By / Sep 13

My family lives right next to the elementary school in a middle-class part of Bradenton, Florida, and two of my neighbors are drug dealers. Addiction is not limited by socioeconomic boundaries. The rich tend to hide it better, and the poor tend to be arrested more. But it’s there—in every pocket and corner of our community, especially opioids.

Opioids are consumed in various forms. Synthetic versions, like Fentanyl and Carfentanil, are used to sedate wild elephants and can be found on the streets in Bradenton. Even a small exposure to the skin can kill you. One tiny flake of Carfentanil is lethal and can float through the air. Heroin is popular because it is much cheaper than prescription pills, like oxycodone. One blend of opioids is called “gray death” because it looks like concrete mix. Unfortunately, the entire gamut of opioids is here, and they are all nasty.

A recent headline in our local newspaper describes a bleak reality: “Bradenton is opioid overdose capital of Florida. And still no one knows why.” The words heroin, overdose, and death are often in the headlines and part of daily life in our community. Opioids are so common here that police officers receive training on how to recognize when overdose victims are about to die. Most patrol units carry Narcan kits, which are used to reverse the effects of an overdose. We’ve done Narcan training at our church and have a kit onsite. Those who use it have learned to administer the dose and take a few steps back. The reversal effects are immediate, and overdose victims will either get sick and vomit or get angry and come up swinging.

Ministering in the darkest corners

My church is located right in the heart of Bradenton. We call ourselves “a neighborhood church for the nations.” The call to shepherd a church is a call to shepherd the community. When God led me to West Bradenton, he not only gave me a responsibility for pastoring a church but also a responsibility to serve our community. Churches are not islands in the community, set up to isolate believers from the ails of society. The walls of the church are not protective barriers to community problems. Quite the opposite—the church should be the vehicle by which people are sent into the hardest, darkest parts of the neighborhood. You can’t be salt and light hunkered down in isolation.

For us, that meant tackling something no other church was doing. We already had a dozen or so drug deals a day occurring in our parking lot, so something had to be done. Our student pastor started the movement. He stood in front of our church and made a plea, “I’m sick of people dying. We’re going to do something.” Preaching the funerals is especially hard. I wept after a 4-year-old child asked me why the needles killed his mom. Death is cheap and comes in doses of 0.1 grams; it can be bought for as little as $10 a bag.

When the community started calling us “the heroin church,” we knew we were banging on hell’s gates. We chased the dealers out of our parking lot—literally. Then we started a 5K road race in our neighborhood to raise awareness. The road race brought together several groups who did not know each other. Our church became a gatekeeper for the small, local ministries trying to solve the addition epidemic.

Foster care and homeless ministry

Then a wave hit our congregation. A swell of our families began to foster children. Our county is first in removal rates of children in all of Florida. Of the 500 children removed from their homes last year, over half of them are directly attributed to substance abuse. Most of the children removed are under the age of 5. The foster system is out of beds for children and is in a $3.8 million budget shortfall because of the problem. Our foster son was severely neglected and tested positive for an illicit substance before he came into our home. He was not even 2 years old.

If you want to jump into the thick of evil, then become a foster parent. Whatever issues are producing foster children are often the core of a community’s sins. You are immediately connected to some of the most difficult issues in your community when you take a foster child into your home. In our case, it’s opioid addiction. Our children’s ministry is full of foster kids. Here is what I love about how my church is ministering to these children: The name tags of our foster children don’t have a special label designating them as being fostered. These children are part of our homes, which means they are part of our church family. We’ve opened our doors to the worst problem in our community, and God brought us beautiful children who need to hear good news.

God wanted us to do more, though. He sent us two gritty retired police officers who serve the homeless 365 days a year. They take no breaks, no vacations, no rest. Christine and Ian live for one purpose—feeding the homeless every day in order to share Jesus’ gospel. When you mingle with 200 homeless people a day, it gets a little messy. The vast majority of them are addicts. Our church jumped right into the mix. I even bring my four children with me when I volunteer. You can grow slowly in wisdom and maturity by sitting in pews, but you make leaps when you minister on the streets.

