Is the Church an Addictive Organization?

by Anne Wilson Schaef

Anne Wilson Schaef is a consultant on addiction problems with Wilson-Schaef Associates in Boulder, Colorado.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, January 3-10, 1990, pp. 18-21, copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Addictive behavior robs Christians and churches of their full spirituality. Confronting these addictions offers the possibility of recovery and grace. It is a long process; as the Twelve Step Program of Alcoholics Anonymous states, addiction is cunning, baffling, powerful and patient. The first step is naming and facing the addiction.

We are slowly and painfully becoming aware of the role of addiction in our society. We are learning not only about chemical dependency but about codependency and the roles played by members of dysfunctional families.

Alcohol and drug addiction are just the tip of the iceberg. Many experts are recognizing that there are various other forms of addiction. Some involve substances introduced into the body, such as alcohol, drugs, nicotine, caffeine, salt and sugar -- substances that can be mood-altering -- but others involve a process: extreme preoccupation with relationships, money, sex, religion, gambling, romance, violence, the arms race, television and so on. In such cases, one becomes addicted to the "process" of the addiction. For example, someone addicted to money is more concerned with having (or not having) it than with money itself. Both types of addictions interfere with people’s ability to be in touch with themselves, their spirituality and their world. The addiction changes behavior, distorts reality and fosters self-centeredness. Any addiction can kill; some do it more slowly than others.

No one has only one addiction. As addicts begin recovering from their primary addiction and achieve some sobriety, other addictions emerge. The addictive process is like an underground river. The mainstream may be drugs and alcohol; when that branch is blocked (with recovery) the river finds another channel, then another, and another. To recognize the underlying addictive process is to acknowledge that society itself operates addictively; its institutions perpetuate the addictive process. Individual addicts are characterized by self-centeredness, dishonesty, preoccupation with control, abnormal thinking processes, confusion, denial, perfectionism, judgmentalism, repressed feelings and ethical deterioration. Society exhibits these same traits. It does not merely encourage addictions; it regards them as normal.

This addictive process can be seen as part of what Jesus called "principalities and powers." By shutting off our awareness of ourselves and our spirituality, addictions make us easier to manipulate and control. The person who is best adjusted to an addictive society is like a zombie, neither dead nor alive.

The church, too, can take on the characteristics of an addict. Matthew Fox has argued that the Catholic Church is functioning like an addictive organization. Addictive leaders, he says, "have the power to bring an organization to the brink of destruction." "The Vatican’s obsession with sex is a worldwide scandal that demonstrates a serious psychic imbalance," Fox claims. He also sees an illusion of grandiosity" in the church, which he believes serves as a kind of "fix" for the addict obsessed with power. Citing another trait of addictive behavior, Fox says that the church functions out of an "illusion of control." It does not communicate directly with those it has censored, but rather, like a dysfunctional organization, communicates only indirectly. He also believes that the Catholic Church, like the typical dysfunctional family or organization, refuses to engage in self-evaluation and self-criticism. "Differences are seen as an attack," he says. It therefore isolates itself and relates only to those who think as it does.

An organization can function in an addictive way on four levels. These levels can occur simultaneously or by themselves, though the fourth level is not usually found without the first and second. The addiction grows more complex on the higher levels.

The first level occurs when there is an addict in a key position. First-level addiction in the church usually means that the minister or someone in leadership is an addict. Such people may be substance abusers, but usually in the case of church leaders the problem is an addiction to work, sex, romance, self-abuse, power or money.

For example, I know a minister’s adult daughter who was exploring her own workaholism. She had become exhausted and realized that she did not feel she had any value unless she was "productive." "I learned to be a workaholic in my home," she told me. "I have always been obsessed with work, and this has been unhealthy for me and often interfered with my relationships. One day I picked up a book on adult children of alcoholics and was mesmerized. I couldn’t put it down. There was no drinking in my family, but the dynamics described in that book were my family.

"My dad was never home," she said. "He was always working. Even when he was home, he was ‘in the study’ and we kids were not allowed to ‘disturb’ him. His work was the most important thing in our family. If any of us complained about never seeing him, he always had the excuse that he was doing ‘the Lord’s work’ and working himself to death was justified.

"Because he was always tired and overextended, he was always irritable. When I read the descriptions of the rages and mood swings of the alcoholic father, I realized that we had the same thing in our family. The entire family was always walking on eggs around him, and our lives were geared to his life and his moods. Nothing else mattered.

