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Friday, June 7, 2013

What to do with alcoholic clergy

I've gotten more than a few inquiries about this topic.  Here is a fairly typical one from one of the readers:

I have found that in [my country] there are many priests/monks who suffer from alcoholism. Can you help me in this important subject by writing a blog: When a priest should wake up with his drinking? What are the first steps, things to do, when a priest/monk identifies himself as an alcoholic? Go to meetings, read 12&12, contact an AA-member...? Or if you have already done so, I would appreciate a link to that writing.

Well, this is a complicated topic.  By 'many,' what it usually means is that clergy alcoholism rates are on par with the general society.  I have visited countries where the bishops state very plainly that roughly 25% of the clergy have had incidents involving abuse of alcohol (everything from single incidents of public intoxication to daily drunkenness), which match normal life for lay people.

In the Orthodox Church, clergy are not held to a higher standard than any other Christian as far as morals.  All Christians are held to the same standard.  The difference is that clergy receive stiffer disciplinary action for their sins.  You can't depose a layman from being a layman.

Clergy do not magically sprout from the ground in some secret 'priest farm' at a secluded monastery.  They arise out of the community.  If the community is sick, the clergy will be sick as well.

To some extent, this is helpful.  "Perfect priests" can't relate to imperfect people.  If they struggle with their imperfections and make progress, then they can help others with the same problems.  But, when the priest does not struggle, then he is worse than useless: he demonstrates that 'nothing changes' and that the problem is permanent.

So, if there are lots of alcoholics in society, chances are that clergy will have many of the necessary requirements for addiction.  What then?

Well, we know that addicts usually can't "wake themselves up."  They need help in this regard.  This means that the bishop is key: he has to be willing to take appropriate action.  My experience is that most bishops do want to take some action, but they don't know how.  Right now, a majority of Orthodox communities are just emerging from Communism or are still dealing with Islamic tyranny.  They don't have a recent history of healing ministries because all that was done away with by the oppressors.

We are re-learning old trades.

It takes generations to recover from such institutional repression, and so the process is slow.  That does not mean that there is a lack of enthusiasm in many quarters, which I have already written about.  But, right now there is no place for the Bishops to send all these troubled priests: AA is in its infancy in the East.  Think of AA in America in the 1950s.

So, what then?  Until the Church takes steps to build up institutions that can help, the average alcoholic priest is going to have to find his own meetings, and perhaps even start them.  That's what Bill W. and Dr. Bob did.  It worked.  Priests should get the message that they can help one another.

However, the big encumbrance is that so many people falsely elevate the priest or deacon on a pedestal where he does not belong.  So, some people 'tsk, tsk' at the idea of a priest sitting with a bunch of town drunks and proclaiming his common struggle with them.  I think if bishops could inspire their clergy to do just that without fear of reprisal from him, then more priests would.

What priests often fear most is losing their ministry.  What they don't understand is that a bishop can't afford to lose 25% of his priests all at once.  They also don't understand that a sober priest is worth his weight in gold: he is the one pastor who can speak authoritatively and convincingly on a problem that is tearing apart many communities.  Rather than deposing a sober alcoholic priest, I think many bishops would like to reassign them to help sober up more clergy in the diocese.  That's the usual response I get from bishops, though priests don't seem to get that at all.

They are ashamed and afraid.  Here is where a bishop could help: if he were to explain to them that there is hope, and that discipline is only for those who reject help, then he would have more success.  All he has to say is, "Either get sober or you are out in two years."  Then hand the priest his options: the phone number to the local treatment program, and the phone number to the ticket desk at the local train station.  He either gets help or leaves.  Yes, some priests will leave rather than get help.  But, the bishop can help him make the choice.  Some guys would rather be drunk priests than sober priests, and so you can't save them.

Two years is a lot of time.  It is more than fair.

Does a priest have to leave his parish?  That depends on what happened there, and the bishop will have to gauge each situation on its own.  His sobering-up in the presence of his people may inspire many of them to get help.

In the meantime, the Church must take more active measures to teach Christians about addiction and how the Church handles the problem.  When the Holy Synod makes a decision, it must find a way to pound that message into the head of every parishioner.

If you cure the soil, then the plants will be healthy.

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