West Bradenton is a neighborhood church for the nations. It is not a fallout shelter from a radioactive world. You can’t be salt and light hunkered down in isolation. We’re not trendy or hip, but we will dig into the best and worst of our community—and we’re proud of our moniker, “the heroin church.” And as a pastor, I’m honored to serve alongside people who get what living out the gospel means.

By / Apr 18

Prior to the onset of the global COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020, the opioid epidemic was the healthcare crisis that grabbed and held our attention. In the State of Tennessee, where I live, deaths related to drug overdoses increased by 18% from 2018 to 2019.12021 TN Annual Overdose Report, p. 30 

In Wilson County, local law enforcement was speed-tracking resources and training to curb overdoses induced by Fentanyl-laced opioids. African American pastors, particularly, were conducting more funerals of congregants who lost their battle with addiction. And initiated by the county mayor’s office, a task force was established in 2018 to bring addiction awareness, education, and prevention practices to our affluent, upper-middle class community.

The COVID pandemic, however, did not curb opioid use and abuse. It merely moved it out of plain view, but only temporarily. Substance abuse and overdoses continue at alarming rates along with other mental health challenges affecting neighbors of all ages. In our community, for example, local middle school administrators are forced to call an ambulance almost daily due to suicidal or homicidal ideations from middle school students. Social-emotional challenges not only hinder a student’s ability to learn, but create a difficult environment for both students and faculty in our public schools. 

The opioid crisis is a devastating symptom of a profound spiritual, emotional, and relational  brokenness that affects far too many of our closest neighbors. Loving our neighbors, then, calls the church to move into this brokenness to both restore those already trapped by addiction and to build a robust, comprehensive disciple-making model that prevents the likelihood of substance abuse and addiction from ever beginning.

3 steps your church can take 

Consider these three steps your church can take to break your community free from the opioid crisis:

1. View substance abuse and addiction as a Great Commission issue.

Spiritual lostness produces brokenness, and too often that brokenness is called addiction. Pastor Robby Gallaty said that many pastors view people with addiction as “those drug heads.” The implication is that those who battle drug addiction exist in a separate category of humanity — perhaps a category Jesus cannot or will not redeem.

Many religious people during Jesus’ ministry viewed the lame, blind, and demon-possessed in a similar way. But Jesus made the most marginalized people in the community central to his ministry offering them both spiritual life and physical healing. 

Our Great Commission mandate means the marginalized are not marginalized in our church or in our ministry. It means we remove the stigma of addiction, and invite those who are suffering to come near. 

It means pastors preach on the subject and that our evangelism training, small group ministry, and disciple making strategy include practical help and lasting hope for every neighbor carrying all kinds of sin and brokenness, including that of substance abuse, addiction, and other mental health challenges. 

2. Respond to substance abuse and addiction in collaboration with community partners.

Local churches should be a place of healing for those who struggle with addiction, but no one church alone can provide all the resources necessary. Some churches offer a recovery program, but not all can. Some churches provide counseling, but not all can. Sometimes the need is acute, and a church is simply not prepared to provide the assistance needed.

But when churches collaborate with other church and community partners, including healthcare providers and social services, they have access to more resources that can help them help their neighbors in crisis.

Through the State of Tennessee Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse, for example, churches can join the network of Recovery Congregations. As a Recovery Congregation, a church agrees to be a place of help and healing. Few churches can do everything, but every church can do something, and in turn connect to other churches and local agencies that offer more specialized assistance. 

In our community, the organization called DrugFree Wilco provides awareness, education, and opportunities for churches and other community groups to serve our vulnerable friends and neighbors well. There could be similar organizations near you. 

As churches walk with people who are struggling with addiction, community partnerships allow us to serve our neighbors more effectively than we ever could alone.

3. Prevent substance abuse and addiction through an incarnational disciple-making strategy.

Much of our efforts related to the opioid epidemic are reactionary. We meet someone struggling with addiction, and we respond by giving practical help and sharing the gospel. That is the correct response, and there will always be a need for us to minister to human needs in this way.

But for long-term progress, perhaps churches can evaluate how we take on the task of disciple making. In addition to teaching the next generation already in our student ministries, perhaps we can consider efforts that prepare, encourage, and send out believers to live as missionaries among people who have not yet attended our church or the programs we offer.

