So you are a pastor. If you are reading this article you have probably encountered members in your congregation who really struggle with alcohol. You are exhausted. Perhaps these people have become close friends and perhaps they have not. But one thing is for sure; you probably understand that all the theology you have learned and read about in school has not prepared you well for what you are currently dealing with among your congregation.
Perhaps you have driven them to too many detox clinics to count.
Perhaps you have watched them die in the hospital, swollen, jaundiced, connected to machines and tubes with only a few bitter family members left that still have enough patience left to say goodbye.
Perhaps you have had them cuss you out in front of the congregation on Sunday morning because they are deeply tormented and fractured by who they want to be and where they are.
Perhaps you have lost your temper with them and said or done things to them you deeply regret.
You have pulled every tool from your pastoral belt that you know of but still they slowly die.
You have prayed.
Perhaps you have brought them to your Pentecostal friends, feeling powerless, to be healed…
…to have demons cast out…
…to break bondage…
As a pastor and friend you love them so you will do anything to help and it works for a day or maybe even two.
…They stop answering your calls…You can’t find them…They have started again and this time it’s even worse.
I am a volunteer firefighter. I recently had some training sessions in which we had to rescue a body with 75 pounds of equipment on. I was blindfolded. It was so loud I couldn’t hear the guy behind me. I couldn’t feel through my gloves. I had no sense of direction and I had quickly depleted my oxygen tanks. But yet at the other end of my obstacle course was a dummy representing a victim. I was supposed to somehow rescue this victim while deprived of almost every sense I had learned to trust. Real life hands on training like that is a wake up call for me. What looks easy on paper might not be in the trenches.
A fireman might know what to do and how to do it in a classroom but when you get into a real scenario you quickly learn your deficiencies. As a pastor ministering the Gospel to an alcoholic have you learned how deficient you are for the task? I want to give you simple 5 tips to effectively minister as a pastor to the person in your congregation struggling with Alcohol.
First: A ministry of “Defining God” to an alcoholic will not help.
“We do not know God by defining him but by being loved by him and loving in return.” Eugene Peterson
Trying to get an alcoholic to some kind of Bible study with the intent of correcting false beliefs and definitions of God is a worthless endeavor. It’s not wrong to try and encourage church fellowship but their issue goes much deeper than simply changing what they think about God. This will come in due time. First and foremost as a pastor you need to operate from the knowledge that God loves the person you are ministering to and is already at work in him or her. An alcoholic that shows a reverence for God and a love for him needs to be constantly reminded that they are loved and even liked by God according to the Gospel. Here is what I try to remember.
• They need to be reminded that God loves them even in the midst of their struggle. God didn’t give the children of Israel his imperatives in Egypt but after he had redeemed and rescued them. (Exodus 20:2, Romans 5:8).
• They need to be reminded how God loves them even in the midst of their struggle. (2 Corinthians 2:21)
• They need to remember how they can still respond to His love through worship and acts of service even in the midst of their struggle. (Romans 7:14-25)
Second: Pastoral ministry is not a twelve-step program.
“Legalism is a more dangerous disease than alcoholism because it doesn’t look like one. Alcoholism makes men fail; legalism helps them succeed in the world. Alcoholism makes men depend on the bottle; legalism makes them self-sufficient, depending on no one. Alcoholism destroys moral resolve; legalism gives it strength. Alcoholics don’t feel welcome in the church; legalists love to hear their morality extolled in church.” John Piper
My pastoral task is not to become a doctor, “sponsor” or “12 step practitioner” or anything else professional in the life of the person I am ministering to. I am building a relationship of trust through which I can effectively communicate the truth of the Gospel to the person seeking Him in the midst of his or her struggle for their lifetime not just the moment. I can and should direct a person to a twelve-step program, a doctor or a clinic but I cannot become those things for him or her. I will have no ability to convince my friend of their need for detox, 12 step or whatever if they think that I am trying to fix them rather than care for them as a servant and friend.
To the disciples, other than the cross, Jesus’ most effective expression of kingdom leadership and the mandate to love was a foot washing. In this he showed that love is best conveyed through humble service. As a pastor you are not serving AA, a clinic or twelve step program. Why is this important? AA is a practical service to help a person stop drinking. It’s tempting to think becoming a better person saves when you are involved in some very bad stuff so its tempting to help people become better people. As a pastor you are not helping people become more moral so that they might have a better “spiritual resume”. You are simply and uniquely a practitioner of soul care through the power of the Gospel. For example I know a man that seriously and permanently injured a person while drinking and driving, went to AA, sobered up and then proceeded to cheat on his wife with several other women in AA. Though AA and other such programs help these programs do not carry with them “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit” (2 Cor 13:14). It is only by this that we are changed from the inside out and as a servant to the Church and the Gospel it is only to this end that we humbly serve.
Third: Know the people in your church that can help you.
“Surround yourself with the best people you can find, delegate authority, and don’t interfere as long as the policy you’ve decided upon is being carried out.” Ronald Reagan
If you are a pastor that has been brought into the context of an alcoholic’s life you need to find trustworthy folks in the church to talk with and seek wise counsel from. I have found the most helpful folks are are older people that have struggled themselves with alcohol in one way or another. Don’t be a lone ranger. Help get trustworthy and capable folks in the church on mission with you.
Fourth: Intoxicated people can come to church.
“I am recovering the claim that Jesus was not crucified in a cathedral between two candles, but on a cross between two thieves; on the town’s garbage heap” George Macleod
I cannot express to you enough how important it is for the Spirit of God to move on an intoxicated person in corporate worship. Contrary to popular belief folks under the influence of drugs and alcohol have some very sober encounters with God during congregational worship. I have witnessed it on several occasions. When a person comes to church drunk they will probably ask you (if you have a relationship with them and they trust you) “can I be here this morning? I have had a lot to drink.”. If this happens find them a place by some understanding folks in church where they can sit and worship. I have had people weep loudly during the service, cry to themselves, and (as I said above) one guy even cussed me out after the service. God always does something amazing though during corporate worship. The Spirit moves in mysterious ways when his grace is proclaimed while His people are gathered.
Fifth: You are not Kanye West or Jesus.
“A messiah complex (also known as the Christ complex or savior complex) is a state of mind in which an individual holds a belief that he or she is, or is destined to become, a savior” Wikipedia
At the end of the day you are a husband, wife, father or mother. You have your own struggles and issues. If you are a wise pastor you are seeking counseling and professional help for those. You are not Jesus. Avoid getting so immersed in a relationship with an alcoholic (or anyone for that matter) that you forget about your own priorities. To an alcoholic their functional savior is the next drink. We all have some functional savior or some heart idol. Be careful that yours is not “saving people” nothing will get you more lost than becoming a savior to an alcoholic.
Sure ministry takes sacrifice but not at the expense of your first ministry to your family and your own personal health. Make it very clear to the person that you are ministering to that you have boundaries. Learn to say no confidently. Learn to not answer your phone all the time. As a pastor you are not Jesus do not become a Jesus figure to an alcoholic. They will lift you up on a pedestal to knock you down and blame everything on you if you let them. This will happen over and over if you do not make clear boundaries. Jesus took the cross for you. The cross of Jesus is what a person needs not your own personal cross.
If you are ministering to a congregation in a pastoral context I hope you find some of these helpful. What are some tips you have picked up along the way as a pastor?