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What if a church leader confesses a problem with substance abuse?

An interview about addiction and the hope of restoration

substance abuse

The stress of pandemic living seemed to exacerbate and bring to light several struggles common in our society — and even within the church. While some like loneliness were to be expected, the issue of substance abuse may have been a bit more surprising to some, especially because it’s happening among church leaders. Josh Vaughan, senior pastor of Columbus Avenue Baptist Church in Waco, Texas, has come face to face with this reality. A fellow pastor on staff confessed to an alcohol addiction, and Vaughan shepherded him and the congregation through the process of seeking help and restoration. Below, Vaughan answers questions about what Scripture teaches and how Christians can begin to respond to substance abuse issues. 

It’s important to note that the information, counsel, and path for restoration laid out below is for substance abuse and addiction and does not apply to other ways pastors might sin that may be disqualifying from ministry. In particular, this path of being restored to ministry should not be applied to sexual abuse.

Elizabeth Bristow: The issue of substance abuse is prevalent in our culture and is present in every church congregation. How do we reconcile this reality? How does the Bible inform how we should think about it?

Josh Vaughan: Addressing substance abuse in the church is something we all want to do. We know it’s there and needs to be taken care of, but very few want to start doing the work. At some point, facing the problem requires taking one step at a time. 

While the Bible does not use terms such as “addiction” or “substance abuse,” the issue that these terms describe is evident within its pages. Whether described as “folly” in Ecclesiastes 2:1-3 or as “slavery to sin” in Romans 6:12-20, the controlling power that a human can find him or herself subjected to is not a new phenomenon. Nor is the destructive pattern of addiction a new phenomenon either. Proverbs 23:29-35 describes the sadly familiar progression of appeal, irrational choices, seemingly irresistible craving, and failure to change despite negative consequences. The prevalence of substance abuse in our culture and congregations should really be no surprise because it has plagued humanity across time and culture. Folly continues to cry out, and even Christians are prone to answering (Prov. 9:13-18).

In our cultural context, the Bible does provide a hopeful perspective that is desperately needed. The most common way our culture views substance abuse is through the lens of “sickness.” This view emphasizes physiological or psychological dependence as the main problem and turns to deal with these issues solely on a medical and/or therapeutic basis. Moral culpability can be minimized  or removed altogether, and consequently, confession, repentance, and the accompanying opportunity for forgiveness and reconciliation can also be removed. A view of substance abuse informed by the Bible does not reject the physiological or psychological factors at play since it affirms that we are embodied beings. The Bible insists that human behavior is complex and these issues must also be viewed in light of our brokenness as moral creatures before God.

The will can be bent toward selfishness and foolishness, and when a human acts accordingly, the Bible describes this as “sin.” The Psalmist prays, “keep your servant from willful sins; do not let them rule over me” (Psa. 19:13). While it is not popular to retain the category of “sin” in describing substance abuse, it must be a central aspect of a biblical approach to these issues.. Accounting for “substance abuse” as an expression of sin provides a basis for hope. If sin is the problem and not just sickness, then there is both the responsibility to confess and repent and the possibility for forgiveness, proper help, and restoration. Both the substance abuser and the myriad of people harmed by that substance abuse have the chance to make sense of what is happening and find a way forward.

EB: Why is it hard for Christians to be open about and repentant of substance abuse and addiction?

JV: At the most fundamental level, I don’t believe that openness about substance abuse and addiction is more difficult for Christians than non-Christians. I think it is difficult for all humans to be open. The natural inclination is to hide the truth about our sin from God (see Genesis 3:8), from one another (Proverbs 9:17), and even from ourselves (Ephesians 4:17-19). Christians are not exempt from this natural inclination, yet the only hope for repentance is to first bring the problem into the open.

I do believe that pastors, ministers, and ministry leaders do find it very difficult to be open for fear of losing influence and/or even their employment. To some degree, the fear is justified in that leaders are rightly held to a higher standard by virtue of their increased influence. However, the danger of that “high standard” is that ministry leaders will not confess the early steps toward addiction such as appeal and/or experimentation and take steps to protect themselves from temptation. By the time experimentation has hardened into addiction, many other compromises have been made eroding or destroying the trust that confession is designed to preserve.