As we root believers in the riches of God’s Word equipping them to make disciples, we can also incentivize them to build significant relationships with neighbors outside of our church.  

I’m honored to lead a coalition of churches working together for the transformation of our community. As we give believers the opportunity to serve in the public schools, in addiction recovery programs, in poverty alleviation initiatives, and in foster care programs, we move God’s people into the public square. These are not programs the church must manage or can always measure, but they help believers live present with people in their brokenness in order to serve, teach, and influence them to follow Jesus with us. 

This incarnational approach to disciple making is less programmatic, and more personal. It’s also less measurable in the short term, but perhaps creates long-term, sustainable transformation for our closest neighbors and in the social structures of our community. 

  • 1
    2021 TN Annual Overdose Report, p. 30
By / Mar 31

I recently celebrated one year of sobriety from alcohol — a goal I’d been working to accomplish for several years. I’d felt I had an unhealthy relationship with alcohol since the first time I took a sip as a teenager, and I often thought of my grandfather, who died of liver disease related to alcoholism. I knew it was unhealthy for my body, my choices, and my faith. It was a barrier in my relationship with God. Rather than water and refresh my heart, it dried it up or drowned it out. 

To quit a substance one is physically or mentally addicted to is no small feat, and the support of friends, family, and community can make all the difference. There are likely more people in your life struggling with addiction than you realize. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism found that 25% of people 18 and over regularly engage in binge drinking. During COVID-19 specifically, excessive drinking increased by 21% overall.  

The truth is, addiction doesn’t always present itself in stereotypical ways. Women, especially, are often high-functioning and successful, masterfully hiding their strongholds behind the highlight reels of social media and accomplishments. Interestingly, alcohol consumption among women rose by 41% since March 2020, according to a Harvard health study

An addiction of any kind is toxic to the body and the soul, and it’s important to know how you can best encourage friends who are struggling. As for me, the process was a journey. After years of asking the Lord to help me quit drinking, I was finally able to do it, knowing that I had been sinful in so many ways with my alcohol consumption. The Bible provides countless warnings about the substance. For example, Ephesians 5:18 states: “And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit.” What I recognized, finally, was that one cannot be filled with the Holy Spirit when one is filled with wine. They are like oil and water — unable to mix — and that is one of the best reasons I found to finally walk away. 

This year, I am most grateful for my sobriety and how it allows my faith to flourish and my family to take priority. I am thankful to be rid of mental games and broken promises, feelings of rampant hypocrisy and powerlessness. As 2 Corinthians reminds us, “When I am weak, then I am strong.” It’s only in the strength of the Father and the beautiful community he surrounded me with that I was able to overcome this stronghold. 

Helping a friend with alcohol addiction 

Based on my recent experience, I want to suggest five things you can do to help a friend or family member struggling with non-life-threatening and non-life-altering alcohol addiction:

1. Offer to be a safe place to talk. One of the hardest things about early sobriety is the fear that you will fail and look weak or irresponsible. It’s important that your friend knows you will not berate them if they slip up. A safe relationship opens the door for honest conservation whenever it’s needed. The moment someone feels they may be shamed, they will probably close off. The more vulnerable someone can be in a community, the more likely they are to succeed in the end. 

2. Invite them into community. God has designed us for relationships, and people need community to walk in sobriety. That’s part of the power of Alcoholics Anonymous; it’s a band of men and women who stick together through thick and thin. So, it’s vital that you don’t alienate your friend who is struggling with alcohol addiction. One of the ways you can be most supportive is by inviting them into community. Surround them with the safety of friendship in Christ. Be willing to have a mindset focused on others and how you can best serve your friend as she seeks to overcome her dependence on alcohol by the grace of God. 

3. Pray for them diligently. When someone is giving up an addiction, spiritual warfare is in full force. I used to say that the only thing Satan had to do to keep me away from God was keep a drink in my hand. The enemy doesn’t want your friend to give up alcohol. That’s why we must pray regularly for their strength and ability to overcome. Understand that sobriety is a journey and it’s not always a one-and-done situation. Sometimes people start again and again before it sticks. Never give up on your friend, and be there for then every time they fall. The consistent support is like a safety net that helps them feel they can get up again. 

