Recovery and Religion: Conflict and Solutions

By Heather Berry 05/06/20

"I want the recovery community to have the courage to see the importance of religious organizations and institutions and try to understand the hope and good they provide for some people."

Image: 
Man standing in front of glowing cross with flowing light beams parting a giant wall of huge red question marks
Treading religious waters cautiously © Mike2focus | Dreamstime.com

Many people with addiction struggle with the idea of organized religion. 

And, many organized religions struggle with outdated ideas of addiction.

What can the recovery community and church communities do to knock down some of these walls? Is it even necessary?

What better place to begin to explore such a volatile topic than a faith-based college campus like Baylor University? 

Baylor is a conservative, Baptist institution founded in 1845 in Waco, Texas. While the university is founded on Baptist traditions, the student body is diverse. 

Baylor’s Beauchamp Addiction Recovery Center (BARC) faces these challenges daily.

Imagine you are a student at a university like Baylor. Consider these three addiction recovery dilemmas:

  1. Let’s say you’ve been raised in a religious atmosphere where addiction is still viewed as a moral failing. You think you have a drinking problem, but you attend a conservative university with a religious foundation similar to your faith. You assume the addiction recovery center on campus also sees addiction as a moral failing. Will you walk through the doors and ask for help?
  2. You’ve experienced religious abuse. You want nothing to do with organized religion, despite your parents’ heavy pressure. Yet, you need help for an addiction to opioids. Do you walk through the doors of the collegiate recovery center at a faith-based university and ask for help?
  3. You’ve had no religious upbringing. In your eyes, talking to someone like a minister about your drinking is foreign and uncomfortable. Do you walk through the doors? 

Like all collegiate recovery professionals, Baylor faces Herculean tasks: Educate a campus full of young people about addiction (These same young people, mind you, were raised with long-held American stereotypes about acceptable drinking in college); ask this campus of adolescents to take an honest look in the mirror when it comes to their own drug and alcohol use; create a safe and encouraging atmosphere for those needing help.

Now, let’s make the whole subject even trickier by adding religion to the conversation.

Instead of buckling under the pressure, Baylor is establishing a model for other faith-based organizations attempting to bridge the gap between addiction recovery and religion. 

Lilly Ettinger, BARC’s assistant director of wellness recovery and Stanton Corley, BARC’s recovery support coordinator, offered their professional insights around collegiate recovery and the topic of religion. 

Pathways to Recovery

The BARC treads religious waters cautiously by offering students multiple pathways to recovery, including faith-based and secular approaches. Each individual meeting with a student at the BARC ends with a few questions regarding the student’s religious beliefs. If a student discloses a difficult relationship with faith, secular paths to recovery are explored. 

The questions have a general tone like, “Are you spiritual or religious?”

If students have a history of spiritual abuse, empathy is key. “We don’t defend anything that may have happened to them,” says Ettinger, “instead, we’re there to empathize and agree with their past experiences.”

This isn’t to say Baylor isn’t first and foremost a faith-based institution but, according to Ettinger, the BARC allows each individual seeking help to set the religious tone.

“It is complex and complicated tackling religion and addiction recovery, in many ways,” says Corley. “It may be more complicated at a Christian university navigating multiple pathways to recovery,” he continues. “Many times, we have to be more vocal about our non-religious approaches, rather than our religious approaches,” he adds.

Both Corley and Ettinger are seminary trained with theological educations, and both are in recovery. They see their seminary training as an asset, drawing on an ability to build a level of trust with anyone from any background. 

“We’re trained to empathetically and actively listen,” says Corley. He credits this training, in part, to building trust quickly when a student walks through the BARC’s doors. “We focus on empathetically entering whatever space they are in, with them,” he explains. “This kind of trust allows us to ask hard questions and, sometimes, self-disclosing our own recovery stories. That’s the nature of having a story,” he continues, “we can share our experience, strength, and hope, then say, ‘Hey, this works for me. It may not work for you, but that’s okay, because we have a bunch of alternatives.’”

Corley acknowledges some students on campus may have preconceived ideas about addiction. Some students may associate an issue with drugs and alcohol as a moral weakness. “In the right context, I will self-disclose and tell someone my story; how it wasn’t because I was a moral failure,” says Corley. “It was because I had a substance use disorder that led me to go to treatment.”

