(October) Pressure Points

with Dr. Bruce Hartung

Q: I am not sure why I need to write this letter, although my wife encouraged me to write it.  She thinks I have a drinking problem.

I think that she simply needs to be reassured that in our Lutheran tradition, a little drinking is fine.  Even St. Paul encouraged St. Timothy to use wine for medicinal purposes.  I grew up around beer, and was taught that being able to handle liquor was a sign of being an adult male.  So, I drink, and I think I can handle my drinking.  Only a few times has it gotten in the way of my ability to function at my best.  Besides, you often write that the pastor needs to find ways of relieving stress.  Having a few beers is my way of doing that.

I hope that you can help my wife understand that using alcohol to calm down after a very tough day is natural and normal.  Please don’t get pious and righteous with me.  In the real world, drinking is helpful.  Even Luther articulated some good theology over beer. 

Please help my wife and others understand!

A: Thanks very much for writing. I expect, though, that I will not bring the kind of support to you and reassurance for your wife that you would like.

Rather than becoming “pious or righteous,” to use your term, I’ll start with my own experience.  I grew up in an alcoholic home, where my mother often triedHartung, Bruce to excuse my father’s drinking behavior.  As he got deeper and deeper into his drinking, he became violent and less able to manage his work.  Finally, he was fired from his position.  That began a whole series of downhill spirals for him, my mother, and me. So I think I can speak from experience about being in a culture of drinking — a culture that uses considerable energy to deny the significance of what is really going on.

My recommendation to you first is to believe your wife.  Even if your drinking has created only a few problems, if you think you can handle your drinking, and if you are currently effectively using alcohol to relieve stress — your path is dangerous for you, your ministry, and your family.

If you insist on maintaining your position that drinking to relieve stress is natural — even healthy — and that your wife is over concerned, there is very little I can write to change your position.  But the way I see it, you are not on a road that looks promising.  That is apparent to me when you write, “Only a few times has it gotten in the way of my ability to function at my best,” and “using alcohol to calm down after a very tough day is natural and normal.”  In fact, your road’s destination could very well be alcohol abuse and addiction, at which time it is the drug that is in charge of your life.

You have your opinion, your wife has hers, and I have mine.  But let’s look at another option.  Our Concordia Health Plan contracts with CIGNA Behavioral Health to manage its mental health and substance abuse program.  Why not give them a call at (866) 726-5267, tell your story, and ask for a referral for evaluation of your alcohol use.  Have your wife join you in the phone conversation and the subsequent referral, so that her concerns can be heard.  Be brutally honest about your drinking habits.  Tell how drinking has gotten in the way of your “ability to function” at your best, even if that has only happened a few times.  Also be clear that you think you are just drinking normally.  Perhaps the counselor will bless your drinking. And perhaps he or she will challenge it.  If it’s a challenge, you will know for sure the real road that you are on, and you will have an opportunity to recover.  Please let me know how this turns out.

For more information, contact your local office of the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse, or call the Fellowship of Recovering Lutheran Clergy at (800) 528-0842.

Rev. Bruce M. Hartung, Ph.D., is dean of Ministerial Formation at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis.  He can be reached at hartungb@csl.edu.

Posted Sept. 28, 2006

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