4. Educate yourself. When you understand addiction, you can be a better support for someone. Sometimes the well-intentioned help by Christians fails to take into account the holistic nature of every individual. There are many sobriety memoirs out there that can help you get into the mind of a person struggling with alcohol. Read the stories of other people and study up on science behind an addicted brain. It can be easy to wonder why someone can’t just “stop drinking,” but it’s usually not that simple. Our brains are actually re-wired when they become addicted to alcohol, so quitting is far more difficult than you can imagine. In addition, know what God’s Word says about addiction, forgiveness, and walking in Christ. 

A solidly supportive friend or family member can be what it takes for someone to overcome their addiction. Without a community to help fuel them, it’s easy for someone to fall into isolation and despair regarding their addiction. Your job as a friend and as a Christian is vital, and I encourage you to take it seriously. God has put you into someone’s life for such a time as this. Be the vessel that they need to to get to the other side. I can tell you from experience that the freedom awaiting them is priceless. 

By / Mar 18

In this episode, Jill Waggoner and Lindsay discuss the number of Ukrainian refugees increasing to 3.1 million and President Zelenskyy’s address to Congress. They also talk about substance abuse within the church, the call to foster care, and why cohabitation is a bad idea. In addition, Lindsay interviews Jill, a pastor’s wife, about church, COVID, and the importance of pregnancy resource centers. 

ERLC Content


  1. Axios: UN: Over 3.1 million refugees have fled Ukraine since Russian invasion began
  2. CNN: President Zelensky addressed U.S. Congress on Wed.


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By / Mar 18

Over the past two years, the COVID-19 pandemic has affected every family in America. Some are still dealing with the aftermath of the disease. But the problem of substance abuse exacerbated by the pandemic might be a problem that lasts longer than the coronavirus.

The pandemic — as well as related policies to mitigate the spread of the virus — aggravated a host of factors that tend to increase the risk for substance abuse. For example, many people experienced sudden loss of income and employment and an increase in time spent at home alone or with dependents, leading to increased levels of stress. The result, as the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) notes, is that researchers have observed increases in substance use and drug overdoses in the United States since the pandemic was declared a national emergency in March 2020. 

Increased abuse of alcohol

The National Institute on Drug Abuse looked at the monthly per capita sales of alcoholic beverages in 14 states and compared sales in 2020 or 2021 compared to the 2017–2019 3-year average. They found that the percentage change in sales for all alcoholic beverages peaked with a 15% increase, and sales of spirits peaked at a 30% increase. 

This increase in sales is reflected in the surveys on consumption. A survey sponsored by RTI International conducted in May 2020 showed overall increases in alcohol consumption, with women, people with minor children in the home, and Black Americans disproportionately increasing their drinking in the short term after COVID-19 started. Compared with February 2020, average monthly consumption in April and November 2020 increased by 36% and 39%, respectively. Corresponding increases for the proportion exceeding drinking guidelines were 27% and 39%, and increases for binge drinking were 26% and 30%.

Using the estimated 166,052,940 people aged 21 or older nationally who drank in 2019, this translates to an increase from February to November 2020 of 1 billion more drinks per month, with 14.6 million more people exceeding drinking guidelines, and 9 million more people binge drinking in November 2020 compared with February 2020. 

According to the survey, the proportion exceeding drinking guidelines between February and November 2020 increased by 54% for women and by 32% for men, with more women than men exceeding recommended drinking guidelines between April and November 2020. The proportion of binge drinking between February and November 2020 also increased by 42% for women and by 32% for men. The largest increases in consumption during this period were for Black and Hispanic women (173% and 148%, respectively), Black men (173%), men of other races (209%), and women with children younger than age 5 (323%). 

The percentage of respondents with mental health issues who reported drinking to cope increased from 5% in February to 15% in November, and the percentage of those who drank for enhancement increased from 6% in February to 16.5% in November. 

Increase in drug overdoses

According to the American Psychological Association (APA), a reporting system called ODMAP found that the early months of the pandemic brought an 18% increase nationwide in overdoses compared with those same months in 2019. The trend has continued throughout 2020, and more than 40 U.S. states saw increases in opioid-related mortality. 

