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Is Your Church Ready to Meet the Addiction Epidemic?

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When Barb Gilliam entered Teen Challenge’s Walter Hoving Home in New York, she was so emaciated due to the overwhelming compulsion for drugs — and drugs alone — she was on the verge of death. 

Few who knew that deeply troubled, frail, hollow-eyed young woman could have ever imagined that she would become an ordained AG minister with an earned doctorate. However, for Gilliam, the pain of her past has made her acutely aware of the pain of those around her today — and the lack of help available to today’s church to, in turn, help those suffering the effects of addiction, depression, or other life-controlling issues. 

“I’m a big believer in Teen Challenge, USA,” Gilliam says of the AG U.S. Missions ministry, “but I also know not everyone can go to Teen Challenge.” 

Gilliam believes many people look to the church for answers, but oftentimes churches are not equipped to help congregation members — much less those coming from outside of the church — deal with addiction at any level. 

“As Pentecostals, we are far behind the mainline denominations in terms of resourcing clergy and having a presence in the recovery arena,” Gilliam says. 

Gilliam explains that individuals addicted to drugs aren’t limited to “the streets,” but more and more today, those with addictions are soccer moms and affluent business people, with some being faithful and trusted church members. 

Kris McFadden, president and CEO of the Teen Challenge Training Center in Rehrersburg, Pennsylvania, says the culprit is prescription medications. 

“Painkillers are your new gateway drug,” McFadden says. “Oxycodone, Vicodin, Percocet, hydrocodone . . . prescriptions aren’t illegal; they’re not a ‘bad thing.’ But they’re still narcotics and people, good people, can find themselves unexpectedly addicted.” 

But, as McFadden explains, addiction to painkillers is only the beginning as they have become the gateway drugs to heroin use. Although some may find the thought of shooting heroin repulsive and something a “true Christian” would never do; addiction is not that simple. 

“People either can’t afford to buy the pills any longer or their doctor refuses to re-issue the prescription,” McFadden says, “and since black market prescriptions are incredibly expensive, heroin is the next step as it provides pain relief, is far cheaper, and is not difficult to find.” 

McFadden says that what many people who have never been addicted to drugs don’t understand is, those caught in addiction no longer take drugs just to feel good; they take them so they don’t hurt — withdrawal can be extremely painful, physically and mentally.

Gilliam, who pastored Long Beach (California) AG for 18 years and is an AG Theological Seminary (AGTS) graduate, believes Pentecostal churches need to be in the forefront of the effort to resource pastors in all matters of addiction and recovery counseling. 

She says about 85 percent of those who come forward to meet with her for prayer as an altar worker at Newport Mesa Church in Costa Mesa, California, are asking for prayer for a loved one with an addiction to alcohol or drugs. 

“I am hearing a lot of shame in their voices,” Gilliam says. “Their son really loves Jesus, but he’s dealing drugs or if their granddaughter really does love Jesus, she shouldn’t be going into detox for the fifth time . . . .  And this isn’t just a battle restricted to the pew. Pastors, missionaries, and others in leadership also have loved ones trapped in the cycle of addiction and aren’t sure where to turn for help.” 

The problem is, too few people, including pastors and family members, understand the power of addiction. In some instances, those who truly care can naïvely love or enable a person to death — enabling the addiction rather than helping the person. 

The SoCal Network (formerly Southern California District) has recognized the value of Gilliam’s expertise and endorsed her work. District leaders have encouraged churches to reach out to her and utilize her ministry to better serve those struggling with addiction. 

Dr. Wayde Goodall, dean of the College of Ministry at Northwest University in Kirkland, Washington, has brought Gilliam in to speak to his graduate students. “If there’s any topic that pastors need to understand, it’s how to assist people in this area of addiction, especially with the drug epidemic in our country,” he says. “Barbara is one of the best, within our Fellowship, at addressing the issue of substance abuse.” 

Although she currently ministers mostly in churches and colleges along the West Coast,

Gilliam knows addiction reaches far beyond the coast. She offers free resources for pastors to use (connect with her through her CompassionateWisdomWorks.org website) and other services to assist church leaders who want to effectively minister to those struggling with addictions. 

Dr. Byron Klaus, former president of AGTS, also strongly endorses Gilliam’s capabilities and ministry. In light of her personal testimony, Klaus says not only is Gilliam able to identify with the brokenness of humanity, she has become “a Spirit-empowered leader with extraordinary capacity to serve Christ’s kingdom.”

However, Gilliam doesn’t limit the need for Pentecostal resources just to the United States. AG missionaries and their national counterparts overseas also need resources as they’re confronted with young people addicted to sniffing glue, minister in countries where violent alcoholism runs rampant, or are in places where cocaine is king. 

“This is my passion, my calling,” Gilliam says. “Pentecostal church leaders must be prepared for the God-given opportunities to help those struggling with addictions. And whether you believe it or not, it’s very likely several people, if not dozens or more, in every church are sitting in silence, suffering the effects of a chemical or behavioral addiction by a loved one, or because they believed the lie that they could never get addicted.”

IMAGE - Walter Hoving Home women getting Bibles and pens. 

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