Episcopal Church needs to change approach to substance abuse, report says

By Amy Sowder
Posted Apr 21, 2018

The Commission on Impairment and Leadership has made recommendations about the Episcopal Church’s ordination, training, transition, deployment, wellness, management and oversight processes. Photo: Getty Images

[Episcopal News Service] It often takes a well-publicized tragedy to activate legislation, and the Episcopal Church is no exception.

After then-Maryland Bishop Suffragan Heather Cook, who was driving and texting while drunk, killed bicyclist Thomas Palermo in December 2014, the church has taken a deeper look at the way it handles impairment of various kinds at every level and stage. The church’s culture surrounding alcohol also has faced scrutiny. Cook had a prior drunken-driving charge in 2010.

About three months after the fatal crash, the church’s Executive Council affirmed a House of Bishop resolution calling for the creation of what became known as the Commission on Impairment and Leadership, and provided funding for the work. The group was charged with exploring “the canonical, environmental, behavioral and procedural dimensions of matters involving the serious impairment of individuals serving as leaders in the church, with special attention to issues of addiction and substance abuse.”

A year after turning in the report to Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, the report became public in March of this year. Executive Council received the report before the start of its April 21-23 meeting in Austin, Texas. Curry summarized the group’s work during council’s opening session.

“How do we respond when leaders are impaired in a variety of ways; how do we effectively respond as the community of faith?” Curry said about the focus of the report’s recommendations. That response, he said, also needs to consider how the church can practice prevention by doing things that “foster health and wholeness, and that can screen, as best we can, for problems that may emerge.”

Curry said that some of the recommendations are already being implemented by his Office of Pastoral Development, which assists dioceses in bishop elections and disciplinary issues, as well as in providing pastoral care and training for bishops. The Rt. Rev. Todd Ousley, the bishop in charge of that office, will brief the council in more detail at its January meeting, Curry said.

In one such change that has already happened, the presiding bishop said his office has a new consulting psychiatrist to help improve the existing psychiatric and psychological screening process for bishop candidates. Dioceses are in charge of their own search and election processes. While Curry’s office cannot require dioceses to do so, he said the staff is encouraging dioceses “as strongly as we can” to do those screenings before an election, perhaps when the slate of candidates is chosen.

Dioceses are responding well to that suggestion, Curry said. Dr. Kevin Kelly, who is also the New York Fire Department’s consulting psychiatrist, has 30 such assessments to do in the next six months, the presiding bishop said.

At the same meeting, the Rev. Gay Clark Jennings, president of the House of Deputies and council vice president, said several members of the impairment commission will serve on General Convention’s legislative committee on church-wide leadership. Jennings has asked the deputy members to consider drafting resolutions that pertain to parts of the report’s recommendation that have not been addressed elsewhere.

The report summarizes the commission’s work and makes recommendations about the church’s ordination, training, transition, deployment, wellness, management and oversight processes. The report focuses on substance abuse, while also acknowledging behavior patterns and mental health issues may also lead to impairment.

The 29-page report is now available online in English here and in Spanish here.

“We are recommending actions that promote a significant cultural shift in the Episcopal Church,” the commissioners wrote. “These recommendations address the problem of impaired leaders, but they also diagnose and suggest treatment for an impaired system that maintains denial and helplessness toward addiction, mental illness and physical disease.”

The Rev. Jan Brown leads a workshop in October 2017 at the Gathering in Phoenix, Arizona, an annual networking meeting held by Recovery Ministries of the Episcopal Church. Photo: Holly Cardone

At the 78th General Convention, held June 25-July 3, 2015, the Special Legislative Committee on Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse recommended three resolutions, all of which passed after some revisions.

“Our church culture too often avoids hard conversations about alcohol use, and the role of forgiveness and compassion in healing and recovery,” Resolution A158, titled “Adopt Policy on Alcohol and Other Drug Misuse,” states.

(The other two resolutions were A159: Promote a Healing Ministry to Those Affected by Addiction and D014: Evaluate Individuals in the Ordination Process for Addiction Concerns.)

The Very Rev. Steven L. Thomason was chairman of the legislative committee, as well as a member of the impairment commission. He is the dean of St. Mark’s Cathedral in Seattle, Washington, as well as a physician who was once the medical director overseeing a large group of doctors.

“So, I had experience dealing with physicians who had impairment; I’d usually come out of it from an advocate point of view, dealing with state medical board, seeing how they can get help,” Thomason told Episcopal News Service. “As a physician, I recognize addiction as a disease much the way I’d recognize diabetes or high blood pressure. And we don’t apply moral judgment on those other diseases; it’s about how we can be supportive as they struggle with that and find their way into healthier waters. That’s what the church is called to do.”

