CHURCH MANY FIND HELP IS 12 STEPS AWAY
Author: By Richard Higgins, Boston Globe Staff
Date: 04/29/1990 Page: 1
NEW YORK -- The tidal
wave success of "12-step" recovery programs has sparked
a grass-roots spiritual renewal across the country, according to
theologians, pastoral workers and clergy involved in the recovery
Each week, 200 types of
12-step recovery groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous or Overeaters
Anonymous draw 15 million Americans to 500,000 meetings across the
nation, according to estimates by Terri Gorski, a therapist who
has studied the movement, and the National Self-Help Clearinghouse
The groups are based on
the 12 steps to recovery, outlined by the founders of AA, which
include admitting one's powerlessness over an addiction, taking an
inventory of inner strengths as well as weaknesses, and drawing
strength from the group and a "higher power."
Though the vast majority
of the groups are formed to help people deal with addictions to
alcohol and drugs, and the effects those addictions have on
others, the groups also deal with a range of problems from
agoraphobia, the fear of public places, to xenophobia, the fear of
However, this spiritual
renewal movement is largely bypassing organized religion.
are experiencing a spiritual awakening that should make every
pastor and person of faith weep for joy," said Rev. Patricia
Daley, a Presbyterian minister who is working on ways churches can
connect with 12-step groups. "But somehow, we of the
institutional church seem to be missing out on the party."
Rev. Daley spoke at a
conference on "Twelve-Step Theologies" at Union
Theological Seminary, which drew more than 250 theologians, clergy
and lay people who are involved in the field of addiction and
recovery groups as a sectarian spiritual movement from which
churches and synagogues might learn. They also pointed out the
shortcomings of the 12-step recovery model in dealing with the
social and political structures of oppression in society.
sometimes called "the secret church," have elements of
organized religion. Alcoholics Anonymous, for example, has
apostle-like founders: Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob Smith. Some of the
groups also have a form of holy book, such as the AA founders'
so-called "Big Book." Other such elements are ritual
structure, use of testimony, meetings that end in
prayer and even
pilgrimages to houses in which the founders lived, religion
scholars have noted. Twelve-step members run the gamut from those
who believe in and refer to "God" to those who are
uncomfortable with referring to a higher power. Some new 12-step
groups in Boston and Cambridge expressly omit reference to a
One speaker used the
metaphor of early Christians in the catacombs to describe 12-step
groups, which often meet in church basements and have no specific
While many accounts of
the movement in the national press and broadcast media tend toward
tongue-in-cheek criticism of their trendiness, pain and suffering
drive people through the doors of their first 12-step meeting,
conference participants said.
"Addictions are a
life-and-death issue for people who have them," said Beverly
Wildung Harrison, a feminist theologian, who also warned that
"addiction is not a metaphor that can be spread too loosely
to express every ill in this society."
The appeal of the groups,
like that of AA, the pioneer 12-step program founded in 1935, is
that they allow people who could not stop addictive or compulsive
behavior alone to find power and help in telling their stories to
others -- and in sharing others' pain.
The success of 12-step
programs in recent years has been a bittersweet irony for
organized religion, which, according to Rev. Daley and others, has
failed to reach out to 12-step participants.
While millions of
Americans troop into the meeting rooms of churches and synagogues
on weeknights or Sunday nights for recovery meetings, they have
often been ignored by the religious communities that gather in
those houses of worship.
member may mutter to another about the smell of cigarette smoke
that lingers after the meetings or about 'those AA people' taking
up our spaces in the church parking lot," said Rev. Daley,
who developed an outreach program to 12-step groups while serving
a Presbyterian parish in suburban New Jersey. "But that's
about it. Lost from sight, they come and
go without many good
church people or synagogue members much knowing or caring."
She cited the example of
a colleague in the ministry who, when presented with the
possibility of welcoming 12-step members into his congregation,
replied, "Well, I sure wouldn't want a bunch of drunks in my
Twelve-step groups may
threaten churches, she said, because their spirituality "does
not mean institutional religion." Members of these groups are
finding their own path to a "higher power" or to God
without priests, popes or ministers.