In an interview with the APA, Mandy Owens, a researcher at the University of Washington Alcohol and Drug Abuse Institute, says she’s observed a spike in substance use that includes an increase in both quantity and frequency of drug use during the pandemic. There also appears to be a substitution effect, as the quarantines, lockdowns, and other restrictions made access to certain substances such as heroin more difficult. For example, Owens says Washington state has seen an uptick in the use of fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that’s increasingly produced illicitly, due to a shift in drug supply availability. 

According to the American Medical Association (AMA), the “nation’s drug overdose epidemic continues to change and become worse.” That AMA finds that one prevailing theme is the fact that the epidemic now is driven by illicit fentanyl, fentanyl analogs, methamphetamine, and cocaine, often in combination or in adulterated forms.

A survey published in the International Journal of Drug Policy found that 47% of respondents indicated their substance use had increased during COVID-19, and 38% said they believed they were at higher risk of overdose due to supply disruptions that made drugs more expensive, harder to get, and of unknown origin. Seven percent of survey respondents also indicated they had relapsed during the COVID-19 pandemic.

How to find help

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) has a National Helpline that is free, confidential, and provides treatment referral and information service (in English and Spanish) for individuals and families facing mental and/or substance use disorders. SAMHSA’s National Helpline can be reached by calling 1-800-662-HELP (4357), via text message at 435748 (HELP4U), or TTY at 1-800-487-4889. 

As Christians, we should be ready and willing to care for those who come to us with a substance abuse problem. We can point them to the forgiveness and hope found in Christ while walking with them along the hard road to sobriety. Let’s pray that those who are struggling would get the help they need, find community in the body of Christ, and find freedom in the Savior. 

By / Mar 17

It was 2006, and my friends and I nervously passed around a cigarette behind our middle school.

We had heard the talking points before:

  • Smoking is terrible for your health, 
  • Smoking is addictive, and
  • Smoking can ruin your Christian reputation. 

But, there we were, away from the watchful eye of our parents, smoking. 

Not your grandfather’s cigarette 

As I enter my 10th year of serving as a student pastor, I’ve found that I couldn’t agree more with the famous statement by Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr, “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” 

One of the most common conversations I have with parents in my ministry revolves around the underage use of e-cigarettes or, as it is more commonly referred to by teenagers, “vaping.” E-cigarettes are battery-powered devices that are easy to hide and can look like flash drives. These devices mimic cigarettes by heating liquids with nicotine salts or THC oils (marijuana). E-cigarettes are not as detectable as traditional cigarettes because the user exhales a mist of vaporized particles instead of tobacco smoke.

The most recent National Youth Tobacco Study found that more than 2 million youth use e-cigarettes. That represents 11.3% of high school and 2.8% of middle school students nationally. It is no wonder why the conversation is so typical.

Shockingly, the NYTS found that almost 1 in 4 e-cigarette users smoke daily and concluded that “disturbingly high rates of frequent and daily e-cigarette usage suggests that many teens have a strong dependence on nicotine.” Another contributing factor to the rising dependence on nicotine may be the actual concentration in the e-cigarette itself. JUUL, one of the most popular brands of e-cigarettes, claims their 3% JUULpod (JUUL’s lowest strength pod) contains approximately 23 mg of total nicotine. The average pack of cigarettes contains 22 to 36 mg of nicotine. 

The study also found that 85% of the 2 million smokers preferred flavored e-cigarettes. In early 2020 the FDA began working on enforcements against flavored e-cigarettes that targeted kids. Seven firms received warning letters for marketing unauthorized e-liquids that imitate packaging for food products such as Cinnamon Toast Crunch cereal, Twinkies, and Cherry Coke, or feature cartoon characters that often appeal to youth (remember Joe Camel?).

I guess the more things change, the more they stay the same.  

So what do I say to my teenager about vaping? 

You could say that: 

  • Vaping is terrible for your health, 
  • Vaping is addictive, and 
  • Vaping can ruin your Christian reputation. 

You wouldn’t be wrong to say those things. You might not be convincing either. How often has someone in authority told you not to do something you wanted to do because it was “bad” for you? How many times did you listen? You get my point.  

