Drop the Sin Talk: The Fix Q&A with Drew Brooks

By Cathy Cassata 08/15/14

Drew Brooks from Faith Partners discusses how congregations across the country are getting real with substance abuse prevention, intervention and more.

Drew Brooks

Faith Partners was established in 1995 by religious leaders seeking ways to mobilize the resources of the faith community to address alcohol and drug issues. The organization’s mission is to engage and assist people of faith in the development of caring communities that promote prevention of alcohol, tobacco and other drug abuse and to create a place where recovery from addiction is valued and supported.

As a recovering addict and practicing Christian, Drew Brooks, Executive Director of Faith Partners, understands the struggles of addiction. In recovery from alcohol and drug abuse since 1980, Brooks received chemical dependency counselor training at Hazelden in 1983-84. He worked in treatment, prevention and public health for years before finding his place at Faith Partners in 1999. “This job allows me to merge my professional life of working with treatment, prevention and public health with my personal life of faith and recovery,” he says. “Almost 60% of people don’t know where to go in their own congregation for help with addiction. Similarly, a congregational member has about a fifty-fifty chance of knowing where to go in their community for help. Part of our goal is to coordinate team members within congregations who can become educated on resources available to the community.”

Brooks talked with The Fix about the ins and outs of Faith Partners.

What is the program modeled after?

It was modeled after congregational team ministries established by Parkside Lutheran Hospital in the Chicago area in the 1970-80s who provided education on the disease and recovery resources. Our Faith Partners teams started primarily with awareness, education and recovery support. We have made the model more comprehensive and non-profit-based versus treatment center-based. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism states that roughly 30% of people who are legal drinking age abstain, 30% abuse alcohol or can be diagnosed as being alcoholics, and about 40% use and misuse alcohol providing multiple ministry and service points along this continuum. These numbers are true in most every community, especially in intergenerational communities like the faith community. But sometimes congregations will only get into recovery ministry and it will become kind of the step child of the congregation—something that happens in room 22. People know who goes into that room, and it doesn’t necessarily get embraced by the whole congregation. However, almost everyone in a congregation has had to make a decision about alcohol or drug use at some point in their own lives or in the lives of their children or other loved ones. Plus, every transition in life is a time of vulnerability—for example, going from middle school to high school, getting married or divorced, having a first child, losing a job, retiring, grieving over loved ones. In fact, the largest growing population of alcoholism is seen in older adults who see more and more people they love die, their bodies and minds start to fail them, [they are] starting to take more medications, and some [are] struggling with purpose in their retirement years. My point is that congregations are a place where all generations intertwine, so providing information about substance abuse in this setting reaches across many generational lines.

How does Faith Partners help congregations?

We have three underlying goals to our training. 1. Creating a safe place. 2. Having the conversation within the congregation. 3. Meeting people where they’re at in their experience and decision-making. 

We hold a leadership one-day training where we involve clergy, staff, and lay leaders, so they can understand what Faith Partners is about. It’s followed up with a team training session to educate the team and congregation about prevention, addiction, and recovery, as well as where we introduce them to prevention resources in their community or to a gatekeeper who can open their world to prevention, intervention, advocacy, and resources. Once members begin to understand the issues, they begin to see where their interests may be. It’s an organic approach, tailored to meet the needs of each congregation. 

Although organic, it becomes concrete when you create that awareness and you understand the readiness and the receptiveness of the congregation and meet them where they’re at in education and recovery support. At one congregation, there were two social workers on the team who wanted to have support groups in the congregation, but a survey of their members showed that the congregation wanted help with prevention. The social workers still wanted to hold the support groups, and of course, nobody attended. Each congregation has to understand what their congregation wants. This involves some assessing, capacity building, planning, implementation, and evaluation.

How are the teams set up?

They are a group of lay people who are interested in becoming educated about addiction and in helping their congregation and community address it. They’re often in recovery themselves or have been touched by addiction, and they see the church as an effective educational platform of support. 

Teams are trained in five areas of service including prevention, early intervention, referral assistance, recovery support, and advocacy. Some teams might address one of these areas and others might address all. Some might take one at a time and move on to others as they get a better understanding of the issue and as more people get involved. The ultimate goal is for them to choose programs to meet the needs of their congregational community.

Are you working with mostly Christian congregations?

We have close to 400 trained teams in 24 states in 20 different faith traditions that are primarily Christian, but we do work with Jewish and Muslim congregations as well. The culture of any congregation is different even if they’re from the same faith tradition, depending on the region of the country they’re in. An Episcopalian from Portland Oregon is much different than an Episcopalian from Massachusetts as is a Baptist in Kentucky to a Methodist in Kentucky to a Lutheran in Minnesota. They all theologically approach this differently. Some see it as a sin, and some understand the disease, and embrace the brain research, while others incorporate both. What we say in our training is that we are not here in one day or two days to change your theology; we would be pretty arrogant to think we can change that. But what we want you to do is to rub up against your own theology and to evaluate if it’s an effective response to those families and individuals experiencing addiction.

