She worried that her husband’s return to the ministry would put his sobriety at risk. A prayer program helped her give up control and learn to trust.
Posted in , Mar 23, 2020
Morning light filled the house. I wandered distractedly to the kitchen for more coffee. It was Sunday. My husband, Dave, had already left for church, taking the kids with him. For once, I only had to get myself out the door.
I took my time with the coffee. I read my book. I lingered in the shower. I brushed my teeth extra carefully. My reflection in the bathroom mirror stared back at me: You’re stalling.
I hated to admit it, but I didn’t want to go to church. Not because I didn’t love our congregation of about 100 in the heart of town. Everyone there was compassionate, generous and kind.
I didn’t want to go this morning because, three months earlier, Dave had become the associate pastor there. We’d been attending Restore Church for a long time before that, and Dave was an elder when the pastor, Jim Walter, asked him to come on staff. It was a dream position for Dave. You’d think I’d want to be there to support him. Certainly it would look terrible if the pastor’s wife didn’t show up.
The problem was, this wasn’t Dave’s first job in the clergy. Six years earlier, he’d been fired from his last ministry position—director at a nearby Christian camp—when camp leaders discovered he’d been using the company credit card to buy prescription pain pills. By that point, Dave had been addicted to opioids for 15 years.
Losing that job was Dave’s wake-up call. He confessed everything, quit using drugs and committed himself to recovery. He’d been sober ever since.
Gradually we rebuilt our life together. Dave found work outside the church. I stopped being a stay-at-home mom (my dream job) and found outside work. We went from being in debt and relying on food stamps to owning a house and saving money.
The job offer at Restore was an incredible act of grace. Jim had been our pastor when everything fell apart. He’d known Dave at his worst. In the years since then, he’d given Dave opportunities to lead recovery groups at Restore and invited him to become an elder. He saw the good in Dave, and the two of them shared a vision of the church as a beacon of hope for marginalized people.
I saw the good in Dave too. But was he ready for an opportunity like this? Was I?
I remembered the day Dave told me about the job offer. He’d come home from having coffee with Jim, bursting with excitement. Dave lives for ministry and for six years had thought that part of his life was over. This was a second chance to do what he loved most.
I couldn’t help feeling happy for my husband. But there was dread too. What if the stress of ministry had been a major factor in Dave’s addiction? What if he relapsed? His job at a debt counseling agency had been just a regular job. He might have to take a leave of absence to deal with a drug problem, but he probably wouldn’t get fired. Becoming a pastor again meant a whole different level of scrutiny.
In the past six years, I’d worked to attain a sense of security that was not dependent on Dave. The writing job at a Christian nonprofit marketing agency I’d taken to dig us out of debt had become a source of personal pride and professional satisfaction. The job was my shield against the panic I’d felt when we were broke.
I could keep my job if Dave started working at Restore. But not my life as a regular person. I’d be a pastor’s wife again. Church would become the dominant factor in our family’s life. Dave would bring the job home with him as all pastors do. A spotlight would be on us. I worried that the stress of ministery would become too much.
Both Dave and I had worked through 12-step programs as part of his recovery. The main lesson for spouses is: You can’t control the addiction, so it’s best to detach with love. I’d buffered myself against the worst effects of Dave’s illness by finding a job and building a financial cushion. So why was I consumed by fear? Every day, I searched Dave’s face for signs of stress when he came home from pastoring. My prayers were dominated by one request: Please don’t let Dave relapse.
At last I got dressed and drove to church. I was so distracted, I missed my freeway exit. The opening praise songs were over by the time I arrived, and there was no way to slip in unnoticed. “You’re just in time,” the usher said with a smile. It sure didn’t feel that way.
Months went by. My anxiety got worse, not better. Dave thrived at work, but I kept waiting for the bottom to drop out. I couldn’t stop dwelling on how our lives had changed.
I was more guarded at church, reluctant to share family problems for fear of what people might think. I stopped writing a blog I’d begun about our family’s recovery journey. The public vulnerability felt too risky.
Why couldn’t I snap out of this? I confided in my friend Kit, who is older and wiser. “Have you ever tried the Ignatian Exercises?” she asked.
She meant the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius, a program of prayer and contemplation developed by Saint Ignatius of Loyola. The program was designed to deepen a person’s relationship with Jesus through close spiritual self-examination and prayerful listening for God’s direction.
“That sounds like exactly what I need,” I said. Kit gave me the book she used in church. The program felt familiar, sort of like the 12 steps. I dove in and, weeks later, came to a section on acknowledging fears. The exercise involved listing all my fears, going back as far as I could remember and being as specific as possible.
My list started with pretty standard childhood stuff: fear of the dark, fear of drowning, fear of getting into trouble.
Then the fears turned more grownup: fear of being wrong, fear of not having enough, fear of being deceived, fear of my kids getting hurt, fear of losing my job, fear of being overlooked. Once I started, I couldn’t stop. It turned out, there was a whole world of fear inside me. All of it poured out.
I came to the last fears: Dave relapsing. Our family broke and adrift. Our lives devastated again.
I stared at the list. So long. So daunting. I noticed a pattern. Everything I feared was something I couldn’t control. Some of those things were comparatively small, such as my kids learning to drive. Others felt impossibly huge. Like Dave’s sobriety.
There was no way around it. To get over my fears, I had to give up control.
I looked back over the years since Dave had entered recovery. Working the 12 steps, I had wrestled with Step Three: “We made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood him.” I thought I’d done that.
In fact, I had been working to achieve more control in my life. Work gave me financial control. So did a savings account. I knew Dave felt burned out by his job at the debt counseling agency. But the work was steady and more predictable than ministry.
After years of chaos, I clung to security and control. But was that control an illusion?
I remembered a favorite Bible verse: “Perfect love casts out fear.” The opposite of fear wasn’t control. It was trusting a God who loves so perfectly, we have difficulty comprehending that love.
I wrote out a prayer: “Cast out my fears, God. Every one of them. Shine your light into the dark corners of my mind and heart. Encourage me. I give control to you.”
My fears did not vanish right away. But that prayer was a turning point. I asked friends to pray for me. I sought out a therapist. She was not a faith-based counselor, but when I told her I didn’t want to go to church, she encouraged me to attend anyway.
“Community will heal you,” she said.
I looked at our church with new eyes. The congregation had supported us through the dark days of Dave’s addiction. They knew our faults. Would they really abandon us at the first sign of trouble? Probably not.
Last of all, I began to let go of my fear that Dave would relapse. Loved ones of recovering addicts never stop worrying completely. But there’s worry— and then there’s fear that controls you. I (mostly) stopped searching Dave’s face for signs of stress. I celebrated his successes. I allowed myself to trust that God would be with us, no matter what happened.
Another one of my favorite quotes comes from C.S. Lewis’s book The Four Loves: “Love anything, and your heart will…be wrung and possibly be broken.”
Risk shadows every relationship. But the alternative is not to love at all. And of course, God takes just as big a risk in loving us.
It’s been six years since Dave started pastoring at Restore Church. I take our life together—and Dave’s sobriety— one day at a time. Like anyone in recovery, I walk a path of faith, step by trustful step.
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