Baylor draws on programs like SMART, Recovery Ally, 12-step programs, and more for training and wellness.

Stay on the Same Page

Baylor enrolls more than 3,000 students with each freshman class. At each of the roughly 10 freshman orientations each fall, a representative from BARC speaks to parents and new students. No new freshman walks away without an understanding of all the counseling and recovery programs available on campus.

In addition, Baylor recovery professionals pay close attention to the language used on campus, drawing mainly on the DSM-V for structure around language and information. The careful language selection is meant to convey a uniformly objective, medical approach to recovery.

“Substance use disorders are a common ailment among young adults,” Ettinger explains, “and students who have them shouldn’t be treated any differently than students with any other potential struggle.” 

Words like “abuse” are discouraged. “No one wants to help an abuser,” she continues. If a student expresses doubts or uncertainty about recovery, students are shown the DSM for clarity around a diagnosis.

Because Baylor leads many addiction recovery research programs, the BARC benefits from cross-promotion and cross-information. BARC programs are privy to relevant research and research faculty are offered relevant recovery training.

“We’re invited often to speak at faculty trainings,” says Ettinger. “The fair amount of research done across campus is helpful to us,” she continues, “and some research brings a lot of money to the university.” Because Baylor makes research promotion such a priority, the BARC frequently gets acclaim without even knowing it.

“My background is church work,” Ettinger explains. “I’m happy to be a part of such a great campus, with great faculty, great research and a great staff. I like to think we have one voice,” she continues. “Addiction research informs our BARC practices and beliefs about recovery, meaning we stay connected with how to best help students.”

Changing Outdated Ideas on Both Sides 

How can collegiate recovery programs at faith-based schools like Baylor lead the way in terms of erasing old stigmas and misinformation around addiction recovery and religion? 

“We talk about intention vs. impact a lot,” says Ettinger. “There are a lot of really well-intentioned people who want to help people find recovery and wellness.” These same folks, according to Ettinger, may believe recovery is as simple as saying a prayer and showing up at church. “Showing people how recovery looks different for different people is part of what we do,” she adds. 

Both Ettinger and Corley agree training programs followed by informed discussions for faculty and staff go a long way when it comes to dismantling old stigmas.

More than training, however, Corley sees courage on both sides as critical when it comes to knocking down the barriers between the church community and the recovery community.

“I find myself telling people how I didn’t use near as many drugs as some of my college classmates,” Corley says. “However, they were able to put it all down, graduate in four years, and have families and careers, but I ended up in treatment twice.” Corley says the response he gets from most folks still surprises him. “More times than not, they’re shocked,” he says. “It doesn’t make sense to them, because whoever uses more drugs is going to have a bigger issue, right?” 

Corley believes the courage to share experience, strength, and hope will pave the way for change.

“It’s going to take humility and courage on both ends,” he says. “Religious organizations need humility to admit wrong-doing and ignorance, plus great courage to commit to do something about it.” 

Corley doesn’t stop there, he sees a part for the recovery community as well. “People like Lilly and I are churchgoers, and we need to have the courage to stand up and have these same conversations with our church leaders,” he continues. “Because my faith is so important to me, I want to see humility and courage on both sides. I want the recovery community to have the courage to see the importance of religious organizations and institutions and try to understand the hope and good they provide for some people.”

As for BARC, Ettinger is proud of their place on the Baylor campus. “I’ve been around since the beginning of the program,” she explains. “I was a Baylor graduate student who helped start one of the first women in recovery meetings on campus in 2015,” she adds.

After graduation, Ettinger was hired with the opening of the BARC program in 2017.

For more information on the BARC program, visit: https://www.baylor.edu/BARC/

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Heather Berry is an addiction recovery writer living in Asheville, NC. Her writing has been featured in publications like Prevention, the Cleveland Plain Dealer and websites for various treatment centers. She has 25 years of published experience as a journalist and a lifetime of experience in the recovery community. https://www.linkedin.com/in/heather-berry-addictionrecovery-freelancewriter/