If you haven’t read “The Expulsive Power of a New Affection” by Scottish minister and professor of theology Thomas Chalmers, you should. He argues, “The love of the world cannot be expunged by a mere demonstration of the world’s worthlessness. But may it not be supplanted by the love of that which is more worthy than itself?” 

You are going to need something more than a demonstration of the worthlessness of vaping, no matter how compelling it may be, to guard your child against the temptation to vape. 

James 1:14 says, “But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire.” The Bible says your teenager will experience the temptation to vape because of their desire for their peers’ acceptance, a desire not to be made fun of for refusing, or their desire for the flavor and buzz that vaping gives them. 

The reality is if you want to protect your child from the temptation of vaping, the best option at your disposal is to ignite in them a stronger desire than acceptance, avoiding suffering, and temporary pleasure. 

Jesus said it plainly in John 14:15, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” And this is precisely Chalmers’ point. A strong desire, or love, for Jesus is the best hope your child can have to expel their worldly desires and choose their Savior over their sin.

Will your child avoid all temptation? No. Will they make mistakes? Yes. 

Getting the conversation started

When it comes to dialogue with teenagers, asking questions can be more effective than making statements. Questions get them to talk more, you to talk less, and can reveal how they filter the world. 

So when it comes to talking to your teenager about vaping, try this. 

You could ask: 

  • Do you have any desire to try vaping? Why?
  • Would vaping make you more like Jesus?
  • What sin might you commit by choosing to vape in light of laws and household rules? 
  • Will vaping make it easier for you to follow Jesus?

Listen to what your child has to say. It may surprise you how quickly they confess and clarify the true desires of their heart. The work begins when your child reveals a desire other than following God’s best for their life.

Where do I go from here? 

If your teenager feels like today’s temptation to vape and its consequences seem small, help them see that tomorrow’s temptations are much larger and come with significant consequences. The result of those later temptations will be more than losing cell phone privileges and not being able to go to the game on Friday night with your friends. Show them that refusing to give in to the small temptations actually equips them to reject more considerable temptations in the future.

Instead of showing them how their desire is worthless, offer them a desire for something more worthy. In Matthew 16, Jesus instructs his followers, “If anyone wants to follow me, he must deny himself.” For the follower of Christ, self-denial is not a practice; it is a way of life. It is a choice to find life by emptying oneself of worldly desires. 

Let me remind you that you are not in this alone. There is heavenly wisdom in the gathering of the local church. God has given you a community of believers to encourage you and your student to choose faithfulness to God over the fleeting desires of our sinful hearts. To hold you up when you feel like you have blown it as a parent. To speak words of life to your teenager when nothing you say seems to make a difference. 

Remember the encouragement of Psalm 119:9, “How can a young man keep his way pure? By guarding it according to your Word.” I am praying Ephesians 3:17-19 over you and your student, that Christ would make his home in your hearts as you trust him and that God’s love would make you strong enough to choose a life complete with all the fullness and power that comes from God, not the world.

By / Mar 16

The turning point for me occurred at a funeral. I was holding a 4-year-old child I did not know. His mother had passed away after overdosing on a dangerous mix of fentanyl and cocaine. The family reached out to our church and asked for a pastor to officiate the funeral. I’ll never forget the young boy’s words.

“Are you going to help bring my mommy back?”

I didn’t have words for him. Only tears. 

He was placed in a foster home. Thankfully, it was one full of love and support. At about the same time as the funeral, a local newspaper headline caught my attention: “Bradenton is opioid overdose capital of Florida. And still no one knows why.”

Every year, hundreds of children are removed from their homes in our county. Over half of them are directly attributed to the substance abuse of parents and guardians. Most of the children removed are under the age of 5. I did not have the right words for the 4-year-old, but his question prompted me to act. I could not bring his mom back, but my wife and I could be foster parents for children in situations like his. So we got our license and began our foster journey. 

The foster system in our area is stretched thin. When licensed as a foster parent, you receive a child placement immediately. My wife and I recently cared for an infant struggling with the effects of cocaine addiction. Every drug a pregnant mother consumes passes in her bloodstream through the placenta and to the child. Babies are born addicted, and it can be a horrible experience for them as the central nervous system tries to recover.

