious values, an overuse of rigid behaviors and beliefs, and an under-utilization of religious bodies as support systems. I was reminded here of several bodies of research. In particular, I remembered that people who hold more intrinsic values rather that extrinsic ones are healthier, religious bodies often provide critical coping resources and mechanisms, and rigid behaviors and beliefs are correlated with high instances of mental health problems.
In short, by growing up in homes where substance abuse is prevalent, children are more likely to develop more harmful and destructive ways of being religious. As before, Mr. Crowley informed us of the ways in which clergy could learn about addiction, but we did not hear about the ways in which doctors might be able to learn about these important issues of religion and spirituality in order to provide a more holistic form of care for their patients. The ISH is here to accomplish just that, and I was enthusiastic to hear someone reaffirm this mission in such a direct way. As such, this conference was very productive and I was happy to see a great group of people giving attention to an issue that deserves it.