EB: When Christians confess their addiction and bring it into the light, what is the path to hope and restoration?

JV: While confession is the necessary first step toward restoration, it is only the first step. The next steps are determined by the severity and duration of the addictive behavior but could include accountability mechanisms, addiction recovery and/or support groups, and professional intervention in a rehabilitation context. Since substance abuse is often used to cover up and/or escape from other mental health concerns, professional counseling and medical help is often an appropriate step to take as well. In all of this, the most important source of hope is the gospel of Jesus Christ. Self-condemnation hampers all efforts at restoration for both the substance abuser and their families, friends, and church. Returning to the hope affirmed in Romans 8:1 that “there is now no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus” is one of the most important practices on the road to restoration.

EB: In your tenure of pastoring your church in Waco, Texas, you’ve walked through a situation with a fellow pastor on staff who came forward with an alcohol addiction. How did you navigate this season as the leader of your congregation, and what important lessons did you learn?

JV: Years before this particular occurrence, my father-in-law gave me some leadership advice that I have returned to often in difficult management moments when appropriate. He said, “If you are going to err, err on the side of grace.” His words rung in my ears as I interacted with the pastor, his wife and children, our church leadership, and our congregation. While guided by a basic disposition toward grace, I was also keenly aware that grace requires truth telling. Before I could extend grace to the pastor, he had to decide to tell the truth about what was going on. Before the church could extend grace, we had to truthfully account for the damage done. This was a painful and uncertain process, but guided by grace and truth, we were able to navigate even the mistakes we made as we helped him.

I learned very quickly that lurking behind the substance abuse were other significant issues in the pastor’s life. This makes recovery a complicated, slow process with many ups and downs along the way. When my church was made aware of what had happened, it provided opportunity for many others experiencing varying degrees of addiction to share openly and get help. In addition, many who had been quietly carrying the weight of a family member struggling with addiction were also able to share their experience, connect with others, and know that they were not alone.

EB: What is the path to restoration for a pastor or church leader who struggles with substance abuse that your church has followed?

JV: Though it will be different for each instance, the path that we established and have used in a variety of situations includes the following four steps:

Step 1: Accountability will be provided as necessary to protect the gospel ministry, the church, and the minister involved. Accusations against a minister must be substantiated (1 Timothy 5:19), and appropriate accountability provided impartially (1 Timothy 5:21).

Step 2: Confession will be the responsibility of the minister committing the offense. The appropriate setting will be determined based on the nature of the offense and the scope of the minister’s work (1 Timothy 5:20).

Step 3: Forgiveness will be the responsibility of the church to express and to enact both verbally and relationally. The aim of the steps to restoration is both to maintain holiness in the church and a relational context for restoration. Forgiveness does not mean that consequences such as employment termination, license revocation, etc., are removed. Forgiveness allows the church and minister to begin healing and rebuilding trust.

Step 4: Restoration will require the commitment and follow–through of both minister and church. A “Restoration Plan” will be agreed upon as outlined below. Each plan will be shaped by the willingness, needs, and opportunities presented by both the church and minister.

The elements of a restoration plan may include any or all of the following:

  • Professional counseling. The minister and family (if applicable) will need focused help in addressing the presenting issue as well as secondary issues — for example, anger and bitterness — that surface related to the presenting issue.
  • Mentor pastor. A pastor not affiliated with the current church will serve as accountability and discipleship supervisor. Quarterly reports from counselor, therapist, and/or psychologist will be delivered to the mentor pastor during duration of restoration.
  • Job support. Assistance in securing secular employment for the minister will aim to provide stability for the family. Childcare and affordable housing may also be considered as part of a plan.
  • Church family. Prayer, encouragement, and a supportive Christian community will be provided by the congregation and/or a small group during the restoration period.
  • Regular review. At six-month intervals, the minister’s progress will be checked by sponsoring church leaders. At the end of two years, the sponsoring church leaders in consultation with the mentor pastor and applicable counselors will either recommend readiness for leadership service (relicensing) or further restoration steps.

