The following is the second part of today’s musing on the subject of the focused education programs of the United Church of God. While the first part focused on the aspect of how focused education can serve as part of the preaching of the Gospel to the world, this post focuses on programs that can be developed to prepare the people of God for the Kingdom through using the struggles faced by survivors and recovering addicts as preparation for being a king and priest in God’s kingdom.
Given the sobering statistics of just how many people struggle with the problems of alcoholism, child abuse, homosexuality, eating disorders, and other related difficulties, discussed in part already . clearly many members, if not a majority, would appear to be among those the “focused education” efforts is seeking to help. This sobering reality, especially given the fact that often several problems are interrelated in the same family and personal backgrounds, means that preparing the people of God may involve very deep and complicated matters. We ought not to shy away from this task on account of that recognition, however.
Recognizing the scope of the challenge, let us seek to uncover, at this early stage, some goals of importance in making sure that our church culture as a whole is better prepared to handle the serious problems that focused education presents for ministers and members alike. Without having a sense of vision about where we need to end up, it will be impossible for us to make lasting and beneficial changes to our current ways of dealing with the serious issues presented by the problems dealt with in focused education.
First, let us look at the issue of ministerial education. Pastors and local elders are often the “front line” employees of the Church of God with regards to counseling for various problems. For example, a pastor or local elder would be expected to deal with the struggles of brethren against certain problems and their effects in the context of baptism counseling, marriage counseling, family counseling, prayer requests, or more serious matters such as discipline. Likewise, an understanding of the sensitivities and experiences of members can help shape the approach of ministers and local elders with regards to sermon messages, bible study topics, seminars, or other activities for the local congregation that would be of benefit to the membership as a whole. Important subjects cannot be targeted unless the need of the brethren in these areas is known.
However, are these elders and ministers sufficiently trained to handle these serious issues with both the scriptural integrity and compassion for the suffering brother or sister that is required by God? If elders and ministers are expected to serve as counselors and guides, they must know the way themselves through these dark thickets, whether through their own personal experience or through training and patient learning from those who are well acquainted with the dark woods of the problems of addiction, abuse, and related struggles. There need to be continuing instruction of the ministry so that they can fulfill their task of being spiritual guides to the suffering members, including new members, that can be expected to fill Sabbath services.
Additionally, there need to be efforts made to help the brethren themselves who struggle with these problems, and who may often be too ashamed to admit it publicly, given the stigma that is attached to some of these struggles by people, especially in church who may want to believe that the dark problems of the world are not to be found in the families of church members. These efforts can include special events held on occasion by qualified speakers and presenters in congregations at large, as well as perhaps a special feast site for brethren struggling with such issues, but also ought to include support groups within and among the membership at large, including those elders and paid ministers who struggle with the same difficulties themselves. There are few more credible helpers in one’s struggle against darkness than someone else who has walked the same lonely road.
The development of support groups within the membership, in an atmosphere of support and understanding and compassion, can help to undo some of the effects of shame that result from people hiding their struggles for fear of stigma. The help and support of friends who are open about their struggles and overcoming may help bring members close together, as well as provide a sort of “triage” arrangement where new members called from the world with similar struggles can plug into an existing social network with the knowledge that they have found mature Christians who understand their struggles and know what it is like to face the onslaught of evil in their own lives and backgrounds. Such mutual understanding is vital to building a loving church family.
Additionally, the effort of focused education with the membership should involve the expansion of such efforts as the “Breaking Free” magazine and other places where people can provide their own stories and find comfort and encouragement in their struggles. Indeed, once there is a sufficiently educated ministry and membership it may be possible for there to be Beyond Today programs, magazine articles, or even booklets, written on these subjects to provide a compassionate biblical perspective to the ills that plague the world at large and so many of the members we know and love. By confronting the ills of our world and of ourselves head on, we show ourselves to be courageous enemies of Satan and determined soldiers of God fighting against the darkness of sin and evil wherever it may be found, while providing comfort and aid to those who have for too long been a prisoner of darkness, often through little or no fault of their own (Matthew 18:6-7).
Additionally, I think it vital that we deal with the suite of problems as they happen to exist in the lives of brethren, since many people are in need of a variety of focused education programs. As I know myself best (unfortunately), I think it would be useful, if a bit uncomfortable, to examine the various ways in which focused education would address my own personal background. I am the survivor of childhood sexual abuse consisting of rape and incest that occurred during the first three years of my life. I come from a family where alcoholism and problem drinking are present, having influenced at least one suicide (that of an uncle) and where the self-medicating uses of alcohol (which I have refrained from indulging in myself) are also implicated in domestic abuse that occurred in my family when I was a small child as well. Eating disorders of various kinds have been fairly common in my family as well, and I have been diagnosed so far in my life with two different but somewhat related mental disorders (post-traumatic stress disorder as a four year old, and chronic depression as a young adult after the death of my father). These difficulties are closely related with the struggles I have had to find and maintain loving romantic relationships and in building the sort of intimacy that would lead to marriage and starting a family of my own that are such serious problems of mine.
Given my own considerable personal baggage, I have a deep personal understanding of how many problems are interrelated and interconnected and have to be treated as a system of problems that often reinforce each other and lead to dysfunctional behavior as well as a variety of deep struggles and vulnerabilities. Surely, as difficult as my own personal background is, I am not alone in having to struggle with this sort of problem, and I imagine that there are others (perhaps many others, sadly) with struggles like my own. It would be unbearable to have suffered all of this in vain, as there must be some meaning and purpose to what I have endured in my life thus far. If that purpose is to help and encourage someone else who has walked the same path I have, and struggled with the same demons, I will gladly help bear their burden, in awareness of the heavy weight of my own (Galatians 6:1-5).
If my own personal sorrows and struggles may be useful in helping make someone else’s burden a little lighter, and in helping others to see that they do not struggle alone against the forces of darkness, but have brothers and sisters who are willing and able to stand by their side in comfort and support, then I am willing to do all that I can to help whatever programs are developed to those who have suffered in a like fashion to me. Such modest proposals and efforts as I can make are all I have to offer, but with the help of our Father God and our elder brother Jesus Christ, may it be enough to help bind the wounded members of the body of Christ together more tightly in love.