Ministry Development – Dealing with Stigma

One of the issues I found myself dealing with in the early stages of Faith Partners team development had to do with the openness to disclosure among team members, familiar with both AA, AlAnon, and other 12 Step programs. That is to say, where somebody would readily identify themselves as a recovering participant within a 12 Step program – and I had been in meetings with a couple of them – there was a staid reluctance about self-identifying to church congregants. And this was significant as we

  1. had to represent the ministry to the church at large
  2. field questions about bridging the recovery and faith communities, and
  3. work directly with those in need of referral assistance.

One person was actually reluctant to continue participating in Faith Partners after a few meetings, in spite of having a child incarcerated on substance abuse-related charges. She apparently felt that being a part of a recovery oriented ministry while the stigma of having a substance abusing child was too great to bear within the church community.

I empathized with her and shared my feelings. Our society needs to change its outlook and give help instead of punishment. Somebody who is afraid of the stigma associated with addiction and mental health issues will have difficulty helping those who reach out for help and support. When the door of stigma closes, it holds people back in dark and unhealthy places, acting as a barrier to assisting others to a positive future and productive lives.

Another individual, a retired banking executive with over 3 years of recovery, was alright with being a part of Faith Partners. He was, however, against self identifying to any non-alcoholic church members, preferring personal anonymity as a close interpretation of AA Traditions.

I suggested that there might be another way of looking at this. Whether he chose to openly self-identify was up to him, but that presents a problem; how was he to respond whenever anyone stepped forward and asked for help. We are the lucky ones. We received help. We’re blessed. Why wouldn’t a person share that?

Addiction is a disease and its nobody’s fault to have it. It only becomes somebody’s fault if they don’t do anything about it. Fighting this disease on one’s own is almost impossible, and those with the disease need help, support, treatment, sometimes medication, and a lot of hope and encouragement. Nobody can get this help by hiding in shame and guilt behind closed doors without reaching out.

One individual questioned my appearance before 3 services one Sunday – approximately 700 worshippers – where I self-identified and spoke of a planned recovery ministry. Wasn’t I concerned what people would think?

I said that I choose not to be anonymous under such circumstances. My 25 years of recovery is real and I’m open about it because I’m proud of my achievements in controlling substance abuse today. We live in modern times, not stigmatizing people for their, race, color, gender, or heritage. There is no reason to maintain that ancient stigma about addiction in our society. Addiction is an equal opportunity killer disease that could affect someone in your family tomorrow without warning.

Another person questioned whether Faith Partners would be taken seriously, “you know, being they’re alcoholics.” People in recovery are not second-class citizens. They are as proud as cancer survivors, just as reliable as a diabetic, as responsible as someone with high cholesterol, and yet they are still vulnerable to hate speech, bad words and rejection as anyone else.

People with substance use disorders are often seen as weak; even they are the strongest people on earth as they make it into recovery. Yet even in recovery, they are often viewed with suspicion. One point however is clear: Stigma Hurts!

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