"Because of his intensity about his work, his constant ‘cause’ and his overwhelming obsession with money, my family was oriented toward crisis. We were always on the edge of some disaster.

"He ran the church the same way. The only people who were worthy of his respect were those who were willing to ‘suffer for Christ.’ He was respected for being a hard worker, but he was never loved. Just as we kids always felt guilty and bad about ourselves in his presence, the parishioners were always uneasy and felt guilty in relation to him. No matter what they did, it was never enough.

"Although he was always working and on the run, his actual productivity decreased. He recycled old sermons more and more often. He died in his late 40s and no one ever knew him. I feel like I had a nonrecovering alcoholic for a father. He did not really serve Christ or the church. I now know he served his disease."

Recent research has shown that workaholism is one of the more socially accepted addictions. Yet, contrary to common assumptions, workaholics are generally less productive than others and are destructive to their organizations. They develop other symptoms of addiction, such as a preoccupation with control (a desire to control themselves, the church and everyone around them) , confused and abnormal thinking patterns, judgmentalism, dishonesty, perfectionism and self-centeredness.

A sexual addict is anyone who is obsessed with sex and whose life has become unmanageable in relation to sex. Sexual addicts are not only those who obsessively engage in sexual activity. People and institutions that make sex the most important aspect of any relationship and read sex into every behavior or relationship yet claim a "pure" attitude about sex are also likely to be sexual addicts.

Addictions invariably arise from certain dualisms that are, in a strange way, mutually supportive. In sexual addiction, the most common dualism is obsession-repression. When addicts repress something they become obsessed with it, and when obsessed with something they try to repress it -- a cycle that supports the addiction.

Recent scandals in television ministries and investigations of clergy accused of molesting children are signs of sexual addiction in the church. The church’s repressive approach to sexual matters has often curbed healthy sexual development and expression. One of my Catholic friends has said, "The message I received from the church about sex was, ‘Sex is dirty. Save it for your husband!’" By focusing on premarital sex rather than on whether people love one another before marriage or if they have a relationship before marriage, the church makes sex the most important aspect of any relationship. The information I have been gathering from the people with whom I work suggests that we are only seeing the tip of the iceberg with the recent exposé of priests and clergy molesting children. Incest perpetrators are often respected members of the church and community. When we ignore these matters, they flourish.

Romance addiction is an addiction to illusion or appearances, or to a cause that puts one in an illusionary world. Those addicted to a cause become controlling, demanding, self-centered and even dishonest for the sake of the cause. Those who truly believe that the end justifies the means are romance addicts. For example, I knew a pastor who strongly opposed war but verbally and psychologically abused those who differed with his opinions. He had become so obsessed with the righteousness of his cause that he no longer valued individuals.

Self-abuse, an addiction just beginning to be recognized, seems to underlie many other addictions. It is closely tied to workaholism and chemical addiction. Seminaries and churches talk about valuing the children of God, but they can encourage self-abuse by turning pastors into "Type A" personalities. Few seminaries with which I have consulted offer courses in nutrition, exercise and wellness. While many do offer classes on prayer, they allot little time for students to pray. After classes, studies, fieldwork, family and community responsibilities, students have little time or energy for caring for themselves.

Addiction to self-abuse not only affects individual leaders of the church but is also integrated into the structure. Churches expect clergy to be workaholics and clergy spouses and families to serve as unpaid workers. The pay scales for the ministry -- salaries that parishioners would find inadequate for themselves -- often assure suffering for the clergy family.

Addiction to power is also evident in churches. It may be encountered in individuals or groups, or be integrated into the church structure. No alcoholic or drug addict trying to get a fix was ever more determined than a power addict. I know a church in which by polity decision-making is in the hands of the congregation, but the minister almost always manipulates or withholds information to get his way. Among clergy he is respected as a powerful and skilled leader. In the congregation he is viewed with suspicion by all but the few who operate like he does.

The second level of addiction in organizations occurs when people support addicts in their addictive behavior. Many forms of codependency exist in the church, usually in very "nice" people. Since they have a poor sense of personal identity, they seek their identity and validation from outside and are terribly fearful of alienating others. Though "nice" on the outside, they are often angry on the inside; one never quite knows what their real feelings are. They have probably learned that anger or "negative" feelings are unchristian, so they repress these feelings and let them out indirectly with great force. Because they are so confused about their feelings, they are unable to interact straightforwardly with others.