Church members and foster care 

Foster children are one of the most overlooked and underserved groups of people in our nation. Most communities struggle to find placements for these children. Local churches in the United States have more than enough homes to solve the problem, but few Christian families are pursuing fostering. But what happens when people in your congregation start fostering children?

Your church is woven into the fabric of the community. In my role at Church Answers (a resource site for ministry leaders), I’m often asked, “How can my church better serve and reach the community?” There are many ways to answer the question, but one answer is obvious: start a fostering movement in your congregation. Caring for foster children forces you to be an active part of your community. You interact with social workers, struggling parents, judges, and police officers. Fostering weaves you tightly into the community and allows your church to be a thread pulling everyone together.  

Your church is recognized as a solution to community problems. The issues producing foster children are often the core sins plaguing a community. When people in your church foster, the neighborhood tends to view you as helpful. Foster children are the result of the worst problems in the community. Inviting them into your church homes makes you one of the best solutions for your neighbors. 

Your church is pushed outward with God’s mission. The church is not designed to be a shield protecting the Christian bubble of safety. Rather, the church is a vehicle engineered by God to send people into the darkest corners of the neighborhood. Fill your church with foster children, and your people will be filled with a desire to do gospel work. 

Your church is compelled into a posture of selflessness. I hear the excuse all the time, “I couldn’t foster because it would be hard to give the child back.” I understand the sentiment. Indeed, my wife and I live this paradox. The purpose of fostering is more than raising a child. It’s about reuniting a family. You care for children and encourage moms and dads. Fostering is a weighty burden that will bend you hard in the direction of selflessness. Is it painful? Yes, sometimes. Is it worth the stretch? Always. 

Taking a risk and doing what’s right

We see the risk and reward of caring for a child in need in the book of Exodus. When Pharaoh’s daughter opened the basket floating on the Nile, she saw a baby and said, “This must be one of the Hebrew children” (Exodus 2:6, NLT). This must be one. One child saved. Imagine the desperation of Moses’ mom, placing him in the papyrus basket and letting him drift away from the safety of her arms. 

Imagine the courage of Moses’ sister, Miriam. At significant risk, she keeps watching over the basket. She is an advocate. She stays close to the crisis to help. She risks everything when she reaches out to Pharaoh’s daughter.

Imagine the audacity of Pharaoh’s daughter. She is part of the family committing genocide, but she becomes a person of power who uses her position to do what is right. The child in the basket moves her. A child in need should move us all to action.

There was a tremendous risk to all the women in this story, but it did not stop them from doing the right thing. What if the church looked at the foster system as a floating papyrus basket? What if the people of the church opened the basket and had the same response as Pharaoh’s daughter? Let’s not let these children continue to drift. Your home might be a promised land of sorts for them. A movement of God within your community and your church could start with just one child. How is he calling your church to step out in faith and care for the most vulnerable ones in your community? 

By / Mar 14

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).

By / Dec 13

Most people look at me and see a cliché soccer mom from the suburbs trying to keep all the plates spinning: raising five kids, looking for that perfect Pinterest Instant Pot recipe that everyone will enjoy, racing to basketball games while practicing spelling words in the car, all while trying to squeeze in a weekly — OK, let’s be honest, monthly — date night with my husband. It’s the daily grind filled with small moments of joy, stress, pain, grief, and celebrations that many American families experience.  

What people would be surprised to learn is that my life didn’t always look so idyllic. I grew up in the 80s, amid the divorce boom. Every parent, grandparent, aunt, and uncle I knew was divorced. I didn’t have much of a relationship with my dad, and overall, in addition to divorce, I experienced addiction, abandonment, abuse, and general dysfunction throughout my childhood. These experiences gave me the desire to break the generational cycle of dysfunction in my own life.  

My childhood also gave me great empathy for those who have endured similar struggles. It opened my eyes to ways in which the church supports its flock — like the way Jesus ministered to the woman at the well. Unfortunately, my experience of growing up with great instability and dysfunction has also shown me ways in which the church has room for growth. I have seen the church respond with both empathy and judgment, and it has caused me to pause and ask myself, “In what ways are we doing well, and in what ways can we do better?”