"Having hit bottom
and come to themselves, these men and women have acknowledged that
their lives had become unmanageable and that they were powerless
to save themselves," said Rev. Daley. "They have come to
believe that a power greater than themselves can restore them to
sanity. In that recognition, they have made a decision to turn
their wills over to the care of God. From hopelessness and
helplessness, these people are discovering the reality of God's
grace and forgiveness."
Instead of rejoicing in
that discovery, many churches have reacted with "a note of
doubt or disappointment," she said, and have shied away from
efforts to integrate them.
"It's not surprising
that members of 12-step programs are not pouring into the
pews," she said. "In many ways, intentionally and
unwittingly, we have communicated the message, 'not in my
Donald Shriver Jr., a
professor and seminary president, disagreed mildly, saying that
recovery groups have also neglected the churches, from which
"they have something to learn."
Others suggested the
limitations of the 12-step process. Rev. Carter Heyward, a
feminist theologian and professor at the Episcopal Divinity School
in Cambridge, said the mainstream psychotherapeutic model for
addiction and recovery in America places too much emphasis on the
individual and not enough on the political, social and economic
"structures of injustice" in our society.
Rev. Heyward, who
identified herself as a recovering alcoholic who has benefited
from 12-step groups, said "the genius of AA" is its
recognition that alcoholism "is a disease of disconnection
and that recovery is always relational." However the popular
"addictionist model" espoused in many self-help books,
she said, continues to be "sexist, racist and
heterosexist" and uses the achievement of personal serenity
as a substitute for achieving justice.
"I don't think
serenity is possible without justice," she said in an
interview. "Twelve-step programs are good at what they do
best, which is helping people to stay sober and drug free and to
find a more peaceful way of living, but we need more than that, in
terms of raising consciousness." Addiction, she said, is
exacerbated by the "alienation" of US culture and by
political and social structures such as racism and sexism.
During a question period,
Rev. Heywood was challenged by Rev. Kathleen Noel, a United Church
of Christ minister and suicide prevention worker in Manhattan, who
said that the reason AA has succeeded is that one of its "12
traditions" is to take no position on political matters.
"AA was founded to help people stay sober and for no other
purpose," Rev. Noel said.
Rev. Heyward later said
she agreed that 12-step programs were not meant as a cure-all for
Russell Davis, a
professor of religion and psychiatry at Union seminary, said that
in the 1980s the reigning metaphor for the growth of groups that
cater to spiritual needs was "the spiritual
supermarket." Today, he said, "it is more like a
spiritual mall, with 12-step groups having specialty shops. The
problem remains that no one specialty group integrates ministers
to the whole person."
Others who critiqued the
12-step recovery process said that it has not rejuvenated the
institutional church because the church has not been as honest as
"It seems to me that
the church is like an alcoholic still in the stages of
denial" about its decline, said R. Stephen Fox, a Cornell
University psychotherapist who has studied 12-step recovery
programs in India and the Soviet Union.
"Until it hits
bottom about its own problems, it can't begin its recovery,"
he said. The remark, which ended the conference, was greeted with
self-effacing laughter and applause.
THE 12 STEPS
1. We admitted we were powerless over (alcohol) - that our lives
had become unmanageable.
2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could
restore us to sanity.
3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care
of God as we understood him.
4. Made a searching and fearless inventory of ourselves.
5. Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the
exact nature of our wrongs.
6. Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of
7. Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.
8. Made a list of persons we had harmed, and became willing to
make amends to them all.
9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except
when to do so would injure them or others.
10. Continued to make personal inventory and when we were wrong
promptly admitted it.
11. Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious
contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge
of His will for us and the power to carry that out.
12. Having a spiritual
awakening as the result of these Steps, we tried to carry this
message to others, and to practice these principles in all our
Anonymous World Services, Inc.
NOTE: The use of the
masculine pronoun in referring to God is the original AA language.
Many 12 Step groups choose to change the pronoun to the feminine
or to not use a pronoun at all.
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