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United Methodist ministry targets substance abuse

Members of a congregational team attend a leadership training event sponsored by the United Methodist Special Program on Substance Abuse and Related Violence. The April training was held at Pulaski United Methodist Church in Little Rock, Ark.
UMNS photos by Melissa Davis.

A UMNS Report
By Linda Green*

Aug. 7, 2007

Hoping to help churches provide more than meeting space for Alcoholics Anonymous and other support groups, a United Methodist ministry is harnessing the church to address issues of alcohol and substance abuse through prevention, intervention, treatment and advocacy.

Thomas Gunther (right) and Torsten Ufer meet with the United Methodist European Board on Drug and Alcohol Concerns. The February event took place in Prague,
Czech Republic.

The Special Program on Substance Abuse and Related Violence was enacted in 1992 as a response to the 1990 Council of Bishops Initiative on Drugs and Drug Violence. Known as SPSARV, the program seeks to prepare United Methodist church leaders and their faith partners "to accompany individuals, families and communities in their journeys to hope, healing and wholeness," said Melissa Davis, the program's executive director.

To accomplish this, SPSARV develops networks and resources that raise awareness about the problem and equips church leaders on ways to help. It also provides training, financial assistance and encouragement for The United Methodist Church to respond globally in the struggle with alcohol and drugs.

SPSARV is housed at the Board of Global Ministries and works in collaboration with Board of Church and Society.

Because alcohol and other drug issues are viewed as diseases of the mind and body, "it is the spiritual disease that we feel that the church is equipped to respond to," said Davis.

The program's primary role is equipping clergy and laity to assist those in the congregation and the community in dealing with the brokenness of addiction.

Bridging the gap

SPSARV seeks to "bridge the gap between the basement and the sanctuary" by encouraging Alcoholics Anonymous and similar groups to meet in church sanctuaries or at least meet the people of the church. "We have many churches that host support groups, but those groups meet in the basement, and the basement and sanctuary do not meet," Davis said. "This ministry bridges the gap and brings the ministries around addiction, healing and hope, deliverance and wholeness throughout the church. It links it together."

Davis said it is rare to find someone who has "not been affected by or afflicted with some kind of addiction issue in their family."

A recent study by the Centers for Disease Control found that 45 percent of teens have tried alcohol in the last month and 64 percent engaged in binge drinking (having five or more alcoholic drinks consecutively). The study also found that 40 percent of people who begin drinking before age 15 become dependent on alcohol at some point in their lives.

"… The church must and can play a role because, if we don’t, we’ll just end up with a community of broken souls," Davis said.

The ministry has developed a special relationship with a consortium of historically black United Methodist-related colleges and universities to assist them in responding to substance abuse issues on their campuses.

Under the direction of the Harry R. Kendall Science and Health Mission Center at Philander Smith College in Little Rock, Ark., college administrators and students come together to address common problems that exist despite zero tolerance policies on their campuses.

"We are trying to work these campuses to make sure students know what the resources are, find out where the gaps are, and partner with them to fill those gaps through the consortium," Davis said.

Domestic efforts, global efforts

Through a General Conference-mandated interagency task force, churchwide agencies coordinate the response of The United Methodist Church to issues of alcohol and other drugs, and SPSARV provides support and resources.

"… The church must and can play a role because, if we don't, we'll just end up with a community of broken souls."
-Melissa Davis

SPSARV also is partnering with the Faith Leadership and Advisory Team, a new ad-hoc group providing leadership to the Rush Center of the Johnson Institute of Austin, Texas. This faith-based organization has experience in models of prevention, intervention and recovery. Together, they are offering one training program for clergy and another for laity to provide church ministry teams with a three-step process toward recovery. Each of the five U.S. United Methodist jurisdictions is scheduled to have a two-day training by the end of 2008.

"Addiction to something is the norm," Davis said. "We are trying to be a ministry of hope, healing, deliverance and wholeness to the church and people."

SPSARV also has a global component.

The United Methodist European Board on Drug and Alcohol Concerns was established in 1993, bringing together church representatives of 10 countries in the four central conferences in Europe. With support from SPSARV, the board provides local churches and partnering organizations with education, training and technical assistance resources.

An African Task Force on Substance Abuse and Related Violence was formed in 2005, based on a peer-counseling model created in 1996 by Bishop Joseph Kow Ghunney, episcopal leader of the Winneba District within the independent Methodist Church of Ghana.

His model equips peers to help colleagues either to abstain from or intervene in their alcohol or drug use. The bishop also wrote a manual that was translated by SPSARV into French and Portuguese.

Peer-counseling programs have expanded across Africa and into 12 African United Methodist episcopal areas. "The basic premise of the model is to equip young people to make healthy lifestyle decisions with the support of school administrators and church leaders," Davis said, adding that the model is expanding to Zimbabwe, Liberia, South Congo, Central Congo, West Angola and Sierra Leone.

*Green is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in Nashville, Tenn.

News media contact: Linda Green, (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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Drug and Alcohol Concerns

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