Growing and thriving

There are many ways in which the church is caring well for people who have experienced abuse, addiction, abandonment, divorce, and general dysfunction. In past generations, some in the church perpetuated the notion that Christians must “have it all together.” Believers succumbed to an underlying pressure to look, act, and be perfect. This perfection drove many believers to live secret lives of sin and shame — to hide their addictions to pornography, drugs, sex, food, and alcohol, among others. And struggles with pride, anger, depression, mental illness, and more were pushed below the surface. When they perceived they could not confront their sin in a safe and healthy place, they fed their sins until they were bloated with depravity and buried under a heap of guilt.

Today, I see a shift. The church is actively acknowledging that we — Christians included — are all sinners (Romans 3:23). Preachers used to preach it from the pulpit, but now local churches are putting Scripture into action by providing a welcome place where people can process their sin, pain, and grief through programs like Celebrate Recovery, GriefShare, DivorceCare, and other local, faith-based recovery groups.  

I also see a shedding of the stoic exterior once worn by the baby boomers and Generation X. And I believe we have the millennials and Generation Z to thank for that. While the older generations tend to conceal their emotions, the younger generations revel in vulnerability and authenticity. They view openness and sharing their feelings as a strength, not a weakness. They are creating a culture of open dialogue through life groups, discipleship, and mentors, which is helping everyone within the church feel less ashamed and more apt to confess their emotional struggles, familial baggage, mental health issues, and spiritual doubts and confusion. This mentality of vulnerability — along with the ability to acknowledge one’s sin—cultivates a field ripe for more authentic relationships with Jesus and with each other.

Room for improvement

But there is still so much the church can do to improve how it cares for people who have experienced abuse, addiction, abandonment, divorce, and overall dysfunction.  

First, we must realize that those in church leadership are not above these issues. We must provide safeguards and accountability for our staff, elders, deacons, teachers, and the entire church body (because anyone who steps foot in the church building becomes a leader in some form or fashion). These safety measures can come in the form of accountability partners, prayer partners, and life groups, all of which must be shrouded with truth and grace.

We also need to shake off the attitude of “that would never happen to me.” We think dysfunction occurs in someone else’s family and life until our spouse has an affair, our teenager becomes addicted to drugs, we get addicted to prescription pain killers, our daughter struggles with an eating disorder, or our husband looks at pornography on his work computer. We believe these things only happen to other people until we are sitting on our counselor’s couch asking, “How did I get here? Where did it all go wrong?” The truth is, we are all one bad decision away from living a completely different life.

Next, we need to embrace the sinners among us with truth and grace. Instead of having the Pharisees’ hypocritical attitude of judgment (Luke 6), we should have the attitude of Paul who realized he was the worst of sinners (1 Timothy 1:15).  Fred Rogers once said, “There isn’t anyone you couldn’t love once you’ve heard their story.” Wrong judgment ends when listening begins. When we hear someone’s story, we understand them a little more. When we understand, we empathize. When we empathize, we can offer them the help they need.  

Instead compartmentalizing our faith — consciously or unconsciously — to Sunday mornings or Wednesday nights — we must follow Jesus into the messiness of other people’s lives. We need to listen to the hurting, weep with the broken, hurt with the sick, and cry with the grieving. Due to my family’s circumstances, I lived with a friend’s family during my sophomore year in high school. Later, during my senior year in high school, I lived with a different friend’s family. These families saw a need, and they met it. This is the church — seeing the messy and the broken and putting it back together. Not just when it’s convenient, but when it’s needed. 

So, what can the church do to help those who have experienced abuse, addiction, abandonment, divorce, and general dysfunction?  We can listen and empathize. We can get involved for the long haul. We can point people to Scripture instead of offering pithy, empty clichés. We can be on guard and accept that these traumas can happen to us, even though we live in middle-to-upper class neighborhoods, we have a college education, or sit in the front row at church every Sunday. We can intentionally focus on connection and discipleship, and we can do all of this while offering authenticity and vulnerability along the way. 

By / Mar 18

Free, downloadable bulletin insert for use by your church on Substance Abuse Prevention Sunday.

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