By Rev. Susan Boegli
I have ten months of sobriety. Yes, that’s right, my name is Pastor Susan and I am an alcoholic and addict. I’m also bi-polar so I had a double whammy against me. I quite willingly offered to write this article to reach out to the other 14% of you who may or may not be living in silent desperation. I’m writing to encourage you to ask for help.
Ten months ago, I led our Good Friday service high. GASP!!!! Have you ever done any church related event under the influence? Maybe a Bible Study? Well, my new low was leading worship high. During that service I had a “come to Jesus” moment – some might claim it wasn’t a spiritual experience, that it was just the drugs talking – but that moment led me to finally gaining the strength to ask for help. I called my District Superintendent (DS) and made an appointment. I feared that I would lose my nerve if too many days went by, but alas, I found the courage. I knew, before I sat down with him, that my whole life was about to change. There was no going back from this time forward and I experienced both terror and a great relief.
My DS and I then told my lay leader and Staff-Parish Relations Committee (SPRC) chair and shared with them that I would be going into treatment at the Hazelden Betty Ford Treatment Center for at least a month. This was the right place for me, particularly because they serve those with a dual-diagnosis, mental health and addiction. The God-thing was that my SPRC chair at that time is a retired rehabilitation counselor. He knows full well about the disease of addiction and has been my most forthright advocate and supporter ever since.
So, ten months ago we celebrated Easter, and ten months ago I began my journey. Easter week I admitted myself into treatment, and I considered it to be my own resurrection into new life. I even got a tattoo of a butterfly on my forearm so I would be ever-reminded of this new life of sobriety. Since that fateful Good Friday, something miraculous happened. I no longer crave drugs or alcohol. I WANT them, but I don’t CRAVE them. I hear that’s quite rare, but I believe God loves those rare times.
Since I left Hazelden, I regularly attend AA meetings and sincerely feel that it’s church for me. Leading worship, and not having the chance to “just worship” leaves me lacking for a time when I can just be. AA offers me that opportunity, and I absolutely love learning about how others imagine their own higher power.
My SPRC chair and I are hoping to visit with the Board of Ordained Ministry and the Cabinet, as well as speak at Clergy session to accomplish three things:
- Help the leaders of out church to create a safe place for those active in the disease so that others may have the courage to “come out” instead of being “found out.”
- Offer education on the conference level as well as in the local church and develop a response team for churches if the same scenario unfolds for them.
- Encourage those still suffering that it will be OK. Whatever happens, it will be OK. You won’t necessarily lose your job by asking for help. Your church can be offered some education around the issues of alcoholism and addiction so they can support you with compassion.
I think the most important thing I learned while in treatment was from a neurologist from OHSU. He showed us the brain of a “normal” person and compared it to the brain of an addict. There was a clear difference and I understood that this is a disease, just like diabetes or cancer; I am living with a disease AND IT’S NOT MY FAULT.
My alcoholism doesn’t mean I am a weak person. Phew… Have you ever felt like it was the addict’s fault? Do you feel that stigma?
One last thing. The most difficult and excruciating part of holding onto this disease was the secrets. The secrecy was absolutely killing me. My alcoholism flared up soon after my provisionary status, and it was full-blown before my ordination as an elder. I held onto this secret all through those sacred times, and deep within I felt like a horrible fraud. In fact, I couldn’t wear my robe. I told everyone it was because I wanted to be seen as another “bozo on the bus” but the truth was, I didn’t feel worthy of the call. How could I preach on our healing, loving God, when I myself was so broken and felt that God had abandoned me?
I am now living a new kind of freedom that I haven’t known in many, many years. I believe I am soooooooo much better at what I do, not simply because I’m sober, but because I allowed myself to be vulnerable before my flock. My experience tells me that as we open ourselves up and show our true selves, others will do the same for us.
In closing, I want to tell you that in my experience, the conference, the cabinet, my district superintendent and my congregation have been unfailingly supportive and compassionate to me on my journey toward recovery. For example, even though Hazelden Betty Ford was in network, I still walked away with a $4,000 price tag. Our Annual Conference picked that up for me. Also, while I was in treatment, I received 86 cards. 90% of them came from my congregation. There is a lot of love, mercy and grace out there, and I know this to be true because I was a grateful recipient of it all. My prayer is that this would be the experience of all who suffer so profoundly with this disease. But I do want to stress that it’s far better to “come out” than to be “found out.”
For more on my story, you can read my blog “A Recovering Pastor” at therecoveringpastor.com. If you would like to talk more about your particular situation or the situation of a loved one, please don’t hesitate to call me at 360-342-7913 or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This is my new call and I’m here for you.
Susan Boegli serves as pastor to the people of Battleground United Methodist Church and the community that surrounds it.