Codependents or relationship addicts cannot distinguish between "taking care of’ (which often involves manipulation and control, and can be very destructive) and caring for someone. People who "take care of " others often believe that ignoring some behavior is a caring act. The clergy and the laity in one church that had an alcoholic in a key lay position spent an inordinate amount of energy "ignoring" the fact that he was not doing his job on a very important committee. They griped and complained behind his back when he did not follow through on his responsibilities or when he came to a meeting drunk, but everyone covered up for him and did not want to hurt his feelings" by confronting his behavior or asking him to resign. Everyone around him suffered gallantly. They believed they were caring for him. What they were doing was not helping him recover from alcoholism.

People from dysfunctional families follow certain patterns of interacting in an organization. For example, those who had taken the "hero" role in their family (i.e., have been the "good," obedient children who try to bring the appearance of order to the family) are often very hard workers and seem to benefit the organization greatly. Unfortunately, they can almost never cooperate on a team and almost always need to work alone. They are often perfectionists, very demanding of themselves and others.

People who grew up in dysfunctional families are accustomed to crisis. When things are going well, they get anxious. They are always waiting for the other shoe to drop, a crisis to arise, so they can use their skills. When things are going well they have trouble knowing what to do, so they create a crisis.

All of these behaviors wreak havoc in an organization. Yet probably the most damaging is the learned behavior of covering up and enabling the addictive behavior, as evident in the above-mentioned case of the alcoholic layperson. "Hero" children of addictive families tend to enter the helping professions, making this type of addiction common in churches and especially among clergy. The church can also act as a codependent. Some engage in social ministry by deciding what the recipients need and how they should receive it, without asking them what they believe they need or helping them achieve it for themselves. Such churches can be oppressive in their care-taking.

The third level of organizational addiction is when a person becomes addicted to the organization -- when the organization itself provides the fix. This level of addiction includes work addiction, addiction to the mission of the organization or addiction to the promise of the organization. A person addicted to the promise of the organization is willing to endure any amount of bad experiences to hold onto that promise, which can be anything from "life everlasting" to a sense of belonging to a community or being accepted. One young woman shared with me how lonely she had been as a child and young adult. She looked to the church to be the family she never had and was led to believe that she would be affirmed if she just did the right things. After being molested by the minister and finding no acceptance among her church "family" for her assertions or pain, she left the church, realizing she had been hooked on an empty promise.

The church is especially vulnerable to these types of addictions. Even when their addiction is to a good cause, a good organization or a worthy promise, addicts lose touch with their spirituality and their relationship to God; the addiction takes over their life, their relationships and their being.

The fourth level of organizational addiction is when the organization itself functions as an addict. In these cases, there is an incongruity between what the organization says its mission is and what it actually does. An organization’s personnel practices, its emphasis on control, and how it interprets and works with power can all reveal signs of addiction.

The Christian church espouses a theology of pluralism; it claims there is no discrimination in the eyes of God, who loves and respects all creatures. Some time ago, however, some consultants studied the decision-making process of a national church organization that strongly espouses pluralism and found that at every level decisions were made in a way that actively inhibited pluralism. Not all minorities (including women, gays and racial groups) had access to major committees. Some, like gays, had to hide that part of their identity in order to participate.

Unlike that of the dominant group, the culture of some of the minority groups did not make decisions using Robert’s Rules of Order or by politicking. Thus they had to lie about how they made decisions when reporting to the dominant group, which would not accept other methods. The national church governing body agreed that these findings were accurate, but it decided to drop the project because it would be too disruptive to the church (as if the lack of a genuine pluralism was not already disrupting the church)

Another example of such an inconsistency is the way many recovering addicts are ignored or rejected by the church. If grace is available to all, why is it offered to some and not others? A minister who is a recovering addict told me that he often experienced more grace in the basement of the church during a Twelve-Step support group meeting than he did in the sanctuary.

A control ideology also indicates an addiction. How does a church share the gospel? Those that impose their belief system on others contradict the notion that the gospel and the teachings of Jesus are powerful in their own right. Can we not trust that simply sharing will be powerful enough?

Churches that are closed systems are so insecure that they believe their survival depends on destroying everything that differs from them or does not support them. Such churches lack faith in the gospel’s inherent power.

These are some of the addictions that I have found operating on many levels of the church. Addictive behavior robs Christians and churches of their full spirituality. Confronting these addictions offers the possibility of recovery and grace. It is a long process; as the Twelve Step Program of Alcoholics Anonymous states, addiction is cunning, baffling, powerful and patient. The first step is naming and facing the addiction.