Practicing moderation is not a viable option for those whose alcohol use has gone beyond abuse and into addiction, which is a medically recognized disease. Photo: Getty Images

True, clergy struggling with substance abuse or addiction risk disappointing their congregations, facing disciplinary action or possibly losing their jobs, but factors that often prevent alcoholics or addicts from seeking help aren’t unique to clergy, he emphasized.

“Yes, it is difficult for leaders, but I don’t want to suggest that it’s somehow a harder road for a priest as it is for anyone,” Thomason said. “Everyone who has this disease experiences it in his or her own unique way. It’s just hard.”

What the commission found

In the same way that an alcoholic has to first acknowledge the problem in order to solve it, commission members had to dig into what the difficulties are within the church relating to impairment.

To do this, they looked at drinking and drug-related convention resolutions dating back to the 1970s, interviewed people involved in other impairment cases church-wide, and looked at procedures used for handling other impaired professionals, such as airline pilots, doctors and lawyers.

They also relied on research into the dynamics and treatment of addiction, and turned to Christian theological tradition.

Several dioceses and churches are re-examining their policies on the way alcohol is presented at church events and meetings. Photo: Getty Images

To “uncover both individual and systemic failures that led to negative outcomes” in their case studies, the commission said it used the model for in-depth forensic accident investigations originally developed by the National Transportation Safety Board for accidents in the airline industry.

“We did feel that there are definitely systemic changes in the church that need to be addressed,” the Very Rev. Martha J. Horne, commission chairwoman and dean and president emerita of Virginia Theological Seminary, told ENS.

The commission found that some Episcopal dioceses and congregations are proactive, while others are not, she said. On the plus side, when Horne was undergoing her ordination process more than 35 years ago in Virginia, the then-bishop of Virginia was very open about being in recovery. He required anyone going through ordination to go through alcohol awareness training, and the seminary had a required course in addiction, Horne said.

On the minus side, the commission said it observed “how the isolation of leaders and the authority structures within and among dioceses can work together with the denial and codependence that are typical of addiction to prevent identification and treatment of impairment.”

A key conflict is the tension between the right to privacy and accountability to the church and community, according to the report. There’s a need to distinguish between loyalty and responsibility, commissioners wrote. Fear of exposure to liability, as individuals and as a corporate body, is another reason impaired people, or those affected by them, avoid action. The report states that case studies revealed often an “underdeveloped theology of forgiveness” can allow substance abusers to repeat their behaviors without consequences.

Still, the commission asserts that many impairment issues would be better addressed with a ministry canon rather than a disciplinary one, to provide more opportunities for recovery, reconciliation and healing.

In each impaired leadership situation that the commission studied, those interviewed described the same four experiences: isolation, disempowerment, mistrust and guilt.

The report’s recommendations

The commission identifies five key phases of ministry that present opportunities for preventive measures and effective responses throughout the lifespan of ordained leadership in the church:

  • The discernment and screening process for ordination and episcopal elections.
  • The training and formation process for those preparing for ordination and for newly elected bishops.
  • The transition and deployment process for clergy of all orders.
  • Self-care and wellness practices (including CREDO) for deacons, priests and bishops.
  • Ongoing management and oversight of all clergy, including bishops, particularly with regard to evaluation and licensing.

Details on the recommendations are here.

As bishop of the Office of Pastoral Development, Ousley is right in the thick of this issue. He’s been counseling more bishops lately about impairment issues who are asking whether a cleric should continue to serve or is able to serve and how they should serve that cleric, Ousley told ENS.

“We’ve worked really hard in the church to create an environment where you can come and ask questions, speak the truth and expect the support you need. We want that throughout all the dioceses and on the congregational level,” Ousley said. “We’re about fostering healthy spiritual community; that means meeting people where they are, challenging them and holding them accountable, and getting them the help they need either individually or community-wide.”

The Rev. John Christopher, Pastor Tom Weller, the Rev. Steve Lane and the Rev. Lisa Kirby participate in discussions at the Gathering in October 2017, an annual program hosted by Recovery Ministries of the Episcopal Church. Photo: Holly Cardone

When it comes to discernment and screening for ordinations, “we have to ask questions differently to assess whether they’re in addiction or recovery,” and if they are in recovery, whether the longevity of their sobriety can support the major changes that ordination brings, Ousley said. While relapse is always a possibility no matter how many years in recovery, some experts say three years of active work in a recovery program may be enough to be considered for leadership roles, while others assert 10 years is needed. The answer may also depend on the person and situation, Ousley said. After her first drunken-driving charge in September 2010, Cook had one year of sobriety before relapsing, her defense attorney said at her October 2015 sentencing.

Activating GC2015 resolutions at the grassroots level

The solution is not limited to making better policies, whether more resolutions at the next General Convention or canon revisions, according to the report.

