Saturday, July 10, 2010

Learning from 12-Steppers

All church leaders these days are deeply immersed in thinking about how to do church better. We are keenly aware of the declining membership rolls and giving to sustain the mission and ministry of the institutional church. Some attention has been given to the emerging church movement and its potential to help stem the tide. Other leaders talk about the need to get back to basics such as focusing on scripture, liturgy and formation. Still others talk about becoming mission-shaped again and returning to why we are the church. Let me share with you another perspective.

A friend's 20-something son is currently engaged in a cross-country motorcycle journey with its only goal being to partake in an AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) meeting everyday in a new place. As I follow his daily travels through his online blog, I am struck by the fellowship and spirituality that he is experiencing as he seeks out meetings and encounters fellow seekers along the way. He meets these fellow seekers in all kinds of places, from rest stops to truck stops to small towns and campgrounds to the side of the road, and of course, at meetings.

There are several aspects of these encounters that I think speak to what's missing in much of organized religion and how we do church that we would do well to pay attention to.

First, these fellow seekers seem to know how to recognize each other and to be open to the possibility of meeting a fellow seeker along the way. It's not the similarity of the clothes they wear, the class ring or the familiar speech patterns; the recognition is not about being from the same social background. What I sense is a humility born of being brought low - in 12-Step terminology, "hitting bottom" and "knowing that I am powerless in the face of my addiction" - that inculcates an openness to "the other" along the road. It reminds me of the blessings of the Beatitudes and how the poor in spirit and the meek are the ones who know true blessings. They know each other by their need for ongoing self-examination, witnessing to one another and continuing in the journey of recovery, one step at a time.

Second, these fellow seekers share their stories, both informally as they meet on the road and in the context of meetings as they lift up their shared values - their "creed" or the 12-Steps - as a reminder of who they are, how they got here, and how they're going to continue in their recovery. It is in the act of telling their stories - admitting to people who are often new friends being met for the first time that they fell and were found, that they're trying and it's hard, that they're glad for the fellowship along the journey - where the strengthening by the Higher Power occurs. Confession to a fellow seeker, acceptance for who are you and where you're at, and authentic, often palpable support in the form of a meal or a bed for the night - these are acts of love and charity, outreach and human kindness that form formidable bonds of fellowship. I also sense a genuine curiosity among these seekers to hear another's story, to know that they are not alone in their story, and a keen awareness of interconnectedness because their stories are the same, about fallenness and redemption, and only the details are different.

Third, not only do these fellow seekers somehow recognize one another, but they also recognize the tenuous nature of one another's journey to recovery and are alert to extending themselves to help a fellow seeker stay on the path to recovery. My young motorcyclist friend writes about making a long ride out of his way to get gas for a fellow seeker who was stranded by the side of the road in the pouring rain. It wasn't just that the new friend by the side of the road needed gas; he also needed to know that someone else was supporting his journey to recovery through the small act of kindness of providing a physical need - the gasoline. There was an unspoken recognition that little things trip us up when we are seeking to become our better selves, and that small acts of kindness say that we know that we need each other, that it's an inescapable fact that we need each other in order to stay on our journey to our better selves.

As I reflect upon these several aspects of these 12-Steppers' experience, I must admit that I haven't experienced anything like them in my lifetime of being a Christian church member. I don't think I'm alone in my admission. I haven't experienced the kind of humility in my Christian community that makes me aware of my fallenness where I can confess to my sisters and brothers my powerlessness. Our confession is to God, and there is a sense in which it is sterile, personal and private - safe. I haven't experienced it on an emotional level; I have contemplated it on an intellectual level, and it's not the same thing.

Where I do experience Christian community that is more intimate, immediate and raw is in some of the small committees and educational groups in which I participate. The experience of community occurs when we share our lives, telling our stories of family, challenges, sadness and defeat, and celebration, passages and new beginnings, and not when we are doing the reporting, planning, organizing and strategizing of the institution or project.