We also have experienced that the structure and framework of Muslim congregations isn’t necessarily about programming, but more around meeting in prayer so it’s a little more challenging in these settings. In 2007 and 2008, we were invited to speak at the annual conference of the Islamic Society of North America. One of our past advisory council members is Muslim and he spoke about how substance abuse is never discussed because it’s against the religion to drink, yet abuse happens across all religions. In the Muslim community, it’s creating that safe place, having the conversation, and then organically starting to respond based on the needs and receptiveness of the individuals, congregation, and community.

How do congregations reach their members through advocacy?

One congregation in Minnesota did a quarterly forum during their adult education hour where they had somebody come in and talk about gambling, eating disorders, sexual addiction, alcohol and how these affect families. At first, they had about 10 people and then it grew to 75-100 people. People began to realize that just because they walked in the door to get the information didn’t mean they had one of the issues discussed, but that it was a time to understand and learn how to respond to those who do. Having a regular time to educate the congregation allows individuals and families to step into the ministry and share their stories rather than just having congregation leaders tell them what to do. One of the first steps to advocacy is being comfortable with your own story in your own skin and hopefully being able to share that story of transformation. There was a woman in Wisconsin who was in Al-Anon for 24 years and she came to a leadership training. When asked to share her story, her response was, “Oh. I could never tell my story.” 

Unfortunately, this limited her story to inside the four walls of Al-Anon. Another woman in a congregation had been coming to the congregational team meetings for about six months before she came to me and said, “I finally figured out what I want to do to help in this ministry. My son has been in every system—legal, disciplinary, mental health, and substance abuse, and as a parent I didn’t have a clue how to navigate these systems. I want other parents to know what to do.” So she developed a parent advocacy group.

Do you address behavioral addictions and mental health issues?

We’d like to, but again, it’s meeting a congregation where they’re at. Some might think mental illnesses are an issue that mental health clinics should address, not a church. However, it takes about three to five years for this ministry to become part of a congregation. Since we don’t want to go in there overwhelming people, we start with substance abuse since it’s been talked about for a little longer, and there’s less stigma around it than say sexual addiction. Shortly after the program is set up, leaders will begin to start addressing all addictions. Then eventually after addressing these, they’ll realize that mental health issues should be addressed too as they start to realize that so many mental illnesses coexist with an addiction. It naturally evolves in that direction, but the worlds are a little different. Mental health doesn’t necessarily talk about recovery in the sense that substance abuse does. You don’t usually hear a schizophrenic or a person dealing with depression say they’re in recovery, they’re more likely to say they’re seeing a therapist or taking medication. Part of the issue is that the fields need to educate each other so that for people who are new to them, it’s less confusing and they are able to understand that there are common denominators. For instance, both mental illnesses and addictions are brain diseases – although they often affect different parts of the brain.

What addiction treatment options are encouraged?

We know that there are many pathways to recovery and that we have to present options that fit each individual’s or congregation’s beliefs. For instance, some faith traditions might say using the idea of higher power in 12 step programs is introducing a false God. Other congregations might be open to a spiritual transformation approach, which might include 12 step programs. Others might be open to the idea of people getting into recovery through a religious conversion. Others include Smart recovery, 12 step recovery, Christian counseling, therapy, it’s whatever the congregation and theology and religious tradition will embrace.

Do all treatment options presented to congregations have a spiritual component?

Many times religious leaders will tell addicts that finding a God is all they need for recovery. That is an uninformed stance. However, spirituality as a supplement to recovery can be effective. A person’s family, work life, and every aspect of their life have to be part of recovery. 

Some people will tell me that they have to go to a Christian counselor. While I respect that, I make sure to tell them that it will limit their options, especially if that is not available within a community. Faith Partners embraces faith and science. For the longest time the two have been like two ships passing in the night. There are some faith traditions that are very skeptical of science. We try to introduce the science, whether it be brain research, motivational interviewing, stages of change, or other ideas. There are also practitioners of science that are skeptical about certain theologies. We advocate for each institution informing the other.

What would you say to people who insist that spirituality doesn’t have a place in recovery?

There’s no doubt there are multiple paths to recovery. However, a person in recovery is limited if there isn’t a spiritual component. Spirituality, defined in the research article, “So Help Me God” by Joseph Califano of the Center of Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, is a personal and individualized response to God, a higher power or an animating force in the world. It’s something outside of ourselves that touches something within us. The 12-step program which describes growing along spiritual lines as creating a right relationship with ourselves, others, and God, and without those, we’re more likely going to relapse. I’ve yet to see a growing and long-lasting recovery that has not had a spiritual component.

