Churches can help in healing addiction, expert tells clergy

“Addiction is a disease, not a sin.” That was the take-home message for attendees at a May 23 “Consultation on Building Addiction Team Ministries in Your Congregation” workshop presented by Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon (EMO) and the Rush Center of the Johnson Institute. The Rush Center is a Washington, DC-based agency that has been delivering effective prevention, treatment, and recovery programs to institutions and individuals for the past 40 years.

Those who gathered May 23 at Westminster Presbyterian, Portland, to discuss addiction prevention and recovery came from as broad a spectrum of Christian denominations as the social and economic spectrum of persons suffering the challenges of addiction.

The one-day seminar for clergy and laity focused on the importance of the faith community’s involvement in addiction prevention and recovery. A look at practical programs that work was the subject discussed by guest speaker Trish Merrill, a registered nurse and director of the Rush Center’s Austin, TX chapter, which provides tools, training, and conferencing services for individual congregations or groups of congregations.

“Addiction has touched one in four of us in several possible ways,” said Rush. “Yet, nobody in churches talks about recovery,” said Merrill.

One of the six featured speakers, the Rev. JoAnn Leach, associate rector of Christ Church, Lake Oswego, and chair of the Diocesan Recovery Commission, told attendees: “God has created programs and community to help those in addiction and it’s up to us to use them. Addiction is a disease, not a sin.”

“Churches need to make healing an important ministry,” added Merrill. “This goes for all who suffer from addiction, not just teens. Studies now show a huge increase of alcohol abuse in people age fifty and older. We can do something about this growing problem: Educate, reduce stigma, offer hope, and especially help.”

During the afternoon portion of the seminar, practical steps were outlined as to how a church or groups of churches can start on the road to addiction prevention and recovery. These were key points on Merrill’s addiction recovery road map:

  • Build Congregational Support.
    Request the “Call to Action Kit” which is available through the Rush Center
  • Equip the Leadership.
    Undertake leadership training for clergy and laity. Do a congregational survey and inventory.
  • Develop the Team.
    Attend team training featuring an action plan, education plan, and community involvement.
Rush Center teams, said Merrill, will travel to a local community to help churches undertake this process and build support for recovery programs based on faith. It is through the partnership of clergy and lay people that people with addictions can be nurtured and honored. There is a modest charge for the products available in undertaking the process.

At the end of the workshop, David Leslie, EMO executive director, concluded by saying: “Experts on any issue, including addiction prevention and recovery, are sitting in the pews of our churches. Together we can do something about the problem.”

Grieving brother’s website aims to help addicts and their families

When Brad Mersereau’s sister, Laura, 46, died in 1999 from a perforated gastric ulcer (one of the side effects of a 25-year struggle with alcoholism), the parishioner at Ascension, Portland, founded a website in her memory to help people still struggling with addiction, people in recovery, and the families of both.

This message greets visitors to his website: “Welcome. Our mission in drug and alcohol resources is to have the memory of my sister, Laura, matter. Sadly, Laura made choices that led to her death. It was a slow suicide. Arm yourself with knowledge. Learn about social and genetic factors. Communicate your thoughts and feelings in a loving, trusting environment. Avoid family secrets. Pursue your passions.”

Mersereau, a jazz pianist, collaborated with well-known Portland musicians, including Ron Steen and Dan Balmer, to record “Laura,” a CD dedicated to his sister’s memory. The proceeds from the sale of the CD go to support the Portland YWCA’s “Laura House Fund,” which assists women wishing to break free of addiction through transitional housing, education, and resources for lifestyle changes.

In addition to maintaining his website, Mersereau and his wife, Janet, have given away about $700,000 of their own money, an inheritance, to local nonprofits that work with alcoholics and drug addicts. His donations have been matched by about $600,000 in contributions from individuals for a total of $1.3 million going to addiction services in the Portland area. Brad Mersereau’s website is

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