Horne said members were clear that the commission’s charge was to explore and examine issues of addiction as they pertain to the church and present a report to Curry, not to craft resolutions or propose canonical changes.

“The commission cannot state strongly enough our belief that legislation and policy alone cannot accomplish the greater cultural shift required in our church to address issues of addiction and substance abuse,” the report states. “We believe firmly that the health and wellbeing of our church invites a more concerted, broad-based, grassroots effort.”

Meanwhile, at least two groups that report to the General Convention — the Standing Commission on Structure, Governance, Constitution and Canons and the Task Force on the Episcopacy — already have filed resolutions that address some of the same areas that concerned the commission. Specifics are in an ENS article on the commission’s recommendations.

Despite the 2015 resolutions falling in line with a history of impairment resolutions using soft language such as “encourage” rather than “require,” Episcopalians have been working to make these most recent resolutions matter in their congregations and dioceses.

St. Mark’s vestry in Seattle has adopted the convention’s Resolution A158 on alcohol policy “word for word,” Thomason said, because it was more robust than its old policy.

Resolution A159 encourages dioceses to work more with Recovery Ministries of the Episcopal Church, a church-wide ministry for clergy and laypeople that provides resources, education and awareness about addiction. The organization holds an annual Gathering to provide networking and support for those doing recovery work within the Episcopal Church. The next Gathering is Sept. 26-29, in Asheville, North Carolina.

At the October 2017 Gathering in Phoenix, Arizona, Eleanor Stromberger received the Sam Shoemaker Award for her grassroots work. She’s been active in recovery in San Antonio, in the Diocese of West Texas and the nation, leading recovery commissions, hosting gatherings and doing a lot of legwork.

“I believe that each one of us who does the work of recovery ministry serves as a doorkeeper for the wisdom, healing and recovery about which the larger church needs to know,” Stromberger said as she received her award. “And trust me, we will always have a mission field in which to work.”

Support, hope and healing

Despite its failings with this issue, the Episcopal Church has a rich history in recovery, said the Rev. Ben Nelson, the new president of the board of Recovery Ministries.

“We’re connected to Bill W. [co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous]. He got sober when he met with a friend named Ebby, who got sober with the Oxford Group, which was led by an Episcopal priest named Sam Shoemaker,” Nelson told ENS, which explains the name of the award Stromberger received. “I think the 12-step movement is really a great spiritual movement, and the Episcopal Church has been present since the beginning. When we’re at our best, this is who we can be.”

The Rev. Holly Cardone, Sandy Blaine and the Rev. Ben Nelson attend the Gathering, a meeting for those who do substance abuse recovery work within the Episcopal Church. Clergy and lay leaders meet to swap ideas and tips and to provide support to one another in their own recovery ministries. Photo courtesy of Holly Cardone

Nelson is also rector of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in San Marcos, Texas, and co-chairman of the Recovery Commission in the Diocese of West Texas. The commission is revisiting the alcohol policy of the diocese to see how it compares to the 15-point policy in Resolution A158, he said.

For anyone, cleric or layperson, who wants help, Nelson first recommends Alcoholics Anonymous. Al-Anon provides the same support, but for family and friends worried about someone with a drinking problem. There are 12-step meetings for other addictions as well, from Narcotics Anonymous and Gamblers Anonymous to Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous.

Many churches offer their facilities for 12-step meetings, and clergy can seek meetings outside their own community to feel safe enough to share honestly while protecting their anonymity, Nelson said.

The Episcopal Church is the first mainline church to have an official prayer for victims of addiction, which is in the Book of Common Prayer, Nelson said. People also can order liturgical templates for a Recovery Eucharist on one of Recovery Ministries’ webpages.

“Many people go to clergy asking for help, and there is a responsibility to help. And if clergy need help, I think it’s the responsibility for the diocese to help. We’d put them in touch with people who might help, possibly in-patient, out-patient, 12-step or therapeutic help,” Nelson told ENS.

“It takes a diocese that says, ‘We can walk you through this. There can be a process so that you don’t have to lose everything to get well. You’re responsible for what happens in your own life, but there is help.’”

— Amy Sowder is a special correspondent for the Episcopal News Service and a freelance writer and editor based in Brooklyn. She can be reached at amysowderepiscopalnews@gmail.com. The Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg, ENS interim managing editor, contributed to this report.


Comments (1)

  1. John Miller says:

    Proposed resolutions A104, A105, and A148 all require background checks for various elected offices. What they do not say is who will be privy to the information reviled in that process, or how — or even if — the voters will be given access to that information. In the case of Heather Cook, a background check was done and turned up the 2010 DUI. The search committee reviewed that information and made a deliberate choice not to make it public.

    What good is a background check if we then hide the information from voters?

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