One of the things that I’d say to people on the outside looking in is that there is a difference between religion and spirituality. Religion is a core set of beliefs that is shared by a community through practices, rituals and forms of governance that determine how these beliefs are expressed. In some cases, if you don’t abide by them, you might be excluded from the religion. Many people are leaving their church because they don’t find that it’s spiritual, and they’re able to develop their own personal response to God without a religion. Although I’m an active Christian, I understand this sentiment. If people witness hypocrisy in organized religion, why would they want to be part of it?

Has your approach helped any clergy along the way?

In the early 2000s, our parent organization Johnson Institute partnered with the National Association for Children of Alcoholics (NaCOA) and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration (SAMHSA) to develop a list of core competencies for clergy. NaCOA now offers a one-day clergy education training, while Faith Partners have a two-day training session. Each session equips clergy to be able to respond to addiction. Faith Partners also encourages clergy to embrace the congregational team ministry because it can expand their pastoral care so they don’t have to know all the resources in the community or be the expert on 12-step programs since they would have a group of lay people doing that work for them. Clergy used to be one of the healthiest professions in the 50s and 60s, but now it’s one of the unhealthy professions because often clergy are expected to meet the congregation’s needs 24-7. There tends to be a lack of boundaries. Our program shows them how they can reach out to experts in the field and members of their congregation for ministry support to help address substance abuse and addiction.

This may seem commonsensical, but we know that the key for these congregational teams to get going is to have an understanding and supportive clergy. There are times that clergy are suffering with addiction issues and either want to avoid the subject or invite it in so they can come in the backdoor. This also happens with members of the congregation who volunteer to be team members. In both cases, it’s still a good way to bring the ministry to the congregation. On the other hand, we’ve had some clergy sabotage the programs because they have addiction and don’t want to address it or because they don’t believe it’s the congregation’s place. 

Is it a goal of Faith Partners to get people to join a congregation?

It might be for some congregations, but that’s an ill-advised motivation because people will see right through it if it is the primary purpose. Our first motivation is to create a safe place for those who are broken, meeting them in their felt need, and if this leads to embracing the community through this transformational process, that is God’s doing.

How extensive is church acceptance of treatment over jail?

It depends on if the congregation sees addiction as a sin or disease. We suggest that they embrace both. For instance, in the 12-step program, the first step is the only step dealing with the physical disease of powerlessness (physical compulsion and mental obsession) – it is the remaining 11 steps that deal with the wreckage that being active in their addiction has created – for many that can be defined as sin. Our work with clergy and congregations is to see that it can be both, but the timing to introduce alcoholism as a disease and the accompanying sin is critical in meeting people where they are in their experience and their understanding.

Having said that, if the consequences are that the person needs to go to jail, it may be an intervention for them to seek help. However, I would argue that most people in jail for drug and alcohol [related offenses] have committed non-violent crimes, and treatment would be the better answer. There’s drug courts that are moving people toward treatment, such as attending 12-step meetings. There are pros and cons to that. For instance, can this practice create a perception that attending 12-step programs is a punishment? Ultimately, addiction is a disease. Addicts aren’t bad people trying to get good, we’re sick people trying to get well. But addicts do break the law. I broke the law, I just didn’t get caught. Ideally, we’d like to see people get treatment and start moving toward their own wholeness rather than being forced into it through fear, pain and anger.

How is Faith Partners funded?

In the big picture, through private donations, fees for service and federal contracts with organizations like the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Individually, it is a network of congregations, a community coalition, an agency, a denomination, or a state that requests our services. For instance, a clergy association may ask us to come into their area and work with their congregations, so we develop a contract with them and they pay for the costs. Other times a prevention center might contribute a grant toward the funding in its area. Another example, in the mid-2000s, we were endorsed by the United Methodist Church and the Presbyterian Church resulting in our working for four years with the United Methodist Church around the country engaging their congregations.

For the past three years, we’ve been involved with the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services on the prevention side. They have 17 regional prevention centers which equip and resource communities. What we have done is give the regional prevention centers the tools they need to be able to give congregations the knowledge they need to start this ministry or service in their congregations. We’ve trained several people so once Faith Partners steps away, they know how to go to the next community interested in this and then as communities develop receptiveness, this state coordinated cadre of trainers will provide the training. It’s pretty exciting for us to reach people in this way by equipping the faith community to help individuals and families get the help that they need.

To learn more about Faith Partners, visit www.faith-partners.org 

Cathy Cassata is a regular contributor to The Fix. She recently wrote about addictions to sugar and tanning.


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Cathy Cassata is a freelance writer who writes about health, mental health and human behavior for a variety of publications and websites. She is a regular contributor to Everyday Health and Healthline. View her portfolio of stories at https://cathycassata.contently.com. Connect with her on Twitter at @Cassatastyle.