Healing Addiction in the Church

Healing Addiction in the Church


TAL PRINCE earned his masters of divinity from Beeson Divinity School and a masters in clinical mental health from the University of Alabama at Birmingham. He uses both degrees to preach and counsel regularly, and is in demand as a speaker on addictions, trauma and couples. He is director of Insights Counseling Center and lives with his wife and two daughters in Birmingham, Alabama.

Q: There’s ongoing debate around whether addiction is a disease or a choice. In your years of pastoring and then in counseling practice, which of these theories have you found comes closest to the mark? 01

It’s a disease of choice. The disease lives in the limbic system, which is also the brain’s reward center. Its basic job is to keep you alive, but it does so based on 15-second time horizons. When the limbic system is making all of your decisions, it’s the functional equivalent of a kindergarten classroom with no adult in the room. The frontal cortex is the adult— that’s where executive command and control is—but it isn’t fully working until your early 20s.

If you think of all addiction like a tree, there are a whole lot of branches on the outer tree. There are opiates, eating disorders, porn and so on. If I say, “Hey, you’ve got a drinking problem, you need to quit drinking,” all I’ve said is that you should saw the alcohol branch off the tree.

But guess what? The branch is going to grow back. And while you wait, you’re going to hang out on some other branches and develop some other addictions, because we’re never addicted to just one thing. We’re always multiply addicted.

To get rid of the addiction tree, we have to take it out at the roots. It’s the root, not the branch, that is the real issue.

First, we dig the soil away. The soil is shame. No shame, no addiction; it’s that simple. Then the roots are exposed. What we find at the root is abuse—verbal, mental, emotional, sexual or physical—and trauma. The tree of addiction can only be removed when we help people heal from those deep wounds.

Jesus is the best model of this approach. He says that if you give him your heart, he will change your behavior. But too often we want to make giving him our hearts about behavior modification. The gospel is not about behavioral modification.

Q: There seems to be a disconnect between many pastors and mental health professionals. How do we work through and destigmatize the growing divide between these camps?


We have to be very intentional about spending time dialoguing together, and that happens far too rarely. Our relationships with each other are not what they need to be. There’s mistrust. But the poor state of intimacy in our culture demands that we work far more closely together.

Pastors can and should walk with people through all the tough stuff of being human and following Christ. But when the tough stuff is addiction, or cyclic repetition of family-of-origin abuse, or the aftermath of trauma or mental illness—a pastor needs support helping people deal with those kinds of issues. Clinical depression or anxiety requires more than trustworthy spiritual direction and discipleship practices, and pastors should partner with a mental health professional.

I think people tend to have a baseline assumption that their pastor should be able to help them when they’re in crisis. They think, he’s super spiritual and knows the Bible, so he should be able to help us.

Take addiction again, just because it’s a great framework for thinking about these issues. Generally speaking, I think pastors and pastoral counselors are on solid ground when they are helping someone wrestle with curiosity and desire, but that they need to seek help from a mental health professional if and when habit becomes a part of the picture. Most pastors are not trained addiction counselors, domestic abuse social workers, trauma therapists or psychiatrists.

I’m part of a podcast in which we try to teach pastors when it’s the time to refer congregants to outside professional help. Pastors need to know where the line is, but it’s hard for them because the expectation is that they can fix it.

I’ve had pastor clients who are terrified they can’t fix something, can’t solve something, and are afraid to say they don’t know. That’s a terrible position for pastors to be in. If we can find a way for pastors and mental health pros to work together, they wouldn’t find themselves in that position.

Both camps need to establish boundaries, respect each other and talk through issues together.

Back to the Study

How are Relationships Under Pressure?

Read Section