It has often been said that being a true follower of Jesus' Gospel is a radical act that is dangerous and scary. I suspect that home church fellowships and missionary churches might get closer to that experience than mainline denominations with our hierarchies, plethora of structure and myriad buildings.

In the 12-Steppers' fellowship, I see accountability to one another as fellow travelers, which I don't see in denominational Christianity, where our accountability is to God and to the hierarchy. I'm beginning to think we've missed something important, and we're being called to go and find it.


BabyBlue said...

This is an excellent post, Lelanda - it truly resonates. Thanks for posting!!


John Andrews said...

As a "12-stepper," I feel uncomfortable with the way you describe us. I would rather keep it simple and unadorned with fancy descriptions. What you have described seems to dovetail quite nicely with the address I watched today given by Bishop Curry in North Carolina. He was talking about the "Gospel way of welcome," and the "witness of welcome." He went on to explain how "welcome is not benign," it has the power to heal and reconcile. I think that is what you are describing. I also think that is what we should work toward in the church. Bishop Curry recommended a book, "Radical Welcome:Embracing God,The Other, and the Spirit of Transformation" by Stephanie Spellers. I really like, "Radical Welcome." But, it goes beyond welcome. It continues on to community. As a 12-stepper I know the acceptance and safety of community based upon shared experiences and a shared vulnerability that all 12-steppers face--relapse. It is but by the grace of God as lived out in community that I am safe from relapse. It is that kind of community the Episcopal Church must work toward. We are too often a compartmentalized church, with our church life separate from the rest of our lives. Instead of giving all that we have, including ourselves, to God 100%, we only give when it is convenient. I know this is not true for everyone, but it is true for many. It is my prayer that we can truly become a community of radical welcome that is a witness to God's love, caring and compassion for all people.


Dear John,

Thank you for writing and sharing your views. I apologize for any offense or discomfort that I have caused in my way of describing 12-Steppers. I realize that one cannot generalize without stereotyping, and I write from a first-person perspective, not meaning to speak for anyone else but myself.

I have read Stephanie Speller's Radical Welcome and like it very much.

In writing about my own lack of experiencing the sense of shared humility in my Christian church background, I am led to reflect about what in me is lacking that causes me not to have those experiences and connections. Maybe I have had them and have just forgotten. Or maybe I haven't gone far enough in my own confession, repentance and baring of my soul to have had those experiences within the church community. It is something that I will be pondering for a long while.


Tom said...

I serve in the Al-Anon fellowship on the area (state) level and while I appreciate the kind words about our program I want to add three concerns: (1) one of our traditions warns against issues of property and prestige diverting us from our primary spiritual aim. I have seen much concern about property and prestige in the Episcopal church of late, and I think the church has indeed been diverted. (2) leadership is a problem in many Al-Anon groups both in groups and in districts and areas. It is hard to find good leaders and there is no system to train leaders, (3) most Al-Anon groups are small - a dozen or fewer regular members - and contributions of a dollar a member per meeting make it difficult to buy literature, pay rent, and support an area phone service.
Tom Rightmyer



Thank you for commenting and for your service in Al-Anon. I know it's hard work, and I also know that it matters.

My motorcyclist friend has blogged about meetings where he and one other person were it, and how grateful he was to meet up with that one other person.

There certainly is a tension between the dynamics of being human-sized, friendly and accessible and having the wherewithal to sustain continuity and provide hospitality in the form of place, snacks and materials.

Your comments about property are insightful. I have watched people over the decades, including myself and my peers, corroded bit by bit by the acquisition of property, starting with things like the first stereo sound system to the first new car to the first real furniture to the first condo or house. Our politics change, our boundaries change, our empathies change. Property is seductive and corrosive.

In The Episcopal Church I see our canons concerning how we relate to property as being significantly problematic. Even when a Standing Committee wants to be collaborative and innovative in seeking solutions out of property issues, sometimes our hands are literally tied by our vows to uphold our Constitution and Canons. It is a source of great sadness and cause for reflection and agitation to do something different and more generative.