The duration of a restoration plan depends on the severity of the harm done and issues related to that harm. If the circumstances involve potentially addictive substances or behaviors, the Personnel Committee (or leadership team) reviewing the specific circumstances will seek to identify one of five stages of involvement with a corresponding duration of restoration recommended.

  1. Curiosity: recommend three months professional counseling.
  2. Experimental: recommend six months professional counseling
  3. Regular: recommend one year professional counseling and a three-month suspension of credentials.
  4. Habitual: recommend one year professional counseling and an 18-month suspension of credentials
  5. Addictive: recommend two years of professional counseling and two-year suspension of credentials

EB: What is the role of the church in walking through this journey when its leaders struggle with addictions?

JV: The first responsibility of the church is to faithfully and consistently pray for their leaders whether or not there is a struggle with substance abuse present. The propensity to stumble and the attacks of the enemy are ever-present dangers, and prayer is the church’s chief resource. When an addiction becomes known, the church and its leaders have the responsibility to protect the integrity of the gospel both by providing appropriate accountability and by extending grace to the leader. This will require an exercise of prayerful wisdom to discern what response a particular circumstance will warrant. If the leader is willing to submit to accountability and repent, then the church is responsible to forgive and provide an open door for restoration. That may or may not mean restoration to a position of leadership, but it should include restoration to relationship with the church.

EB: On a personal level, what encouragement would you give to someone walking through an addiction with a close friend or family member?

JV: I would strongly encourage them to find a support group with others who are walking the same road. Al-Anon groups are available in most cities and provide a specialized support that goes beyond what caring Christian friendships can provide. The unique cycle that accompanies addiction relapse is particularly devastating to families and close friends. Without appropriate support, care can quietly turn into resentment causing even further damage spiritually and relationally.

Church members may find themselves in one of two extremes when a leader they respect has a public failing related to substance abuse: They may feel angry and betrayed, wanting to punish the leader personally (i.e., “if I did that, I would be fired”; “I’ve endured hard times, but I didn’t turn to a bottle/pills”; “he needs to feel the pain of what he’s done to this church”, etc.). Or they may rush quickly to grace to forgive and work toward restoration for the leader while skipping over a period of grieving the seriousness of the sin and its consequences (i.e., “what’s the big deal, we all sin?”; “God’s just gonna do great things [while those close are still hurting]”, etc.) What wisdom would serve these two groups well as they seek to respond biblically?

Both responses are legitimate but incomplete by themselves. The failure and harm are real, and it is right to be angry. The need for forgiveness and restoration is real, and it is right to be gracious. Only God himself is able to perfectly experience both justice and grace at the same time, and he did it at the cross of Jesus Christ. The wrath of God against sin met the grace of God toward sinners in the death of Jesus. Knowing this truth frees us from trying to do what only God can. 

Practically, this means that church members must avoid demonizing others who are responding in a way differently than they are. Our understanding about the nature of God is displayed when those who are feeling the need for justice partner with those who are feeling the need for grace to decide how to express both toward a particular person. Church members should resist only interacting with others in their camp and/or retreating from the church altogether. Both responses temporarily relieve the tension but also remove the possibility for everyone to encounter God’s presence in a transformative way through the crisis the church is facing.

I am deeply grateful for the leaders and people of Columbus Avenue Baptist Church because they remained together in the tension of both seeking justice and extending grace. Consequently, we have grown as a family of faith through a public leadership failure. What was intended for evil, the Lord intended for good (Genesis 50:20).

EB: What does lived repentance look like during the process of restoration for a church leader or member who has struggled with substance abuse?

JV: I can only answer this in a limited manner since I have not experienced this particular struggle. However, all sin has the possibility of becoming controlling. Living repentance looks like daily returning to the gospel truth that there is no condemnation for the one in Christ Jesus (Rom. 8:1). It looks like walking in regular confession with a trusted group of Christians (1 John 1:7). It looks like replacing the old habit and response to stress with a new one (Col. 3:5,12). Ultimately, it looks like death — and initially feels like death as well (Rom. 6:6-7). Finally, it looks like a new life of joyful worship and service as the Holy Spirit accomplishes transformation (Rom. 12:1-2).

substance abuse

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