By: Rev. Cindy Briggs-Biondi & Rev. Darick Biondi
On Thursday, May 25, 350 clergy from several denominations across the state of West Virginia converged upon Wesley Chapel at West Virginia Wesleyan College in Buckhannon to gather and learn about steps the Church can take in addressing the substance use disorder that is ravaging our communities. The Clergy Consultation on Substance Use Disorder was convened by our own Bishop Sandra Steiner Ball and Bishop Michie Klusmeyer of the Episcopal Church, in partnership with the West Virginia Council of Churches.
Throughout the morning and afternoon, we heard from a number of panelists and presenters, offering important information and encouragement. Rev. Jeff Allen gave a presentation on the findings of the listening events that were conducted around the state last fall, which sought to find out what communities felt were the greatest concerns about substance use disorder. Senator Joe Manchin called in via Skype to offer words of encouragement, and also to share about some of the legislative work taking place around issues of addiction and recovery. Martha Polinsky made a presentation on prevention strategies, Sky Kershner offered a brief introduction to motivational interviewing as an effective practice for intervention, and Rachel Thaxton shared a number of resources available in our state for those who are ready to begin the hard road of recovery.
We (Darick and Cindy) had the opportunity to be members on a morning panel pertaining to stigma around substance use disorder, alongside Rev. Joel Richter of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and Martha Polinsky. While there is much information from the day that we could give, we’d like to focus on a couple of practical and tangible steps that clergy and churches can take in the coming months to become proactive in the struggle against substance use disorder.
One significant way that you and your church can make a difference is by forming a support group for parents or partners who have loved ones battling substance abuse. Sky Kershner, of Kanawha Pastoral Counseling, is continuing to offer trainings around the state to help you gain the skills you need to facilitate a support group. Using the CRAFT Model (Community Reinforcement and Family Training), Sky can help you learn skills that will then be helpful to teach to family members – how to practice self-care, how to help elicit internal motivation toward recovery in the loved one battling addiction, and how to use positive reinforcement rather than enabling.
I (Cindy) went through training with Kanawha Pastoral Counseling last fall and have been facilitating a weekly support group at one of my churches since January. It has been an incredible blessing and opportunity for ministry. My group is primarily made up of parents whose children are either currently in active addiction, or who are on the journey of recovery. In many instances, they are either raising grandchildren, or are significant influences in their grandchildren’s lives. Almost on a weekly basis, they express how glad they are to have found others who can relate to their circumstances and truly understand what it is like. At first, I was a bit nervous about facilitating such a group because I didn’t think I had any particularly qualifying skills – I have never been addicted, nor do I have any close family who has been. Even though I am a pastor, I don’t have a ton of background in counseling. I have found, however, that through the support and training of Kanawha Pastoral Counseling that I have been successful in facilitating a support group for families. If I can do it, so can you!
If you feel like God may be nudging you move in this direction, please plan to attend one of the upcoming training sessions provided by Kanawha Pastoral Counseling. You can find the schedule here: http://kpcc.com/events-and-workshops/. You can also contact me (Cindy) at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have any specific questions about what it is like to start a Beyond Addiction Support Group.
Another significant way you and your church can make an impact is through reaching out to families affected by overdose death. With West Virginia having the higher per capita overdose rate in the United States, it is likely that many (if not most) pastors in WV have had to do the funeral of a member, friend, family member, or constituent that overdosed. While these are not easy funerals to do (all tragic funerals are incredibly difficult) they are some of the most important opportunities we have to show God’s grace in the midst of such a heartbreaking time. As United Methodists, God’s grace is at the core of our theology (prevenient, justifying, and sanctifying), and that shines through in our Service of Death and Resurrection. This grace is conveyed in a way that offers hope and consolation to a family that is fraught with grief (and often shame). Sadly, some pastors of varying denominations fail to convey such grace in the midst of tragedy. I have heard several times of pastors preaching on the fact that a deceased loved one (who died of an overdose) is now being consumed by the fires of hell, and this is the family’s and friends’ chance to repent or face the same fate. While I genuinely believe leading people to repentance and acceptance of Christ is an absolute priority as pastors – this is NOT the way we will do this. If anything, services like this are a form of spiritual abuse that prey on the emotions of a family that is more vulnerable than ever before.
This is where we can bless our communities with grace-filled funerals. Often the social networks of our church are some of the first to hear about sudden deaths in our community. Rather than keeping that information for joys and concerns or prayer chains (or gossip, Lord have mercy), we can ask for a means of contacting the family to offer funeral services. Many times families do have pastors; however, we cannot assume that everyone has a connection to the Church – over 80% of Christians do not regularly attend weekly worship. Many times families in crisis go to the nearest pastor they have, and, sadly, some will cause spiritual abuse through their eulogy.
By reaching out in love, I (Darick) have presided over two funerals of individuals that overdosed and helped connect a family that had moved away with their “home” United Methodist Church after a loved one overdosed. As the Church, we bear the light of Christ in the midst of a very dark world; however, we often find ourselves shying away from the dark areas, cloistering ourselves in our beautiful buildings with fellow believers. And yet, when Jesus came to minister to the earth, he went to those dark places and offered grace, and as pastors, we too must offer moments of grace in the midst of such troubling times. The work is far from over, and as Martha Polinsky said in her presentation, it is only going to get worse before it gets better. While this is heartbreaking news, it does provide the Church many opportunities to minister to families affected by overdose – we just have to have the boldness to step out!
Another way to help is to get connected with our county’s Prevention Coalition, and many already have great programs that churches can support. From presentations with medical experts, to supporting local Students Against Destructive Decision (SADD) chapters, to hosting Naloxone training. There are countless ways that we can work together with our County Prevention Coalitions, and together we can do greater work than we can individually. For more information, please contact Kristi Justice with Kanawha Communities that Care at +1-304-437-3356 – she has the contact information for every county and will point you in the right direction!
Lastly, it is important for us to preach and teach on the issue of addiction in our churches. This is not an easy topic to broach; however, there is one passage in particular that I think allows for a deeper discussion of what Jesus would do if he were ministering in the midst of an opioid epidemic. Luke 8:26-39 tells the story of the Gerasene Demoniac; as we begin, there is a man that is out of his mind, living naked in the midst of the tombs (i.e. dead to the world). He is not seeking healing from his affliction; however, Jesus goes to him and offers healing. In doing so there is a bacon tragedy (a herd of pigs gets killed), but the man begins to wear clothes again and is restored to his right mind. Many individuals that are in the throes of addiction make choices that are as insane as living naked amidst the tomes (we hear about many of these addiction fueled choices in our nightly news: robberies, child neglect, theft, etc.). However, these people are NOT in their right minds when they are on just trying to find their next fix. I have seen countless individuals who are in recovery, and many go from being people we barely recognize to amazing individuals giving back to the communities that surrounded them and supported them as they battled their “demons.” This is a model that we as the church need to consider as well. Can we be like Christ, going out into the world, offering grace in the midst of such a dark time?
This epidemic can seem like an impossible war to win; however, Christ conquered sin and death through his death and resurrection. If Christ can strengthen us to do all things, then empowered by the Holy Spirit – we will transform lives and help heal the world one life at a time – if we trust the Holy Spirit, step out, and act.